Acting Northwestern University head football coach named amid hazing fallout, Fitzgerald's firing

Former Northwestern football coach said in statement he was 'surprised' by termination

ByMichelle Gallardo, Chuck Goudie, Eric Horng, and Stephanie Wade, Barb Markoff and Christine Tressel WLS logo
Wednesday, July 12, 2023
Acting NU head football coach named amid hazing fallout
An acting Northwestern coach has been named after hazing allegations led to Pat Fitzgerald's firing Monday.

EVANSTON, Ill. (WLS) -- Northwestern has named defensive coordinator David Braun the Wildcats' acting head football coach, as fallout continues following allegations of hazing within the program.

On Monday night, Northwestern University fired Pat Fitzgerald, who had been head coach since 2006, effective immediately, citing widespread hazing within the football program.

He was in the second year of a 10-year, $57 million contract and has retained a high-profile attorney while defending his 17-year tenure atop a team he played on himself.

READ MORE: Ex-Northwestern player says coach Pat Fitzgerald 'failed' by not stopping hazing

Fitzgerald was initially suspended for two weeks without pay, but Northwestern University President Michael Schill then said he "may have erred" in the coach's sanction.

But Northwestern will retain its assistant football coaches and support staff for the 2023 season, the school said.

The hazing allegations and investigation that culminated with the firing of Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald Monday could be just the start of a domino effect that could include criminal investigations and a PR disaster.

There is a domino effect for the school on the horizon, as one allegation leads to another; an internal investigation precedes government agencies and civil cases that might give way to criminal review; and a looming PR disaster.

"Potential criminal cases, you could imagine regulatory type cases or administrative cases from the NCAA or big tech, you could imagine private civil litigation from alleged victims who sue the university or the coaching staff. So there are a lot of ways this could develop. And I think it's very likely this case will have some legs," said ABC7 Legal Analyst Gil Soffer.

Over the course of the hazing investigation, nearly a dozen Wildcat football players said the issue was "systemic dating back many years," and included "forced participation, nudity, and sexualized act of a degrading nature."

A former player, who asked only to be known as "Ramón," recounted one particularly crude locker room hazing ritual, known as "the car wash."

"The idea was, just like you think of a car wash. You were being clean. But people's genitals were out. It wasn't something you want to watch others go through and then having to do it yourself," he said.

He told ABC7 Chicago about the therapy he's had to seek, since leaving Northwestern.

"(Fitzgerald has) been embedded in the program for two-plus decades, and so if the car wash was happening when I was there, and the car wash is happening as recently as this past season, I think it's a bit egregious that him being the leader of an institution like Northwestern you wouldn't know these things are happening," another former player said.

The second player, who did not want to disclose his name, said he experienced hazing, racial micro aggressions and intimidation from both the players and coaches.

"If position coaches are witnessing this stuff, and they're not saying anything, then they kind of enable other position coaches to make it seem like it's OK to use this type of coaching methodology and these practices. So that's where I am at with it all overall is just the accountability on the coaches," he said. "There were times being in that program I felt so small even though I know now that's not the case, but when you're constantly being berated you kind of get beat down."

"Well, it is certainly not the end of things," Soffer said. "Because there are too many places in too many ways in which this can still play out between the coach and the university. That's the most obvious of course, but also by the students themselves and by regulators. So no, we haven't seen the end of this."

Illinois has an anti-hazing statute, Soffer pointed out, so if there is any evidence a university employee personally witnessed hazing, it could become the foundation of a state criminal case.

Reaction continued to pour in Tuesday after Fitzgerald's firing.

A group of faculty members called on university officials pause its $800 million plans to renovate and expand Ryan Field.

"I think we can go forward with it on the condition that the athletics department is completely overhauled. It's cleaned up. We know where we stand. We know who's responsible and then we can talk about moving forward. Until we tidy up the house why would we expand it?" Northwestern Professor Elizabeth Shakman Hurd said.

With Northwestern's baseball coach now under fire as well for allegedly creating an abusive environment within that program, and the team in danger of not filling next year's roster, Shakman Hurd said the entire athletics department needs to come under review.

"First is the safety of the students, then comes the playing and winning the games we hope. But if our students are being abused what's the point?" Shakman Hurd said.

Fitzgerald is hitting back after having previously denied knowing about the hazing incidents detailed in a six-month independent investigation released Friday.

Fitzgerald released a statement Tuesday morning, saying:

"I had the privilege of serving as the Head Football Coach at Northwestern University for the past 17 years. As a former Wildcat player who played a part in the remarkable transformation of our program, it was a tremendous honor to have the opportunity to lead the team. I take great pride in the achievements we accomplished during my tenure, both on and off the field. I dedicated myself wholeheartedly to nurturing our players, not only as athletes but also as exemplary students and members of the community. Our program instilled in young men the qualities to become outstanding husbands, fathers, and valuable contributors to society. Our players were well-prepared to make a positive impact in the world, and I am confident in the success we achieved together. The overwhelming majority of players we coached, 99% to be precise, have provided positive feedback that affirms our efforts.

"Attorney Maggie Hickey conducted a thorough investigation spanning several months into the allegations that led to my termination. Her investigation reaffirmed what I have always maintained-that I had no knowledge whatsoever of any form of hazing within the Northwestern Football Program.

"Last Friday, Northwestern and I came to a mutual agreement regarding the appropriate resolution following the thorough investigation conducted by Ms. Hickey. This agreement stipulated a two-week suspension. Therefore, I was surprised when I learned that the president of Northwestern unilaterally revoked our agreement without any prior notification and subsequently terminated my employment.

"Given this unexpected turn of events, I have entrusted my agent, Bryan Harlan, and legal counsel, Dan Webb from Winston & Strawn LLP, to take the necessary steps to protect my rights in accordance with the law."

ESPN contributed to this report.