Northwestern University announced Dr. Derrick Gragg as the school’s new athletic director Friday morning. Gragg, who most recently served as the NCAA’s senior vice president for inclusion, education and community engagement, will be the first person of color to serve in the role in school history.
“I am thrilled and humbled to join the Northwestern University family at this pivotal moment in college athletics,” Gragg said in a statement. “My career has been shaped by an unwavering belief in the potential of student-athletes to excel in all areas. These young people need more support than ever in the midst of challenging, changing and exciting times.”
The announcement came as a surprise to many Wildcat fans, as Schapiro had said "In the coming months, I will share information on the process for selecting our next athletic director" following Polisky’s resignation.
Gragg comes to Northwestern with a litany of experience, having served as the athletic director at both Eastern Michigan University and the University of Tulsa. While at Tulsa, he helped the school join the American Athletic Conference and watched as its teams subsequently won 19 conference titles, the second-most in the league.
“It was essential for us to find the right leader for the next chapter at Northwestern — someone who can build both academic and athletic excellence at a time of rapid change in the intercollegiate sports landscape, and also someone who can create the best possible environment for students, staff and coaches,” University president Morton Schapiro said in a statement. “After talking extensively with Derrick, it was clear that he was the ideal person for the job.”
Gragg’s hiring comes at a critical time for Northwestern, as the school had been under much scrutiny following the hiring of Mike Polisky. Polisky, who was hired following his years of service as Northwestern’s deputy director of athletics, resigned just 10 days after the announcement following protests from student and staff, due to his involvement in a sexual exploitation lawsuit filed by former school cheerleader Hayden Richardson. In the past, several cheerleaders had accused the school of racist policies, including the banning of natural hair for Black students and refusing to support them if they knelt during the national anthem.
As a result, Gragg’s experience at both the NCAA and Tulsa are being promoted by the school, showing his efforts to help combat systemic racism and empower student athletes. Among those listed in the statement is his work with the Tulsa Legacy Game, which was conceptualized to help discuss the 1921 Tulsa Massacre – in which hundreds of Black Americans were murdered – and promote the stories of both survivors and descendants.
Meet Leonelle Thompson, Assistant Dean & Director of the Business Career Center❗At our Legacy Game 🏈 we are highlighting TU alumni and recognizing the heritage, history and legacy of Black Wall Street & Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District. #MyStoryMatters x #LoyalAlwaysTrue pic.twitter.com/jRfiG4BriI— Tulsa Hurricane (@TulsaHurricane) October 27, 2020
In addition to his administrative work, Gragg also played football at Vanderbilt University. Several sources have noted that this will not only give him credibility in Northwestern’s highest-profile sport, as Matt Fortuna of the Athletic writes, but also allow him to have a greater understanding and compassion for student issues.
“Derrick Gragg is an extremely talented, professional and visionary leader who operates with passion and integrity,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “Derrick will lead the Northwestern University athletic department in a collaborative manner that will properly focus on the well-being of all Northwestern student-athletes.”
In hiring Gragg, Schapiro said that the process had been kept confidential to “ensure the ability to identify and recruit the best possible candidates.” Others have noted that the quick hire going into the summer offseason will allow Gragg to “rebuild stability and credibility in the program after a rocky few months,” according to Fortuna.
“Derrick stood out among candidates for having lived every level of collegiate athletics — from being a student-athlete to more than a decade as an athletics director, and then taking on a national leadership role with the NCAA,” Craig Johnson, the senior vice president for business and finance at Northwestern, said in a statement.
Johnson had also served as search chair in Gragg’s hiring. “We look forward to welcoming him to Evanston and Chicago as the newest member of our Wildcat family.”
Northwestern will now look to the 2021-2022 season with a tentative hope and a vision for the future. Several questions are still left to be answered, however, including the response to cheerleaders’ complaints, the return to 100% capacity at athletic events and the continuing effort to garner donations following financial losses during the pandemic. With Gragg in the pilot’s seat, there’s hope that the school may be taking a step in the right direction.