Following one of the more unsettling and unsuspecting scandals in the recent history of college athletics, the Northwestern community has become fractured — no matter one’s vantage point. The time since July 7, when the executive summary of Maggie Hickey’s investigation into allegations of hazing within NU football was released, has been raw, challenging and without a clear path forward.
On Wednesday, a significant step was taken in re-establishing some sense of identity within not just the Wildcats’ football program, but also the school. For the first time, a Northwestern public official would face the media, not just share delicately worded statements in email releases.
It was not President Michael Schill, nor Athletic Director Derrick Gragg. It was interim head coach David Braun.
Frankly, it was easy to empathize with Braun heading into Big Ten Football Media Days. After becoming a first-time Power Five coordinator only six months ago, he was catapulted to precipitous heights as the head coach of NU — let alone on the heels of a one-win team grappling with allegations of widespread sexual hazing. Further, Braun, who had rarely spoken to reporters as a longtime defensive coordinator, would now do so on a national stage.
While some may have entered Lucas Oil Stadium expecting to issue sympathy points for Braun, the Wildcats’ head coach made it clear: he doesn’t want others to feel bad for him. If anything, he’s relishing a tremendous challenge.
“Our guys right now in that facility are going through a lot,” Braun said in his opening presser. “We have an opportunity to either run from that, or an opportunity to truly stare that adversity in the face, stare it down, and go attack this opportunity to make this fall an incredible story that truly embodies what this team’s all about.”
Inherently, framing what occurred in the confines of Northwestern’s locker rooms and facilities as “adversity” obscures the player- and coach-led nature of the team’s hazing allegations. When asked questions about details surrounding claims and lawsuits, Braun repeated that he would not comment on pending litigation, nor has he asked players about events before he arrived in January.
Yet, Braun was also emphatic about a no-tolerance policy for hazing moving forward. The former North Dakota State defensive coordinator consistently stressed protecting the safety of his players.
“At the forefront of my mind is going to be the student-athlete experience. Hazing has no place in that,” he said.
Despite the firing of 17-year head coach Pat Fitzgerald under two months before the team’s season opener, Braun continued to express his expectation in the team’s readiness to suit up on the gridiron starting Sept. 3.
“Let me be clear: through all these one-on-one meetings, and seeing our team the last two weeks, I firmly believe that this group has a demeanor, has a brotherhood and a resolve,” he said. “There is a reason to be very excited about the story that they will write this fall.”
While sharing his unwavering faith in his team through his composed answers, Braun was genuine and candid — which he’s remained not only since he arrived in Evanston, but also throughout his coaching career. Braun outlined the macro- and micro-level hurdles that he’ll need to clear, including player frustration over the firing of Fitzgerald, not being a “people-pleaser,” still getting familiar with his players on a personal level, selling recruits on Northwestern and restoring a winning product.
“I’m not saying that I’ve been perfect in this at all,” Braun admitted. “I’ll continue to say it: I walk into that facility or hop on a phone, or even a text message. Is this supporting our players? Is this serving our players? That’s what I’m here for right now. And I try to do my best to do just that.”
After coaching at Winona State, Culver-Stockton, UC Davis, Northern Iowa and NDSU, it was easy to understand how ecstatic Braun was to coach at Northwestern in the first place, let alone as the Wildcats’ head coach. Braun became emotional several times reflecting on his journey, which took a wildly sudden turn.
“I don’t know if the full gravity of that hit me until last night,” Braun said. “I’m very thankful for a lot of people praying for me right now. I’m thankful for the maturing process I’ve gone through over the course of the last five years of truly understanding what matters and who I truly answer to.”
On preparing for Wednesday, Braun shared that he “wanted to make sure that my words were certainly empathizing with anyone that’s gone through something, and has been a victim of hazing, is in full support of our team, our staff and those that are at our facility.”
When Northwestern begins its 2023 fall camp later this week, an impossible-to-ignore cloud remains positioned squarely above Evanston. A Wildcat team, which hasn’t won on American soil since October 2021, will look to regroup without its veteran head coach. On a meta level, it will have to do so with disturbing allegations and lawsuits still swirling.
As the calendar turns to September, it’s unclear what fan support will look like among a divided community. But as of late July, Braun could have hardly better cemented himself as the person to lead Northwestern in its attempt to move ahead.
“If I’m going to ask our players to stare this thing down and take on this adversity and come together, it was absolutely critical that I showed up [in Indianapolis] and stared this down and started to pave a roadmap for how we’re going to move forward,” Braun said.