This year has been a whirlwind for David Braun.
In January, Northwestern hired Braun as defensive coordinator, a position he held with North Dakota State for four seasons, helping the Bison to two FCS national championships.
Six months later, Braun replaced the man who hired him — Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was fired in July amid a hazing and abuse scandal — on an interim basis.
After Braun led the NU to a surprising 5-5 record heading into the final two games of the season, Northwestern removed the interim tag from his title. A day after announcing the promotion in a release, university President Michael Schill and athletic director Derrick Gragg introduced Braun as the program’s 30th head football coach.
“The decision to remove the tag from David’s title was not just about the results on the playing field,” Schill said Thursday at Ryan Fieldhouse in Evanston. “But the way in which he and our team have achieved in the face of adversity here set an example for all of us that living our values as a university is a successful pathway to success by any standard.”
Gragg agreed, saying Northwestern leaders didn’t want players to feel as if they had to win a certain number of games for Braun to get the job.
“We don’t always get it right, but we certainly got it right this time,” Gragg said of the hire, noting that though he did consult a committee while vetting candidates, the decision to promote Braun was his.
“(Braun) has shown tremendous leadership under these adverse circumstances, and he embodies the values of our athletics department, which are respect, integrity, service and excellence. The student-athletes have rallied around him. They’ve been supportive both behind the scenes with me, but also publicly.
“And I’m going to tell you that the ‘We want Braun!’ chant in the locker room after Wisconsin was definite, and as I told him yesterday, we want Braun also.”
The Wildcats dominated the Badgers in a 24-10 win Saturday in Madison, Wis., ending a 14-game road losing streak. NU will become bowl-eligible if it wins one of its remaining games — Saturday against Purdue at Ryan Field (11 a.m., BTN) or Nov. 25 at Illinois.
It’s quite the turnaround for a program that won only one game last season and went 4-20 overall and 2-16 in the Big Ten over the last two years under Fitzgerald, who went 110-101 overall and 65-76 in conference play in 17 seasons at NU.
“I’ve been fortunate to be a part of the staff that got let go when I was at UC Davis,” Braun said Thursday. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of staffs that have won conference championships and national championships. And you quickly realize that true character is revealed in the hard times.
“I want to speak to our coaches, our staff, and thank them for the way that they’ve navigated all this. They’ve rooted back into their purpose. And it’s pretty neat to see the byproduct of that showing up on the field every Saturday.”
Before this season, Braun had never coached at the FBS level or been a head coach. Before his stop at North Dakota State, he was a defensive assistant at FCS programs Northern Iowa and UC Davis, Division II Winona State and NAIA Culver-Stockton.
Braun said administrators approached him in July about whether he had interest in the position full time, but he was unsure at the time because of the shock and emotion Fitzgerald’s firing caused. Earning the job was not his day-to-day focus, Braun said, and things didn’t progress until midweek, when talks renewed with Schill and Gragg.
Braun, 38, is the first Northwestern football coach to win five games in his first season since Walter McCornack led the Wildcats to a 10-1-3 record and a Big Ten co-championship in 1903.
So 11 months after coaching the North Dakota State defense in the FCS championship game, Braun officially takes over as a head coach in one of college football’s top conferences.
“We need to be the ultimate developmental program in the country,” he said. “And then we need to do a great job of retaining our student-athletes. And in a world of NIL and the transfer portal, we need to do a great job of recruiting young men that fit our profile and are great fits here at Northwestern that want to compete and want to play their best football.”