Well, we have finally made it.
After nine months, it is officially game week, with Northwestern heading to Piscataway, New Jersey to take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. For 130 FBS teams, Week One springs optimism that this will be the year, an empty canvas waiting to be painted of their 2023 season. For the Wildcats, it usually feels similar to its other FBS schools; however, as the 2023 season commences, this season already feels lost for Northwestern before it has even taken a snap.
Let’s face the elephant in the room: for the first time this century, Pat Fitzgerald will not be roaming around the Wildcats’ sideline. After 17 years at the helm, arguably the best player and winningest coach in NU’s history was unceremoniously fired, just weeks before fall camp began, due to allegations of sexual hazing inside the program. I know these allegations have been talked about over and over again, but every time I think of them, I can’t help but feel a churning in my stomach. 18-year-old kids, who were told that they would be coached and developed into successful young men, found themselves being restrained and dry humped by their teammates and “friends.” Compile on the other allegations of coerced naked activity, and the “car wash,” it becomes clear that Northwestern’s culture was broken.
Fitz fell on the sword, but it is apparent that there were many others culpable, who are still employed by the university, for the behavior inside Northwestern football. For Fitzgerald, a former president of the AFCA and highly respected among everyone in college football, it is a fall from grace that no one could have expected. And for ‘Cats fans, it hung a dark cloud over a program so many love.
After finding out that Fitz had been fired, I found myself sitting alone for the next few hours. I was speechless and dumbfounded. How could someone I admired that much have it end like this? When I visited Northwestern looking to transfer, one of the places I made sure to stop by was the football office. As someone who has coached football, and still wants to coach in the football, there was no one I respected and looked up to more than Fitz. To see the success of Northwestern football, in spite of all the academic standards the program had to navigate, was something I found incredibly remarkable. I originally thought I was gonna spend my time at Northwestern breaking down film for NUFB because I wanted to learn how to be a coach from Pat Fitzgerald, so to see him leave Northwestern under these circumstances hurt me. I found myself thinking, If I had only been around for a year and felt this way, I cannot imagine the grief longtime Wildcats fans are feeling.
For the longtime ‘Cats fans, many of which read our site often, the response to Fitz’s termination has been loud on both sides. Many believe that he was wronged, and the media is to blame for his ousting; others are hurt that the program they knew and loved was not what it appeared to be. It does not get easier that the allegations came out in July, forcing NU to quickly pivot to get ready for the upcoming season. David Braun took the reins of the program, but the aura of Fitzgerald, and the hazing allegations during his tenure, still lingers inside the Walter Athletics Center.
Since I’ve first interacted with Braun, he has been nothing but authentic. At the team’s Pro Day this year, Braun — who had not even officially met with the media yet — spent half an hour talking with me and getting to know me. I remember his smile when he was talking about his boys trying deep dish pizza for the first time, before a Giordano’s vs Lou Malnati’s debate broke out.
At Big Ten Media Day, thrust into the spotlight, he handled each tough question with poise and dignity. To send the newly appointed interim head coach in front of the media, even though President Michael Schill and athletic director Derrick Gragg had not answered a single question, was unfair to Braun. But, he still displayed his ability to steady the ship in 2023. I hope that at the end of this season, I can write a piece on why Braun deserves to have the interim tag removed — but the program has to show much improvement, both on and off the field, before we can begin to have that discussion.
All of this brings us to opening weekend. Whether you are watching it on TV, in the stands of SHI Stadium or in the press box, it will be weird to watch Northwestern come out of the locker room without Pat Fitzgerald. However, 103 players wearing the “N” on their helmets will jog onto the sideline. Many of those players were in the locker room last season when hazing was still occurring, a whistleblower told The Daily Northwestern. It is not as if the head coach was the lone individual at fault here; the hazing was player-led onto their teammates. It is highly likely that players taking the field on Sunday for the Wildcats have either been hazed, hazed, or more likely been on both ends of the spectrum. How do you fix a problem when the problem is still inside the locker room? It does not get solved when players and coaches are wearing “‘Cats against the World” shirts with No. 51 on them, because it implies that they didn’t see anything wrong with the hazing that occurred.
I’ve seen plenty of debate online on how Northwestern students, alumni and fans should approach the 2023 season. On one hand, supporting these student-athletes and getting excited for another year of Big Ten football makes perfect sense. Theoretically, it should not matter who is at the helm of the program or which individuals are on the field, because fans are rooting for the name across the chest.
All of that is unrealistic.
For many, Fitz made people excited about NUFB, and seeing him fired so unceremoniously made them drop their fandom all together. For others, they struggle to support a group accused of these actions. All of those responses are warranted.
There is no right way to feel about Northwestern football, as everyone is still grieving in their own way. Only one thing is certain, though: when the Wildcats kick off their season on Sunday afternoon, it is a new era for NU. It is one that no one expected, but it is the situation at hand. Normally, a new era brings hope for a brighter future, but right now, there is a dark cloud surrounding NUFB.