Big Ten Football Media Days started on Wednesday with promise. New conference commissioner Tony Pettiti spoke of emboldening the conference’s structure and spotlighted the actual football within the conference, including two returning College Football Playoff participants. Then, inevitably, came the off-the-field questions bubbling in the Big Ten ecosystem.
From the big podium inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, Pettiti said there is no conference investigation into the alleged hazing and toxic culture reported at Northwestern. The conference instead reserves comment until Northwestern’s ongoing investigation is completed.
The Daily Northwestern, the school’s student newspaper, published allegations outlining hazing of demeaning and sexual nature by former football players over three weeks ago. Since then, allegations of bullying, hazing and belittling have surfaced against multiple Northwestern athletic programs. Northwestern dismissed former head coach Pat Fitzgerald after announcing an initial two-week suspension. Recent allegations against the football staff specifically allege at least one assistant coach not only knew about the culture but actively fostered it. Bryce Gallagher, Rod Heard II and Bryce Kirtz, current Northwestern players, issued a joint statement on Tuesday that they’d withdraw from Media Days. That left interim head coach David Braun to face the media firmly affixed in the spotlight.
Braun painted a picture of growing up in Big Ten country without having played in it. He played on the defensive line at Winona State in Minnesota without the opportunity to play in the Big Ten. He arrived at Northwestern in January as the Wildcats’ new defensive coordinator as a two-time FCS Defensive Coordinator of the Year at North Dakota State. He thought he’d work there until Fitzgerald retired. Now he’s a first-time head coach as the program continually faces new accusations.
A USA Today story published this week, citing former offensive lineman Ramon Diaz and another unnamed source, alleges Northwestern associate head coach Matt MacPherson witnessed team members do naked pull-ups and other hazing activities. Diaz alleges MacPherson laughed at players doing naked pull-ups while coming in and out of the locker room. The other source claimed MacPherson witnessed the team engage in “running”—the act former players allege involved a group of several upperclassmen dressed in various ‘Purge-like’ masks and then begin ‘dry-humping’ a victim in a dark room, according to the initial report in The Daily Northwestern.
Braun was asked directly about those allegations and about MacPherson, who is still Northwestern’s associate head coach for safeties since 2018. Braun declined to speak about current allegations regarding the football program. He said he’s only read the executive summary of the initial law firm investigation. He also condemned hazing in his opening remarks and again in a lengthy open forum.
“I just wanted to make sure that my words will certainly empathize with anyone that’s gone through something and been the victim of hazing is in full support of our team, our staff and those who are at our facility,” Braun said.
The interim head coach said he wants to ensure his players are supported and that “this team has been through a lot.” Braun, whose wife is due to give birth the same day the Wildcats begin fall camp, said the team has the coaching staff’s full support. He plans to call defenses this fall as timing didn’t work to hire an interim defensive coordinator. Despite all the off-field turmoil, Braun said “this football team will be ready to go” come fall camp.
Meanwhile, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz also fielded questions about Iowa football players’ off-field behaviors. It was reported in May that the NCAA is investigating members of the Iowa football team in relation to sports gambling. In total, 26 athletes at Iowa were linked to the investigation, including defensive lineman Noah Shannon. Ferentz said it was “not a large number” of Hawkeye football players are included in the investigation. He also isn’t sure what the outcome of that investigation will be at this point.
Ferentz, the country’s longest-tenured college football coach, hopes the NCAA considers fair actions. Sports betting is in a much different position now than it was when he arrived at Iowa decades ago. His middle son suggested ESPN’s College GameDay, which includes a weekly segment picking games against the spread. Sports betting services now sponsor sports television broadcasts and even leagues themselves.
“Gambling is going to exist,” Ferentz said. “It always has. I hope eventually the policies will reflect what’s best for college athletics. Certainly not betting on college athletics would be a good starting point.”
Questions don’t get much easier on Thursday. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who could reportedly face a four-game suspension this fall, is scheduled to meet with media. As is Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck. A Front Office Sports report released Wednesday details a “cult-like” atmosphere within Fleck’s football program, as alleged by former Golden Gophers.