EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — David Braun had a tough enough job on his hands when Northwestern hired him last winter. Little did he know what was in store.
Yet here he is, leading the Wildcats into the season opener this week as their interim coach. It's certainly not what he envisioned when Pat Fitzgerald hired him as defensive coordinator.
“I am extremely confident in my ability to lead, to inspire, to meet people where they're at, to pull people together for a common purpose,” Braun said Monday. “And I also have a unique ability to identify the things that I don't know or don't understand — and wholeheartedly admit that I don't and seek wisdom and expertise to help me navigate that.”
Braun is navigating an unusual and difficult path. It takes another turn when the season opens with a rare Sunday game at Rutgers.
“I know I'm up to the challenge," Braun said. “But I'm up to the challenge because I've got great people around me, and I've been willing to lean into that.”
Northwestern is facing more than a dozen lawsuits across multiple sports with allegations including sexual abuse of players by teammates, as well as racist comments by coaches and race-based assaults.
Fitzgerald, by far the school’s winningest football coach, was fired July 10 after an investigation concluded the coaching staff should have known about ongoing hazing. He has maintained he had no knowledge of any of it.
Braun, who spent the past four years at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, took over with no college head coaching experience. It hasn't been the smoothest transition.
Nearly three weeks ago, some assistants and staff members wore shirts at practice supporting Fitzgerald. After Braun called it a free speech issue, athletic director Derrick Gragg made his feelings clear. He called the shirts “inappropriate, offensive and tone deaf."
Even without the allegations hanging over the program, Northwestern would have been facing a steep climb. Afterall, the Wildcats were a combined 4-20 the past two years and didn't even win a game this side of the Atlantic last season. They went 1-11, beating Nebraska in the opener in Ireland before racking up losses the rest of the way.
Most of their starters from last year are gone, including left tackle Peter Skoronski, who was drafted by Tennessee with the No. 11 overall pick. But at least the season is here, even if it figures to be another tough one for the Wildcats.
“I just get a sense from our team, from our staff — they're just ready,” Braun said. “They're just ready. They've galvanized, they've come together, leadership has stepped up. They're ready to go compete. You can feel that in the building. There's no doubt about that.”
Northwestern is not making players available for comment this week, an unusual move. Braun said that decision was his and did not come from someone above him.
“Our players have been available,” Braun said. “We’re focused on Rutgers this week. Moving forward into game week, to make sure that we stay focused on Rutgers, I felt like it was an opportunity for me to focus on the gameplan.”
Braun said the team is motivated by a “brotherhood" and that there are “a bunch of guys” who have “come together” and “leaned in to one another.”
“They've pushed one another through offseason workouts, fall camp,” he added. “They've seen some of their teammates go through some things personally — in their personal lives, in their family lives — outside of football that have been incredibly difficult to navigate. They've seen injuries that have occurred.”
Braun, meanwhile, is in new territory. He's a first-time head coach at school where he didn't work until this year and in one of college sports' most powerful conferences.
Fitzgerald developed strong relationships with other coaches in the Big Ten. And Braun said they're showing support for him, too.
“Whether it be just a quick hello or even (Rutgers coach Greg) Schiano in a waiting room taking five minutes to check in on me, text messages, phone calls — it's a special group,” he said. “They may not understand what I'm navigating, but they've certainly done their best to show their support. That's something I know myself, our staff, my family really, really appreciate.” ___
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