How did Northwestern get here?
A hazing scandal has thrust the Wildcats into the spotlight for all of the wrong reasons. As camp approaches, will things get worse for NU before they get better?
Two days after his alma mater fired him, Pat Fitzgerald walked into his corner office at the Walter Athletics Center to pack up his belongings. The mood inside the facility was somber. Players and coaches alike were still in shock at how the man who had been synonymous with Northwestern football went from the face of the university to disgraced ex-coach across a four-day span in the dead of the offseason.
Players exercised with their shirts inside-out to hide the Wildcats logo, a not-so-silent protest against the school that on July 10 had dismissed the man whom many of those players had come to Northwestern to play for. Several players threatened to leave the program, with five following through on those threats in the ensuing weeks by entering the transfer portal. Assistant coaches momentarily breathed a sigh of relief, having been informed one day earlier by athletic director Derrick Gragg that their jobs were safe for the 2023 season — a declaration that has grown more precarious by the day, with associate head coach Matt MacPherson having been named in multiple complaints by former players as having witnessed several hazing incidents.
Eight former Northwestern football players have had lawsuits filed on their behalf since Fitzgerald was fired, with the complaints alleging various levels of mistreatment from their playing days in Evanston, Ill. More than three weeks have passed since Northwestern announced that it was suspending Fitzgerald for two weeks without pay after a six-month investigation into hazing allegations within the program.
Coaches report for fall camp Tuesday, with players checking in on Wednesday. On Thursday, the Wildcats will kick off preseason practices and look to turn the page toward the 2023 season, the first campaign without Fitzgerald on board in any capacity since 2000. David Braun, who has never coached any position at the FBS level, will lead the program as interim head coach, with longtime college coach Skip Holtz expected to come aboard in an advisory role.
There are more questions than answers surrounding the program, and the scope of those questions has grown by the day. On Tuesday, the school announced that former U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch from the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison will lead an independent review of the school’s process surrounding misconduct, and examine the athletic department’s culture. The results of the review will be made public.
Only one Northwestern representative, Braun, has taken questions in a public forum since the July 7 announcement of the completion of independent investigator Maggie Hickey’s investigation into allegations of hazing within the football program, creating an information void that has given way to more outside voices, competing narratives and a mess — mostly of its own making — that the school cannot find a way to get out of.