Northwestern fired longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald on Monday amid allegations of widespread hazing within the football program.
"The head coach is ultimately responsible for the culture of his team," university president Michael Schill wrote in an open letter to the school community. "The hazing we investigated was widespread and clearly not a secret within the program, providing Coach Fitzgerald with the opportunity to learn what was happening. Either way, the culture in Northwestern Football, while incredible in some ways, was broken in others."
Defensive coordinator David Braun is expected to be named the Wildcats' acting coach, sources told ESPN.
The firing of Fitzgerald, 48, comes after the school announced Friday that he'd be suspended without pay for two weeks this summer following the conclusion of a university-commissioned investigation into allegations made by a former Northwestern football player. The school said the investigation, which was initiated in January and conducted by an outside law firm, did not find "sufficient" evidence that the coaching staff knew about ongoing hazing -- though there were "significant opportunities" to find out about it.
The school then reversed course Saturday night after The Daily Northwestern published a story detailing allegations from the former player, who described specific instances of hazing and sexual abuse. That led Schill to write an open letter to the university community in which he said that he "may have erred in weighing the appropriate sanction" for Fitzgerald and acknowledged focusing "too much on what the report concluded (Fitzgerald) didn't know and not enough on what he should have known."
In his letter Monday, Schill said the decision to fire Fitzgerald "comes after a difficult and complex evaluation of my original discipline decision imposed last week on Coach Fitzgerald for his failure to know and prevent significant hazing in the football program. Over the last 72 hours, I have spent a great deal of time in thought and in discussions with people who love our University -- the Chair and members of our Board of Trustees, faculty leadership, students, alumni and Coach Fitzgerald himself. I have also received many phone calls, text messages and emails from those I know, and those I don't, sharing their thoughts.
"While I am appreciative of the feedback and considered it in my decision-making, ultimately, the decision to originally suspend Coach Fitzgerald was mine and mine alone, as is the decision to part ways with him."
Fitzgerald, in a statement to ESPN, said he was "surprised when I learned that the president of Northwestern unilaterally revoked our agreement without any prior notification and subsequently terminated my employment," referencing the agreed-upon two-week suspension.
Fitzgerald went on to say in his statement that he has entrusted his agent, Bryan Harlan, and veteran trial attorney Dan Webb "to take the necessary steps to protect my rights in accordance with the law."
According to a Northwestern team official, Fitzgerald briefly addressed the football team in a meeting Monday night. His wife and three sons, including his oldest, Jack, a current Northwestern player, attended the meeting. Athletic director Derrick Gragg, who had been overseas, addressed the team via Zoom, and coordinators Braun and Mike Bajakian spoke in person, sources told ESPN, describing the meeting as very somber and emotional.
Schill, who was the president of the University of Oregon before taking over at Northwestern in September, said in his letter Monday that the report from ArentFox Schiff will remain confidential. But he wrote that, during the investigation, 11 current or former players acknowledged the hazing within the program.
"The hazing included forced participation, nudity and sexualized acts of a degrading nature, in clear violation of Northwestern policies and values," Schill wrote.
The former player whose allegations prompted the investigation said Monday in a statement to ESPN's Adam Rittenberg, "For me, this has always been about the physical and mental safety of student-athletes. There is still progress to be made in athletics across the country; today is a move in that direction. I am appreciative of those that reviewed the facts that have been presented."
Fitzgerald went 110-101 over 17 seasons and is by far the most successful football coach in school history. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
Fitzgerald spent over 26 total seasons with the program -- four as a player, five as an assistant and 17 as head coach. He also led the school to five of its six bowl wins in program history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Northwestern has five 10-win seasons in program history and Fitzgerald has been a part of four of them -- three as a coach and one as a player.
Fitzgerald's tenure unwound after a former player, who has since transferred, reported the program's hazing activities to the school in late 2022. The former player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told ESPN on Sunday that hazing was organized and widespread in Northwestern's program, often led by a group of older players called the "Shrek gang." The group would lead a hazing activity called "running," usually against freshmen or younger players who had made mistakes in practice, he said. According to the former player, older players wearing masks would restrain the victim in a dark locker room and engage in sexualized behavior. The former player said he was "run" as a freshman and also said Fitzgerald signaled for players to be added to "Shrek's list" with a specific clapping motion during practice. He said he saw Fitzgerald make the motion at least five times since the 2020 season.
The former player spoke to investigators during the six-month university-commissioned probe, which included more than 50 people currently or formerly affiliated with the program. He told ESPN that he spoke with Schill on Sunday about the hazing he witnessed and experienced at Northwestern.
In an executive summary of the investigation released Friday, Northwestern said the hazing claims could be "largely supported" and that "there had been significant opportunities to discover and report" what had happened. But investigators could not determine enough evidence to show the coaches were aware of the hazing activities, a sentiment that was reiterated by Schill in his letter Monday.
"The hazing was well-known by many in the program, though the investigator failed to find any credible evidence that Coach Fitzgerald himself knew about it," Schill wrote in his open letter. "As the entire six-month independent investigation was confidential, I only recently learned many of the details, including the complainant's identity. I spoke with his parents on Friday and the student on Sunday."
Fitzgerald, who said in his statement Monday that the investigation "reaffirmed what I have always maintained -- that I had no knowledge whatsoever of any form of hazing within the Northwestern Football Program," is two years into a 10-year, $57 million contract. There's been no indication yet of the potential financial fallout from his firing.
If he had coached this season, Fitzgerald was set to be the fifth-longest-tenured active coach in FBS football.
Braun, who will serve as a liaison and manage the program for the time being, came to Northwestern in January from North Dakota State, where he was FCS coordinator of the year in 2021. He's entering his first season with the program, which is coming off a 1-11 record, the team's worst since it went winless in 1989.
The Wildcats open the season Sept. 3 at Rutgers.
Information from ESPN's Adam Rittenberg and The Associated Press was included in this report.