EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Northwestern athletic director Derrick Gragg criticized assistant football coaches and staff members for wearing shirts supporting fired coach Pat Fitzgerald at practice Wednesday, calling them “inappropriate, offensive and tone deaf” given the hazing and abuse scandal engulfing the program and other teams.
“Let me be crystal clear,” he said in a statement. “Hazing has no place at Northwestern, and we are committed to do whatever is necessary to address hazing-related issues, including thoroughly investigating any incidents or allegations of hazing or any misconduct.”
Gragg said he and the university were unaware that staffers owned the black shirts with “Cats Against the World” and Fitzgerald’s old number “51” in purple type or would wear them at practice. He issued the statement after interim coach David Braun called it a free speech issue and said his focus was on supporting his players and staff rather than whether the shirts were tone deaf.
Three players expressed support for Fitzgerald and defended the culture of the program on Wednesday after the Wildcats’ first practice open to the media. It was the first time since the hazing allegations surfaced that Northwestern players were made available to reporters.
“The shirts were really just a reminder to allow us to stick together,” receiver Bryce Kirtz said.
Linebacker Bryce Gallagher echoed that, saying, “Just a reminder of us sticking together through this difficult time, just leaning on each other. We know the only people we need are the people in this facility.”
Northwestern is facing more than a dozen lawsuits across multiple sports with allegations including sexual abuse of players by teammates as well as racist comments by coaches and race-based assaults. The cases span from 2004 to 2022, and attorneys representing some of the athletes who have already sued say more are coming.
Fitzgerald, who was fired after 17 seasons, has maintained he had no knowledge of hazing within his program. President Michael Schill and Gragg have largely limited their public comments to statements issued in news releases and, other than a handful of interviews, have not answered questions from reporters.
Braun said his focus was on his players and not their opinions about the scandal.
“My purpose and my intentionality is gonna be solely based on supporting these young men, supporting this staff, making sure that my actions align with making sure that this fall is an incredible experience for them,” Braun said. “It certainly isn’t my business to censor anybody’s free speech.”
Kirtz, Gallagher and defensive back Rod Heard II spoke positively about the program and Fitzgerald while declining to address specific allegations.
“We were devastated, obviously,” Gallagher said. “No one ever wants to lose their head coach or have that change. We loved Coach Fitz and devastated that he’s not here, but we have full belief in Coach Braun. He’s been unbelievable and has done a great job leading us and has really just shown us how much he cares about us.”
Braun was elevated to interim head coach about six months after he was hired as defensive coordinator. He has no college head coaching experience. It’s his job to help steady a program that has taken huge hits to its image.
“The reason I do what I do is ensure the young men in our program have an incredible student-athlete experience,” Braun said. “I’m doing everything in my power to make sure that I do just that. Hazing certainly has no (place).”
Braun said he’s been in contact with Fitzgerald, just as he has with other parents of players, since the coaching change. Fitzgerald’s son Jack, a freshman tight end, is still on the team, though he was working as a student coach on Wednesday.
Braun also said he lived in Fitzgerald’s home for two months while house hunting after spending a few nights in a hotel.
“The relationship with Pat is much deeper than someone that I worked for for six months,” he said.
For recruits and parents who might have concerns and pointed questions in light of the allegations, Heard said: “The people in this building are great. We’ve always had people with high character.”
The allegations and lawsuits paint a different picture of the football program and athletic department.
“Like we said, we’re not talking about any allegations that are out there right now,” Gallagher said. “We’re focused on the upcoming season. But this place is great. Obviously, the academics and the football, playing in the Big Ten, is why we chose to come here. And that’s what I’d say to recruits is you get the best of both worlds.”