Northwestern football finds itself in unique circumstances following the firing of longtime head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was fired on Monday after additional information regarding hazing incidents that occurred during his tenure as the Wildcats' head coach came to light.

Northwestern football faces difficult hire

Having spent 17 seasons with the program, Fitzgerald's departure marks a significant change for Northwestern. His record of 110-101, including 10 bowl appearances and two Big Ten West division titles, solidifies his status as the most accomplished coach in the school's history. Not to mention that as an alumnus of Northwestern, Fitzgerald embodied the spirit and loyalty of the university, making his replacement an even more challenging task.

Winning at Northwestern is no easy feat, and it is unlikely that many coaches have actively pursued this job in some time due to the strong bond between the university and Fitzgerald — both parties were extremely committed to each other. Now wanting to attract applicants for the now-open position with the season two months away will be difficult due to the program's negative publicity and the need for a complete reset.

Given the timing, Northwestern has two sets of criteria in selecting their next head coach. They can either promote from within or hire a semi-retired or recently fired coach who is available. Even an assistant coach looking to advance in their career would likely think twice about taking on this kind of challenge so close to the start of the season.

Here are a few potential candidates that could replace Pat Fitzgerald this season:

David Shaw

There are notable similarities between Stanford and Northwestern, as both schools prioritize academics and have achieved minimal success in football. All things considered, Shaw accomplished remarkable results at Stanford, where he consistently fielded competitive teams despite academic standards that garnered higher GPA's that athletic star ratings. With a 96-54 record over 12 seasons, including several ranked finishes, Shaw's hiring would be a significant coup for Northwestern. However, considering the institutional control issues, securing Shaw may be a stretch.

Derek Mason

Taking a well-deserved sabbatical, Derek Mason could be a strong choice for Northwestern. During his seven-year tenure at Vanderbilt, Mason faced significant hurdles in winning at a private university with high academic standards, ultimately in a daunting SEC conference, posting a less-than-stellar 27-55 record. The situation at Northwestern would be similar, demanding a coach who understands the limitations inherent in their locker room, where academic excellence takes precedence over winning football games. The broken culture, however, is another issue entirely.

Mike Bajakian

Mike Bajakian presents both the best and worst option on this list. On the positive side, he is currently the offensive coordinator, making his promotion from within the coaching staff a straightforward choice. However, this attribute can also be considered a drawback.

If Northwestern wishes to distance itself completely from Fitzgerald and his staff, a clean break may be necessary. It is crucial for the university to make a well-considered decision, unlike the handling of Fitzgerald's situation, which involved an intitial suspension followed by termination after further revelations just a day later. Bajakian's potential involvement, through association, in the alleged incidents must be taken seriously.

Despite these concerns, Bajakian boasts an impressive resume, having led offenses ranked in the top 40 for seven seasons at Boston College. Additionally, his extensive NFL experience as a quarterback coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers adds to his credentials.

If Northwestern is searching for a temporary coach to fill the void for a season, Bajakian may be the most suitable option. A rushed coaching search at this stage would likely lack careful consideration beyond simply filling the position. While Bajakian's resume is more than fitting, it's his association to Fitzgerald that's not.

David Braun

David Braun was announced as the interim head coach at Northwestern not long after Fitzgerald's firing. Braun was just recently hired back in January, coming from North Dakota State where he was the FCS coordinator of the year in 2021, ESPN's Peth Thamel tweeted.

This is quite a bump already for the defensive coordinator, who has yet to coach a regular season game at Northwestern. However, this may have been a deliberate choice. While someone like Bajakian, who has been with the team since 2019, may seem like a reasonable option, offering familiarity and stability, this also works against him. Braun's recent arrival to the program suggests that he likely had limited or no knowledge of the reported hazing incidents. Therefore, appointing him as the interim head coach, at least for this season, allows Northwestern to have a coach on the sideline while hopefully minimizing the risk of any further scandal.