Northwestern interim coach David Braun says he’s “really confident” the Wildcats will hear more cheers than jeers, at least at home. He expects a warm reception for the first game at Ryan Field despite a hazing and abuse scandal that has also engulfed other men’s and women’s teams at the school.
“I certainly hope that this community, our alumni, all those that are associated with Northwestern University and Northwestern athletics will come out and show full support for 103 young men that have worked their butts off over the course of the last four weeks and have come together to do something really special,” Braun said Wednesday. “To be honest with you, I’m really confident that that’s exactly what’s gonna happen.”
Northwestern opens the season with a Sunday afternoon game at Rutgers on Sept. 3, and hosts UTEP six days later. The Wildcats know they could be in for some pointed taunting when they go on the road this season. How they’ll be received at home is also in question.
“There’s certainly gonna be a few outliers in any situation, but we’re gonna focus on the things that we’re grateful for,” Braun said. “And what we’re grateful for right now is an outpouring of alumni support, of former players that continue to show their love and support for our players.”
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.
Football coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired last month after 17 seasons following an investigation by a law firm. It found hazing within the program and “significant opportunities” for the coaching staff to know about it. Fitzgerald has said he had no knowledge of it.
Braun was elevated to interim head coach six months after being hired as defensive coordinator. He has never been a college head coach.
Whether it was Fitzgerald or Braun, the coach leading Northwestern was going to have a big job. The Wildcats went 1-11 last season and didn’t win a game after beating Nebraska in Ireland to start the season.
It hasn’t been the smoothest start for Braun.
Athletic director Derrick Gragg criticized assistant football coaches and staff members for wearing shirts supporting Fitzgerald at the first practice open to media, calling them “inappropriate, offensive and tone deaf” given the scandal. Braun had called their decision to wear the shirts a free speech issue. Media were not allowed to watch practice on Wednesday.
“Obviously, all this stuff has gone on, but we’ve tried our best to just block out the outside noise,” said quarterback Ben Bryant, who transferred from Cincinnati in the spring. “We’re excited for the season coming up, what we can display on the field, and we’re kind of trying to flip the narrative.”
Braun said the team has “gone through extensive education” on hazing and is “very mindful” of finding ways “to build” and have fun without crossing any lines. He said team meals go a long way toward that.
So do the daily team meetings. They start with a non-football competition between position groups, whether it’s basketball or Mario Kart. Coaches get involved, too.
“Just stuff to get the football atmosphere away for a second, just kind of bring us together as a team,” said defensive lineman Richie Hagarty, who transferred from Southern Illinois.