INDIANAPOLIS — David Braun sat behind a table at a small podium on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf as about 50 members of the media gathered in front of him.
Three weeks ago, he was Northwestern’s defensive coordinator, hired in January after a successful run at North Dakota State. At Big Ten media days Wednesday afternoon, Braun faced questions stemming from allegations of hazing in the Wildcats program that led to the firing of coach Pat Fitzgerald and Braun’s promotion to the position as interim head coach.
“I stepped out of my comfort zone many times, and that’s where I experienced a lot of growth,” Braun said. “I’ve never been this far out of my comfort zone before.”
Wednesday’s questions to coaches and players often focused on college football’s most scrutinized topics — hazing, in particular. Tony Petitti, just his 87th day in his new job as Big Ten commissioner, addressed concerns about Northwestern and the 13 other schools at his conference.
Petitti said the conference would let Northwestern’s investigations play out before the league took action. He also said the league could review schools’ practices, “to ensure that what’s happening on campus meets the standards we expect, in order to provide a safe and healthy environment for student-athletes.”
Those are topics that will come up Thursday when Minnesota representatives at Media Days face their own questions about the treatment of players. Media outlet Front Office Sports released a report Wednesday criticizing coach PJ Fleck’s program. Anonymous former players spoke of Fleck creating a “cult”-like environment within the program with non-compliants subjected to punitive workouts and unfair drug testing procedures.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle praised Fleck’s program in a rebuttal statement Wednesday, saying in part: “I always encourage all of our student-athletes, including every member of our football team, to contact me directly if they experience any issues. To date, I have not heard from a single football student-athlete regarding the allegations raised.”
Gophers senior safety Tyler Nubin, one of three players who will represent the Gophers on Thursday, tweeted that the report was a “hit.” He added: “I’ve never seen anything but great people and great coaches who care about the PLAYERS.”
Representatives from each school are sure to answer questions about the heated discussions that took precedence over football during the two-day event. Braun did not respond to the specific allegations against Northwestern, which include abusive behavior and long-standing hazing practices. “I will not speak about the current allegations,” he said. “I have full confidence that the university is following a process and will make decisions based on the facts.”
The other six head coaches during Wednesday’s sessions were asked about the situation in the Northwest, but most chose not to comment directly. “Listen, Fitz and I are very close,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “Whatever happened there, I don’t know and I can’t comment.”
Braun was part of the Northwestern contingent Wednesday because a day earlier, the three players scheduled to attend — linebacker Bryce Gallagher, defensive back Rod Heard II and wide receiver Bryce Kirtz — opted to stay in Evanston so not to distract from football and the upcoming season.
The 2023 season for Northwestern was going to be tough enough as it was, with the Wildcats trying to rebound from back-to-back 1-8 records in Big Ten play. Now, Braun is trying to pick up the pieces as Northwestern faces lawsuits over hazing allegations and player transfers.
“I want to make sure that as many people in our facility who can maintain the normal routine that we established in the spring can continue to move in that direction,” Braun said.
Difficult topics in college sports go beyond hazing. Petitti has made it clear that he doesn’t like the fray that’s developing with NIL (name, image and likeness) abuse coupled with the transfer portal.
“This is a great mechanism for student-athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness through real marketing opportunities. As a conference, we not only support but celebrate the ability to “a student-athlete generates unlimited benefits from a true NIL,” he said.
“However,” Petitti added, “it is important to say that much of what is currently happening under the guise of NIL is not true NIL but rather an evolution towards a pay-to-play system that stimulates recruiting and transfer portal. This system operates outside and without institutional oversight, and is also not compliant with Title IX.”
Petitti applauded the proposed national legislation to address NIL concerns.
“Members of Congress and their staffs are engaged, and there is real momentum for bipartisan legislation that benefits student-athletes, protects the academic athletic model, and recognizes that a national competitive landscape needs national rules that can be applied,” he said.
As for the potential for conference expansion, Petitti wants to make sure the additions of USC and UCLA go smoothly next year.
“All the direction I get from leadership, from our presidents and chancellors, from athletic directors, is to focus on UCLA and USC,” he said.
On Wednesday, while acknowledging the sporting issues that need to be resolved, Petitti also expressed hope that this would come with a new season.
“I’m excited about our future,” he said. “…I think we’re really just getting started.”