David Braun had no clue how much his life was about to change when Northwestern hired him as defensive coordinator in January.
The idea that he would be leading the program and overseeing a Wildcats renaissance? No one had any reason to see that coming.
Braun appears to be the biggest winner among the Big Ten's first-year coaches. Afterall, Northwestern is in a position few would have envisioned when he was elevated to interim coach in the wake of a hazing and abuse scandal that cost Pat Fitzgerald his job in July.
Braun seemed like a placeholder at the time. Now, he's looking like the long-term answer.
He's making a case to lead the Wildcats (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) beyond this season, and his players are making their feelings clear. They even had #RemoveTheTag circulating on social media after Northwestern's win at Wisconsin that has them one win from bowl game eligibility.
“He’s never wavered,” said quarterback Ben Bryant, who led Northwestern to the 24-10 win over the Badgers. “He stepped in a really difficult situation and has taken us to this point. I think we still have a lot to go, but he’s the guy that everyone looks to, to lead and motivate.”
Northwestern was one of four Big Ten schools that began the season with new head coaches. Braun didn't come with the cache of Wisconsin's Luke Fickell or Nebraska's Matt Rhule or Purdue's Ryan Walters. He spent the past four seasons as defensive coordinator at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State and had never coached at an FBS program let alone led one until now.
“All three (are) great hires on the recruiting trail — two of them proven in the corner office,” Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247Sports.
As for Braun? He's in a difficult spot recruiting-wise due to the uncertainty over his job. He also has some strong selling points such as the proximity to Chicago and a sparkling lakefront practice facility.
“They really have a lot of perks,” Wiltfong said. “But it's for a niche recruit. And so it's up to them to find if any of those niche recruits exist like (former star offensive lineman) Pete Skoronski."
Braun is the first Northwestern coach with five wins in his first season since Walter McCornack went 10-1-3 in 1903. And he has a chance to become the first to finish above .500 in his debut year since Pappy Waldorf led the 1935 team to a 4-31- record. The Wildcats were a combined 4-20 in 2021 and 2022.
Wisconsin has been one of the Big Ten’s most disappointing teams this season under Fickell, continuing a pattern that started a few years before the former Cincinnati coach’s arrival. The Badgers (5-5, 3-4) have lost three straight, including upsets at Indiana and at home against Northwestern the last two weeks.
They were ranked 19th at the beginning of the season, so this will likely mark the fourth straight year that they finish outside the AP Top 25 after being ranked in the preseason poll.
Fickell led Cincinnati to a playoff appearance in 2021 and restocked the Badgers’ roster with 17 transfers. He went 4-8 his first season with the Bearcats but posted a combined 53-10 mark over the next five years.
Less than two months after he was fired by the Carolina Panthers, Rhule signed an eight-year, $74 million contract with Nebraska, making him the third highest-paid coach in the Big Ten.
Rhule fully embraced the state’s passion for football and, along with members of his staff, spent the first couple months on the job visiting towns across Nebraska to meet fans and get face time with high school coaches. He also struck up a friendship with Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne, who has offered advice and served as a sounding board.
The Huskers (5-5, 3-4), who came into the season with a shortage of playmakers, have been decimated by injuries and transfer quarterback Jeff Sims has been a bust. Sims gave way to a below-average passer in Heinrich Haarberg after two games.
Hiring Walters was a departure for the school that boasted high-powered offenses under predecessor Jeff Brohm and the late Joe Tiller.
The experience Walters brings to his first head coaching job is mostly on the other side of the ball. He coordinated a defense at Illinois last season that allowed the nation’s fewest points, helping the Illini go 8-4.
The Boilermakers (3-7, 2-5) played in bowl games in four of Brohm's six seasons and won the Big Ten West in 2022. They are currently last in the division and lost four straight before rolling past Minnesota 49-30 on Saturday.
AP College Football Writer Eric Olson and AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report
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