In the wake of Pat Fitzgerald’s firing just under two weeks ago, a non-stop news cycle has emerged out of Evanston, Illinois. From a litany of litigation in the works to President Michael Schill implementing an outside firm to monitor Northwestern Athletics’ “accountability mechanism,” there has hardly been a lull in one of the more traditionally quiet times of the sports season.
A key part of the dominoes to fall in that span included Northwestern identifying its head football coach for the season ahead: David Braun. Braun, who was hired from North Dakota State as the team’s defensive coordinator in January, is tasked with undertaking significantly more responsibilities — especially for someone who has never coached at the FBS level.
With Braun being elevated from DC to interim head coach, we can infer that the Chicago North Shore native will have final say in making depth chart decisions, reaching in-game conclusions and, ultimately, in creating a healthy culture in a sudden post-Fitzgerald landscape. At the same time, Braun will almost certainly not have as all-encompassing of an impact as his predecessor did, if simply because the Wildcats’ season starts in just over 40 days.
When Braun ventured from Fargo, North Dakota to Evanston in January, he had begun the process of installing his own, modified defensive system as the team’s new defensive coordinator. At the time, Braun described it to me as a mix of around 50% of his own concepts with the rest replete with designs that worked under former NU DCs Mike Hankwitz and Jim O’Neil.
With such a hasty leadership transition, and such little time left for any sweeping alterations, it’s probable that Northwestern’s 2023 defense will still be molded to Braun’s expectations and specifications — meaning a 4-3 base featuring safeties in the box and disguises in coverage.
Yet, even with Braun’s framework in place, it’s unlikely that he will completely oversee that side of the ball. For now, Braun is listed as the team’s interim head coach and defensive coordinator, but it would seem implausible for him to bear both major roles in full for an entire campaign.
NU has yet to announce whether any of its other assistants will be elevated in any capacity, but don’t be surprised if Associate Head Coach/Safeties Coach Matt MacPherson, or Linebackers Coach Tim McGarigle, is named the team’s new defensive coordinator. Each has been in their position since 2018, and has familiarity with the schematics Braun will likely incorporate.
Additionally, Northwestern appears to be adding more external assistance in the form of Eastern Washington Defensive Coordinator Jeff Copp, who worked with Braun at UC Davis in 2015. Copp has not coached at the Power Five level since he was a graduate assistant at Arizona State from 2001-03; moreover, his defense was abysmal last season, surrendering 42.4 points and 504 yards per game.
It’s unclear what Copp’s title will be if he is indeed hired, but he could also be named Northwestern’s DC. Whether MacPherson, McGarigle, Copp or someone else, I’d expect Braun to hand over defensive coordinator reins, as well as defensive play-caller duties, to someone else before Sept. 3.
Offensively, Mike Bajakian will remain Northwestern’s offensive coordinator despite the coaching change. Though the Wildcats’ offense was woeful last year, the fourth-year OC will still be the principal actor steering the team’s scoring ship, even without Fitzgerald.
Notably, though, NU added former Rutgers and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson to its staff in June. Although Fitzgerald hired Gleeson initially, the former Williams quarterback will keep his role as a senior offensive assistant at Northwestern, according to the school’s Athletic Department .
Gleeson figures to have sway regarding offensive tendencies in light of his Power Five experience and success at multiple stops in the college football world. Just as Fitzgerald presumably would have, Braun will likely consult with Gleeson as well as Bajakian to review gameplans.
A former linebacker, Fitzgerald was never known to be an offensive aficionado. The same would theoretically apply to Braun, once a defensive lineman at Winona State. But, Braun could be inclined to turn to fruitful offensive concepts used during his time under Matt Entz at NDSU — maybe even utilizing fullbacks more frequently — especially if his team’s offense is futile to start the year.
Having ascended from first-time FBS defensive coordinator to Big Ten head coach in under six months, Braun will seek both homeostasis and shifts as Northwestern’s new leader. Both sides of the ball figure to be impacted by youthful guide, particularly with the ‘Cats’ defense being tailored to the outlines Braun has had in place since he arrived. Nonetheless, assistant coaches new and old are likely to shoulder more decision-making to alleviate the pressure on Braun.