David Braun choked up just thinking about it. Braun, who tends to take the extra second or two to think about and phrase an answer when speaking to the media, savored the moment to reflect just a little more.
More than 20 minutes had passed since A.J. Henning grabbed him moments before tight end Charlie Mangieri capped off Northwestern’s improbable 21-point comeback over Minnesota with a 25-yard walk-off touchdown in overtime. It didn’t matter; Braun remembered every word. “Coach, we got you,” the wide receiver told him. “We’re going to win this football game.”
Rewind another hour or so, to when the Wildcats were down 31-10 with two minutes remaining in the third quarter. Darius Taylor had just plowed through Bryce Gallagher on a fourth-and-1 en route to a 43-yard touchdown run. The student section, which began the evening jam-packed, had nearly emptied. Yet, the chatter on the sideline was about as optimistic as Henning’s.
“I can’t tell you how many young men said ‘Coach, we got you,’” Braun said. “‘We’re doing this.’ All that tells me is that there’s a group that believes in one another and cares about one another very deeply.”
His message to his players? “Stay the course,” the head coach told them. It’s a phrase he repeated three times in that answer alone.
It’s one thing to say that, and another to do it in a game, but living by that mantra is a whole different beast. But then again, scoring 21 points unanswered in a quarter is also a different animal, and Braun did that, too.
You probably know the story. Yes, it bears repeating today. Less than nine months ago, a man who had never coached at the Power Five level was tasked with transforming a Big Ten unit that was one of the worst in the nation in 2022. Just six months after that, with less than eight weeks before his first game, he was thrust into a head-coaching role to fill the shoes of arguably the most beloved athletic figure in Northwestern history.
The program’s fanbase was divided as ever. While his wife was due with their third child, he faced questions about hazing and racism scandals that took place before he came to Evanston. Reporters grilled him in a press conference setting before Derrick Gragg and Michael Schill took a single question. Braun, an interim, appeared to be a lame duck in a nearly impossible situation. Talk about staying the course.
Braun’s unwavering steadiness shone through the Evanston night. What appeared to be another impossible problem for a team that hadn’t won a Big Ten West game at Ryan Field in almost three years turned out to have a solution that appeared pretty simple. It’s incredibly fitting that Northwestern made it look as easy as Ben Bryant’s three straight strikes to Bryce Kirtz because ultimately, the difficulty of that comeback paled in comparison to the challenges Braun faced this summer. Above all, it’s indicative of the head coach’s resilience, both on the gridiron and off of it.
Now, with Northwestern surpassing its 2022 win total, the number and volume of voices assuring, “Coach, we got you” may have multiplied tenfold.
And just as importantly, he’s got them.
Coco Azema, who led the team with 10 tackles on the night, shared that he lost his brother in August. The captain was just weeks away from successfully coming back from an injury that ended his 2022 season, and Braun was just weeks away from coaching his first game. Immense stress seeping out on either end could’ve made the situation much harder for Azema than it already was.
Not only did Braun ask if Azema needed to return home for the funeral, but the interim head coach also offered to come with him. Braun sent Matt MacPherson, Azema’s position coach, to make sure a member of the staff was there with the safety.
“Just seeing that guy cares that much for us, and it’s never wavering no matter what happens,” Azema reflected. “He didn’t blink when he got thrown into this role and he’s reached out to everyone on the team...“
“I want to go fight for somebody like that.”