After a summer of scandal, Northwestern remains a program in search of something good

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – After his first postgame handshake, after the perfunctory encouragement from the opposing coach was drowned out by a decades-old Springsteen anthem blaring through a mostly emptied SHI Stadium, David Braun walked briskly toward the exit tunnel. Then he stopped, crossed his arms and looked around. He started walking again, and then he stopped again, turning to look back. Finally, Northwestern’s interim football coach pivoted and continued on, a pen tucked under the rear strap of his black cap, disappearing up a steep tunnel to process another bad day tossed on the pile.

He looked like a man trying to figure out where to go from here. If only someone could make up his mind for him. Give him directions. Grab a sleeve and show him the way out of this.

But help wasn’t coming. Not Sunday and not for the next couple months, at least, as Northwestern football played its first game since an offseason hazing scandal was exposed in July. For anyone curious to see what was left of the program, turns out they can check back in a couple years. It’s bad. Like 21 losses in the last 25 games bad, now that a 24-7 loss at Rutgers is on the books. The program is in a tar pit. No ropes in sight.

Braun did what he could do and said what he could say after the fact, smiling about the relief he felt in only having to worry about coaching a game, talking about how much he has to learn, conceding his team’s flaws but not that they’re beyond repair. “Totally not OK with the result,” he said, gripping a podium a few steps away from the locker room in which he made his first post-loss speech. “But the way our guys will move forward? I have no doubt about that.”

You believed he believed it, and you knew he had no other choice.

On Aug. 9, a hazy Wednesday along Lake Michigan, Northwestern let everyone in.

The gates to Chip and Ethel Hutcheson Field swung open a little after 10 a.m. for a glimpse into a preseason workout, a first look at a program in triage and striving for something like normalcy. This was the first view of Northwestern doing football things since a hazing scandal broke and precipitated the firing of head coach Pat Fitzgerald and a burst of lawsuits from former players alleging mistreatment. Players lined up and stretched in sync. A 6-foot speaker stand blasted “Space Cadet” by hip-hop artist Metro Boomin. The music cut, replaced by the sound of a machine blasting simulated punts into the air and coaches hollering at holders to keep the laces out.

Sunlight couldn’t quite crack that cloud layer obscuring the view of the Chicago skyline, which was a little on the nose. But otherwise football practice was very much football practice.

“Three more reps!” Braun hollered at his defensive secondary as it worked through a pursuit drill a few minutes into the proceedings. “Make ‘em perfect! Let’s go!”

Northwestern’s interim head coach bounced between two turf fields, putting the microscope on everyone from returners to linebackers to receivers. Trying to be in charge. Trying to hold it all together. A man literally in a black hat but desperate to demonstrate best intentions.

And, at some point, someone caught sight of the T-shirt.

The one that said CATS AGAINST THE WORLD on it. The one with Fitzgerald’s No. 51 on it, too. The one worn by multiple staffers on the day a flood of reporters had eyes on an operation already under siege. It was truly, as they say, a choice. As purposeful as it was obtuse. By the time Braun sat down for his first on-campus news conference, questions about the shirt and why people wore the shirt and what he knew about the shirt were in everyone’s holster, and Braun responded by saying “It’s not my business to censor anyone’s free speech,” when, in fact, it was his business as the leader of a team at a private institution to tell the people he’s in charge of what they can and can’t do.

Within hours, Northwestern athletic director Derrick Gragg issued a statement deriding the shirts, and the decisions to wear them, as “inappropriate, offensive and tone deaf.”

And, lo, the first practice viewing window of Northwestern’s preseason became the only viewing window of Northwestern’s preseason.

“All my energy and attention,” Braun said that day, “is going into making sure the staff and the players think they have a head coach with their best interest in mind.”

In reality, there have been virtually no good decisions for David Braun to make from the moment they rolled this dumpster fire to his feet and wished him luck. The choices, mostly, have been between bad and less-bad.

Say, for example, Braun upbraids the football staff and bans the T-shirts. It avoids the embarrassment of Aug. 9 and hides the fissure between the team and the administration. It also maybe means a staff fiercely loyal to Fitzgerald resents him, because who the hell is the new guy from North Dakota State to tell them how to live their lives, and chaos turns into mutiny. Or fast forward to Northwestern’s game-week media availability heading into the Rutgers game. Braun proclaimed that, with the opener looming, he and his players only wanted to talk about football. But also no players would be available to talk with the press. At all. It’s a funny way to convince everyone there’s nothing to see here. It’s also maybe a way to give an exhausted, frustrated and confused group one less thing to worry about, for one week. The planet did not tilt off its axis because a Northwestern football player did not break down Rutgers’ ability to stop the run.

For an interim coach hoping to keep a Big Ten football operation in one piece, armed with paper clips and glue sticks? There’s bad, and there’s less-bad.

Which brought everyone to Sunday, and more bad, nearly exclusively.

For a while, particularly as Rutgers was the only team warming up and stretching on the field with about 47 minutes to go before kickoff, a cynic might have wondered if Northwestern decided the 2023 season wasn’t worth it after all. But out the Wildcats came, eventually, with Braun taking the field to coach for the first time in the Football Bowl Subdivision around 11:22 a.m. He immediately pulled his sunglasses down over his eyes and chugged some water.

Soon, Braun was introducing himself to the officiating crew, before moving along to fist-bump receiver A.J. Henning on his way to the sideline. There, a visitor awaited. “Hey, Tony,” Braun said, extending a hand to new Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti. Minutes after that, Braun met with Rutgers coach Greg Schiano for pleasantries at the 50-yard line, then jogged to the corner of the end zone where Northwestern’s defensive linemen were crashing into each other in preparation for the game.

“Let’s play f—ing football today!” Braun bellowed, clapping his hands hard. It was, of course, why everyone was here.

Then Rutgers ran 32 plays and scored two touchdowns before Northwestern got the ball for a second time. The Scarlet Knights ranked 127th in total offense in 2022 and converted eight of the first 15 third-downs and all three of their fourth-down gambles on the way to nearly 38 minutes of possession time. Braun’s starting quarterback, Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant, short-armed throws, fumbled twice, threw two interceptions and was sacked five times at least in part due to glaringly missed blitz pick-ups. “Definitely not happy with my performance,” Bryant deadpanned afterward. Northwestern’s 201 yards were the fewest Rutgers has ever allowed in a Big Ten game, and only a touchdown pass from Northwestern backup quarterback Brendan Sullivan with 19 seconds left separated the Scarlet Knights from their first-ever Big Ten shutout.

Braun, meanwhile, made his first significant in-game decision with a second-quarter fake punt.

The receiver ran a 7-yard route on fourth-and-8. “There’s a lot to work on,” the Wildcats’ interim coach said. “That’s very evident.”

Northwestern looked unprepared and executed atrociously. It played a not-extremely-good team and got throttled. It’s arguable that a proper karmic retribution would have been Fitzgerald leading this group onto the field against Rutgers; a roster and team that will contend for the worst power conference team in the country is ultimately the sum of his poor choices and talent evaluations and stubbornness against evolution on many fronts.

These are the dark times. And not just because so many people have their eyes closed. “We’re going to be a great team this year,” Northwestern linebacker Bryce Gallagher said after a 19-tackle day. “I know that. We have the people in that locker room and the coaches to do that. We’ll definitely get this thing going in the right direction.”

In fairness, there was nothing else to say Sunday, and certainly no begrudging a proud senior captain some blind optimism. Better to answer questions about bad football than bad behavior, after all. Northwestern nevertheless remains a program in search of something good, and its temporary head coach remains in search of a way out. “That day is coming,” Braun said with a smile. “Can’t wait for it. Can’t wait to celebrate with this group.”

The relief, everyone said Sunday, was playing football again. It just also happens to be Northwestern’s next problem.

(Photo: Rich Schultz / Getty Images)

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