The interim head football coach at Northwestern University said on Wednesday that he is “inspired” by how his current players are handling the controversy swirling around the team, as allegations and lawsuits regarding the hazing scandal keep coming out.
David Braun, who was hired in January to be defensive coordinator, was elevated to interim head coach on July 14 following the dismissal of long-time coach and Wildcats legend Pat Fitzgerald.
Braun told the Big Ten Network (BTN) that “there is so much that this university and football program should be proud of.”
Braun was among the coaches addressing reporters at the annual Big Ten Media Day in Indianapolis, and was also interviewed on BTN.
“It’s been a whirlwind, it’s been emotional,” Braun told the interviewers about life since his appointment to lead the Wildcats.
“There are 110 players back in Evanston who need our direction, support, and love,” he stated.
Braun said he has met one on one with each team member, and said he appreciates how they pushed through “incredible adversity.”
Braun was hired away from North Dakota State, where he was also defensive coordinator. Because Braun started at NU after the hazing, he came with no baggage connected to the scandal.
Hazing allegations have been raised in four lawsuits filed by former players, and in the findings of an investigation commissioned by the university following an anonymous complaint from a whistle blower at the end of last season.
Braun did not address those allegations.
He did tell BTN that “we will do everything in our power to make sure the Northwestern athletics experience is what it should be,” and make sure nothing like hazing is part of that experience.
He also acknowledged that taking over in the current reality is a challenge.
“I’d better check my ego at the door. If I sit with you and say I’ve got this head coaching thing figured out, that’s crazy.”
Normally on media days, three players from each team are interviewed after the coaches speak, but in this case, the NU players opted out, not as a protest, but rather to avoid becoming the focus of questions about the scandal.
In a statement, Wildcats players Bryce Gallagher, Rod Heard II, and Bryce Kirtz said that after talking with their parents, teammates, and with Coach Braun, they made the “very difficult” not to take part in Media Day.
The athletes,who described themselves as “proud members of the NU football program,” said they had been excited to “talk about the game we love and the season ahead.” However, they continued,”given the recent events involving the Northwestern football program, we did not want our participation to be dominated by the hazing issue and steal the focus away from football and the upcoming season.”
So with the players out, Athletics Director Derrick Gragg stepped in, for his first televised comments since the scandal broke several weeks ago.
Gragg faced tough questions from BTN anchor Dave Revsine, who happens to be an NU alum, although that was not mentioned.
“There is a culture problem at Northwestern,” Revsine said, and asked Gragg “how does something this pervasive get ignored?”
The anchor also questioned “why has Northwestern chosen to remain silent,” only issuing statements and news releases, and not doing interviews until now.
Gragg responded that “the complexities of the legal system” are a major reason for the way NU is reacting publicly.
He also noted that he was “working from the inside out,” dealing with much of the fallout internally “basically nonstop”, while NU President Michael Schill has been the outward face of the institution.
Gragg also noted that he was “part of a small team that delivered the message to Coach Fitzgerald” that he was being fired after 17 seasons as head coach.
Gragg also said that it was Northwestern itself which began the hazing investigation.
“It started with a self-report.” Once the anonymous complaint came to the compliance department via email, Gragg said “we reported it to the office of the general counsel.”
Revsine asked if there had ever been any other complaints of hazing in the football program over the last 30 years.
“To my knowledge, no,” the AD responded.
Gragg was also asked about baseball coach coach Jim Foster, who was just fired as well following allegations that he engaged in bullying his players.
Foster was a Gragg hire.
“No AD gets all their hirings correct,” Gragg said. “I own that decision, and the decision after that [to let Foster go].”
With issues in football, baseball, and also a hazing lawsuit just filed by a former volleyball player, Revsine suggested that Northwestern is being perceived as having “an athletics program that has run amok and is failing student athletes.”
Gragg said NU is committed to “fixing the problems, so they never happen again,” with a variety of steps from monitoring locker room behavior (the locker room is where the football hazing occurred), to an outside analysis of how to improve NU’s responses to complaints filed by those in the sports program, to mandatory anti-hazing seminars for athletes.
Gragg said his “heart goes out” to those who have been victimized and said “we’re doing everything we possibly can to shore up the systems to protect student-athletes.”
Coming off of a 1-11 season, the football Wildcats were expected to have a difficult time in the 2023 campaign, which starts September 3 with a road game against Rutgers.
Now layer on everything else which has been going on, and you can see why BTN’s Revsine noted “this is the most unusual circumstance I can recall in our 17 years doing this” on the network.