One-and-done for interim coach David Braun at Northwestern? It’s not so crystal clear anymore

Chicago
By Chicago 7 Min Read

You think a football game taking place inside an iconic baseball venue creates quite the contrasting sight?

It’s nothing compared with the juxtaposition of the head coaches who will stand on the baselines — sorry, sidelines — in front of their Iowa and Northwestern teams Saturday at Wrigley Field.

There’s Kirk Ferentz, the dean of FBS coaches, in his 25th season in charge and his 34th if you count the nine when he was a Hawkeyes assistant. Ferentz is so entrenched at the school — and so powerful — that his son Brian, the offensive coordinator since 2017, has kept his position despite rolling out some of the worst offenses the Big Ten has seen.

This year, the Hawkeyes have the bottom-ranked offense in all the land, finally leading interim athletic director Beth Goetz — who supervises Brian because of nepotism laws — to intercede this week and insist Brian hand in his whistle after the final game, which will be overdue well beyond the point of absurdity. But the old man might as well wear black-and-gold judge’s robes on game days, his own gig is so secure.

And then there’s David Braun. He’s toast.

That’s what everyone assumed about Northwestern’s interim coach before the season started, wasn’t it? That he would lead the Wildcats through the darkness the best he could, with zero fanfare, then someone with credibility and heft — a real coach, in other words — would be hired to take over?

Maybe that’s what most people still assume. Maybe it’s still exactly the case.

But the Wildcats are 4-4, which is better than most anybody thought they would be.

They’re two wins from a bowl game, not that Braun — nose to the grindstone — will talk publicly about what that would mean to him.

They’re also two wins from making it a hell of a lot harder for Northwestern to tab somebody else to lead the football program into the post-Pat Fitzgerald future. Braun won’t talk about that, either, nor should he, but guess what’s going to happen up in Evanston if the Wildcats win a couple of more? Supporters of NU football are going to ask, ‘‘Why not the guy we have right now?’’ Untold alumni in the sports media are going to write and talk about the same thing.

And guess who already hopes Braun will be back, even if there’s little chance of it unless he’s retained in the role of defensive coordinator? The players. Yes, they like him. Yes, they respect and appreciate him. And all players should be wary of a coaching change in this Deion Sanders world, where a new coach arriving and making sweeping roster changes via the transfer portal is expected, even glorified.

Athletic director Derrick Gragg didn’t want to address whether there’s anything Braun can do to be considered for the head-coaching job beyond this season, but he did give the Sun-Times a statement via an athletic-department spokesman:

‘‘I am truly impressed with the job that Coach Braun has done so far this season. His dedication, strategic approach and leadership have had a positive impact not only on our football program but on our entire athletic department. As we move forward, my focus remains on supporting our coaching staff and, most importantly, our student-athletes as they work toward achieving their goals.’’

If one of the goals was no longer stinking on Saturdays, the Wildcats already have achieved it. They beat UTEP by 31 points despite being a slight underdog. They beat Minnesota 37-34 and Maryland 33-27 despite being double-digit underdogs in both games. They’re 4-1 at home, making Ryan Field a tough place for opponents to play, no matter how many seats are empty.

‘‘Those oddsmakers aren’t sitting in our building,’’ Braun said. ‘‘They’re not in our position rooms and don’t know the heart that exists [there]. They don’t know the purpose that drives these guys.’’

When Braun says the team’s ‘‘best football is still in front of us,’’ it can’t just be dismissed. Some of us admittedly dismissed most of what he said after taking over because, well, did you see the last two seasons when Northwestern went 4-20? Some of us figured that many a player — freaked out after Fitzgerald’s offseason firing — would have one foot in the portal by the time the games started and that members of the coaching staff would have their attention divided by the need to line up next jobs.

Braun also said from the beginning that he could lead, inspire and truly connect with players, that his ability to do those things was ‘‘unique.’’ From a guy who never had been a head coach before? Sure, OK.

That leads us to Coco Azema, the senior safety who sealed win No. 4 with a late interception of Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. Five weeks before that, Azema was one of the leaders who exhorted teammates to keep fighting at halftime of a game in which they trailed Minnesota 31-10. Less than two months before that, on Aug. 3, Azema lost his 23-year-old brother, Cameron. Shot to death.

Pause for a moment and imagine how much some young people need their coaches at the most critical times in life.

Not all coaches rise to these occasions as well or as meaningfully as others, but Braun? As Azema tells it, he was the right man for the job then and since.

‘‘He’s always been there,’’ Azema said, ‘‘and people want to go to war and fight for that guy.’’

Braun seems to possess some of what was Fitzgerald’s greatest strength — a stubborn insistence on believing in Northwestern.

Is the belief mutual? Another couple of wins, and it won’t be so easy for Northwestern to say no.

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