When David Braun first stepped on campus in January, he thought he was joining the staff of one of the longest-tenured head coaches in college football and had strong job stability. However, a mere six months later, Braun has been thrust into the spotlight, being named the ‘Cats’ interim head coach after Pat Fitzgerald was terminated in early July. Embattled in a hazing scandal that has sent shockwaves through collegiate athletics, Braun inherits a program that needs a complete rebuild, both on and off the field. The Wildcats are 4-20 over their last two seasons and have not won a game on American soil in 661 days. In three of its last four seasons, Northwestern has emerged victorious in three or fewer games. To put it frankly, the Wildcats have been abysmal on the field and now have to contend with their names in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
As Braun put it at Big Ten Media Day, “I never could have imagined, nor did I desire, to become a head coach under these types of circumstances.” Whether he thought his big break would happen like this, Braun has the chance to lead the ‘Cats at a tipping point in program history. His first-ever FBS game will be as the head coach of a Big Ten program, and for Braun’s squad, the expectations are low. However, if the Wildcats can exceed expectations, he could land himself the permanent gig. The goals for NU cover a wide variety, but here are some that Braun should hone in on for the 2023 season.
In a team embroiled in a massive scandal, Northwestern has been less than open about what is going on inside its athletic department. It has still yet to release the original hazing report from Maggie Hickey, where 11 former players said that sexual hazing occurred inside the program, and both Michael Schill and Derrick Gragg have taken very few questions from the media. Now, none of this has been Braun’s fault, but transparency will go a long way in regaining the trust of players, recruits, alumni, students, fans and the media.
Under Coach Fitzgerald, Northwestern was known to be tight-lipped about everything. The Wildcats never released a depth chart and refused to acknowledge injuries; in fact, Ryan Hilinski’s knee injury has never been confirmed by NU, even though the gunslinger posted a photo of himself having surgery a few days after being carted off in Minneapolis. Fitz also spoke a lot in coach speak, opting to be cliché instead of giving answers that gave insight into Northwestern’s plan of attack. Unlike men’s basketball head coach Chris Collins, who will sit at the podium for 30 minutes and explain everything in great detail, Northwestern football has always been quiet. Doing these basic things and allowing more access and insight into the program will help rebuild the trust between the football team and the community.
I think Braun is already off to a good start with this, opening practice up to the media for the next three Wednesdays and allowing parts of practice to be filmed — something that never happened under Fitzgerald. Braun will have to contend with a media circus for the beginning of his tenure, with almost no questions being about actual football. I am aware that he cannot comment on pending litigation, but answering all other questions honestly and openly, throughout the entire season, will not only endear him to fans but also help restore trust that he has a grip on the program and ensure that things are being done properly.
Build a resemblance of a recruiting class
This may be the hardest thing Braun has to do. Due to all of the uncertainty surrounding the program, and Fitz’s popularity amongst recruits being high, Northwestern has seen a mass exodus of 2024 recruits since Fitzgerald was terminated, with 6 players de-committing from Northwestern. Right now, the Wildcats still have nine players committed to joining the program in 2024, but that is well below the 20 NU brought in this past recruiting cycle. It will be Braun’s job to convince these recruits to come to Evanston, despite not knowing whether or not he will still be employed by the time this class steps on campus. It is an uncertainty that recruits hate because the coach that recruited them may not be the coach they play for, meaning that players will have to win over a different staff to see the field.
Furthermore, due to the nature of the hazing allegations, Braun will have to convince parents that Northwestern is a great place to send their son and that they will be taken care of by the program. Right now, Northwestern football’s reputation is in the gutter, and Braun is at the forefront of the rebuild. He will have to show recruits that NU can not only be great on the field but also off the field. Braun can tout academics and playing in the Big Ten all he wants, but he will have to convince recruits that Northwestern is the best place for them, whether he is there or not. That is a tall task because recruits normally want to play for the coach who recruited them, but if the Wildcats can bring in 10 more solid recruits and fill their class, you have to consider the 2024 cycle a win for Braun.
Bring the defense back
Let’s talk some football. When Braun was originally hired in January, he intended to replace Jim O’Neil as the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator. Under O’Neil, the ‘Cats' defense was bad, looking like the exact opposite of a team that won games due to their punishing defense. Northwestern gave up more than 28 points a game on average and finished in the bottom half of the FBS in team defense in both seasons. That is a far cry from the 2020 season, where NU finished fifth in the nation in team defense. O’Neils’ scheme often created unfavorable matchups for his defense, forcing interior players to cover skill positions on the outside. NU also struggled to stop the run, giving up nearly 200 yards a game on the ground in 2022. All in all, from the moment Kenneth Walker took it 75 yards to score, just 13 seconds into O’Neils’ tenure at NU, it was a horrid two-year stretch for the Wildcat defense.
Braun’s defenses at North Dakota State have been the exact opposite of horrid, finishing as one of the best defenses in the FCS each season. In Braun’s first season in Fargo, the Bisons led the FCS in both points and yards allowed on their way to a national championship. As one of their players told me, it was not the scheme that made the defense work, but Braun’s ability to tailor the scheme to the players’ strengths. In fact, NDSU’s defense was so stifling that Braun was named the 2021 FCS coordinator of the year by Footballscoop. Braun’s defensive prowess is widely regarded around college football, and it is the reason Northwestern originally hired him. Braun’s motto of play free, play fast allows players to not think while they are on the field, something Fitzgerald said hindered the team under O’Neil. As Braun said at media day, “I think I have a skill for identifying what our players do well, and then really leaning into that.”
If Braun truly wants to allow his players to play freely, his scheme will play to the skillset of the Wildcats, which means having an extra defensive back on the field so Bryce Gallagher never has to guard a spread tight end and allowing the ‘Cats’ traditional Big Ten linebackers to play downhill and help in run support. No one is expecting a dramatic turnaround overnight for this defense, especially with the key losses it faced over the offseason, but to have a defense that keeps games competitive is all Braun could ask for this season. It felt at times that NU had no chance in a game because the defense could not find an answer, but if Braun sets the players up to use their skillset, the Wildcats will not be searching for answers mid-game.
Braun has the impossible task of trying to lead this team on and off the field, all while worrying about his own future in a position he never imagined being in, saying, “I’ve never been this far outside my comfort zone before.” While the expectations for this team are low, Braun has a chance to pull NU from the mud and begin to put it back on the right trajectory. Will he be able to do it? We have no idea, but if he can meet a few of these goals, the Wildcats will set themselves up for success down the line.