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As Northwestern searched for an athletic director to fill the role Jim Phillips held for more than a decade, Derrick Gragg’s name came up as a wish-list candidate.
When the university reached out to request an interview, he decisively passed, preferring to concentrate on his fairly new job as the NCAA vice president for inclusion, education and community engagement.
Northwestern eventually promoted former deputy athletic director Mike Polisky — and a fiasco ensued, leading to Polisky’s resignation only nine days after his hiring was announced.
It gave Northwestern another shot at Gragg.
This time, he reconsidered. The former Tulsa athletic director wore a purple tie Monday while being introduced at Ryan Fieldhouse in front of media, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, university administrators and several coaches.
“It’s Northwestern,” Gragg said. “It’s a position that anyone in our business would want to have.”
Before his stint with the NCAA began in August, Gragg had served as Tulsa’s athletic director since 2013. He previously worked as Eastern Michigan’s athletic director from 2006 to 2013 following assistant and associate administrative roles at Michigan and Arkansas and jobs as director of compliance at Missouri and director of student life at his alma mater, Vanderbilt.
He will be tasked with many high-stakes responsibilities: maintaining the momentum of successful programs such as football and women’s lacrosse, working with donors to keep adding to Northwestern’s top-flight facilities — perhaps including a long-awaited Ryan Field upgrade — and navigating an increasingly complicated NCAA landscape with legislative issues including name, image and likeness rights.
But on a more immediate and personal level, Gragg must repair relationships and reputations after Northwestern’s month of turmoil.
Discontent with university President Morton Schapiro’s selection of Polisky arose quickly after his May 3 hiring because Polisky was named as one of four defendants in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed in January by a Northwestern cheerleader who accused him of dismissing her complaints. Northwestern filed a motion to dismiss the suit.
Black cheerleaders said in media reports that Polisky — who as deputy AD for external affairs oversaw the cheerleading team — did not take seriously their concerns about racism on the team.
Sources told the Tribune some members of the selection committee and board of trustees were disappointed in the selection of Polisky. A group of female faculty wrote letters asking for a more in-depth and independent investigation than the one Northwestern launched by hiring a law firm. A protest of nearly 400 students, faculty and community members, including Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss, marched from campus to Schapiro’s home, some calling for Polisky to be fired.
In the wake of the uproar, some faculty and Northwestern alumni have called for more transparency and a change in culture within the athletic department.
Gragg spoke about this in more general terms of America’s recent social justice movement.
“You really have to lean in with people, particularly our young people,” he said. “They initiate and spark and keep social justice movements going. I’m looking forward to engaging with them. I’ve engaged the NCAA at a higher level across the nation, especially engaging them what they want to come from this movement, creating action plans and moving forward.
“One of the things we cannot do is ignore them. And whether that’s faculty, whether that’s students, whether that’s constituents, I look forward to touching base with all of them.”
As Arkansas’ senior associate athletic director in the early 2000s, he said the university handled a somewhat similar scandal that was resolved with communication.
“I don’t know all the facts of this situation (at Northwestern),” he said. “But (at Arkansas, it took) really digging in with the people who were involved, sitting people down who maybe weren’t talking to each other and then coming to a great resolution, and then we didn’t have that problem anymore.”
Joining Northwestern after the fallout isn’t daunting, he said.
“I felt like that could be dealt with,” he said. “I have a lot of investigative experience. I’ve been involved in tons of situations across the country from a national level, from a local level. I just felt my expertise could help with that.”
Warren spoke at Gragg’s introduction, a rarity for a conference commissioner, vouching for his selection. They have known each other for about 20 years, and Gragg said Warren was the only non-family member he consulted about taking the job.
“You have a man here who is absolutely brilliant,” Warren said, “who is hard-working, who is intellectual, who’s passionate, who’s compassionate, who understands what it means to be a student-athlete but most importantly who understands what it means to be a leader, especially in the climate of today.
“We’re facing a lot of issues ahead of us and we all need talented people around us. And you’re blessed with one here with Derrick.”
A former football player at Vanderbilt, Gragg said he understands the complexities of demanding simultaneous athletic and academic success at Northwestern.
As Northwestern’s first Black athletic director — and one of only a handful across Football Bowl Subdivision schools — Gragg understands he represents more than a university administrator.
He recalled a 1998 NCAA convention in San Diego, where he “almost ran over everybody” to meet Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who is Black.
Gragg also spoke at his news conference about his mother integrating an Alabama high school in the 1960s and eventually obtaining multiple master’s degrees. She passed on lessons of resiliency and a priority on education.
Gragg wrote a book, “40 Days of Direction: Life Lessons from the Talented Ten,” about his and his Black teammates’ experiences at Vanderbilt.
“It’s significant and something I don’t back away from,” he said of his historic hiring at Northwestern. “It shows (athletes) something they can become. When I was coming up, there were no Black athletic directors. I’ve been a pioneer. I’m usually the first or the only everywhere I’ve gone.”
Gragg said he starts his position officially in three weeks. He shook hands with several coaches at Ryan Fieldhouse.
Football coach Pat Fitzgerald wasn’t in attendance because of recruiting duties, but the two met at a campus facility recently. Gragg said he had dinner at Schapiro’s house with women’s lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. After playing phone tag during the week, men’s basketball coach Chris Collins was among the first to welcome him at Ryan Fieldhouse.
Gragg described his move as a no-brainer. At least this time around.
“I love that Northwestern doesn’t play second fiddle to anybody,” he said. “That’s the way I am. The profile of the university, one of the best universities in the country, bar none, in the best conference and with one of the best athletic programs. You can’t beat that.
“This is a destination job. This is an elite program and it’s separated itself.”
After passing on Northwestern’s first inquiry, he said it took deeper introspection — and encouragement from his wife, Sanya — to engage with the school again.
“She shifted me,” Gragg said. “She said, ‘This is something you, and we, have been working for ever since I’ve known you.’ … She said, ‘Let’s go for it one more time. Not only is it what you want to do, but it’s Northwestern.’ ”