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After firing Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern must hire an outside head coach to reset program

Naming a former Fitzgerald assistant as head coach does little to separate the present from a disturbing past.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

On Monday evening, Northwestern finally took the lid off of a pot boiling over by firing Pat Fitzgerald.

While many deemed it impossible for Fitzgerald — having turned down NFL opportunities to stay at his alma mater — to not leave on his own terms, that very concept came to fruition when university President Michael Schill announced that NU had let go of Fitzgerald following “a difficult and complex evaluation” of the coach’s initial two-week punishment.

For the first time since July 7, 2006, Northwestern must now operate on an everyday basis without Fitzgerald as its head coach, and, effectively, its focal representative of the program and university.

With its season opener still scheduled for Sept. 3 at Rutgers, and with preseason training camp slated to begin in just a few weeks, NU will presumably attempt to return to some form of “normalcy” at some point, even if thinking about strapping up pads and lacing cleats feels asinine at the current moment. Part of that return to operation eventually includes determining who the program’s head coach will be.

Right now, the answer appears to be David Braun. According to several reports, Braun — who was hired to be NU’s defensive coordinator in January — has been named the “acting head coach,” with ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg sharing that Braun “could soon be named the interim coach.”

Braun had tremendous success as a defensive coordinator with the North Dakota State Bison, a program that is consistently one of the best in the nation regardless of its FCS status. The DC led the Bison to two national titles; NDSU’s 2022 defense ranked 39th in the country among all college football teams in Pro Football Focus grade and allowed only 20.2 points per game en route to another FCS Championship appearance.

Braun’s resume at the collegiate level speaks for itself. At the same time, when Braun first stepped foot into the Walter Athletics Center as Northwestern’s defensive coordinator in January, it marked the first time he had ever been a coach at the Power Five level. In fact, Braun has still yet to coach in a Power Five game.

What I am not saying is that Braun is incapable of being the Wildcats’ head coach for 2023, if not longer. At the same time, turning over the keys to a hundred-million-dollar engine to someone with that level of inexperience, particularly only six months in Evanston, does not feel like a logical move at any time, but especially this one.

Aside from Braun’s neophyte status making it unwise to name him Northwestern’s interim head coach, this fact cannot be ignored: he was hand-picked by Fitzgerald to lead the Wildcats’ defense.

Point blank, if Northwestern truly wants to start over — to begin to erase memories of the very program it knew under its 17-year guide, to craft a culture that sustains winning while actively ensuring the safety of its players — it has no choice but to bring in a coach with no ties to Fitzgerald.

It is not Braun’s fault that he is inextricably linked to Fitzgerald, a coach whose once-pristine reputation is forever sullied by the claims of an environment that allowed sexual hazing, harassment and racism to run rampant. But, with Braun and the rest of the team’s 2023 coaching staff — which, per Rittenberg, will be retained in spite of Fitzgerald’s firing — that connection to Fitzgerald simply cannot disappear.

It is currently unknown the extent to which NU assistants were aware of the team’s hazing behaviors. For context, one recent former player who shared his accounts with me said that “the assistant coaches and everybody else knew.” Only further university investigation, or disclosing specific details of Maggie Hickey’s investigation, will shed light on the situation. For now, though, one cannot definitively claim that Northwestern’s assistant coaches shoulder no blame for permitting such severe actions to occur.

Beyond such coaches’ own possible responsibilities, the fact of the matter is this: elevating one of Fitzgerald’s former assistants only reinforces his imprint on the program, casting his shadow even wider despite his now-permanent absence. Whether Braun or another assistant coach is managing daily program operations as interim head coach, Fitzgerald’s mark is still implicitly felt — and that cannot be the case.

Effectively, then, the proper course of action for Northwestern to take to completely rebuild its 141-year football program is to hire an outside coach with no connection to Fitzgerald in the immediate future. Of particular essence is that this hire needs to promptly create a culture with zero tolerance for hazing, racism or abuse of any kind.

By implementing a new, permanent head coach with no ties to Fitzgerald, the school would best allow for the disconcerting closing of the latest 17-year chapter of its history, and turn the page to a nascent era. In that case, minimal thought would be given to simply using 2023 as a year in which the program searches for its identity without much resolution, perpetuating its deeper issues with the clouds of Fitzgerald’s scandals looming overhead.

It is paramount to note that the school’s, and community’s, healing process is delicate and should not be rushed in order to simply make transactional moves. The legacy of Fitzgerald’s tenure is still raw for many on all sides, and likely will remain that way for years, if not decades, to come.

From a logistics perspective, some may question the practicality of conducting a head coaching search with training camp imminent, not to mention a multitude of legal questions to be sorted out. It is virtually impossible that all matters will be settled regarding Fitzgerald’s exit in just 53 days.

At the same time, that span does provide a window for NU to research coaching options. That sentiment is especially true for veteran coaches that the program already knows about — such as Paul Chryst and David Shaw — who have established consistent winning predicated on cultivating a safe environment. Although Stanford faced a situation where its strength coach received a player complaint in 2019, Shaw promptly took action and fired the coach for that very reason. It’s something that Northwestern needs now more than ever.

If Northwestern players, staffers and coaches walk out of the tunnel in Piscataway, New Jersey with Braun or any other former Fitzgerald hire/protégé blazing the path forward, it would certainly reflect a team and school in a time of significant change.

But unless the team’s head coach is an outside, stabilizing presence, it would be hard to verify that Athletic Director Derrick Gragg, President Michael Schill and other university administrators are serious about re-establishing the foundational principles of Northwestern football, on and off the field — unequivocally removed from what Fitzgerald did to damage them.