Earlier this week, new Northwestern Athletic Director Dr. Derrick Gragg was introduced to the media with Northwestern President Morton Schapiro and Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren.
President Schapiro’s Opening Statement: “Thank you, Paul (Kennedy). And thank you, everyone for joining us this afternoon. Special thanks to you, Kevin Warren, our great Big Ten Commissioner for taking time away from your always busy schedule to join us. And really special thanks to the back row. It’s our coaches there, we have 19 varsity teams. And as I walked down that line, I was reminded about how privileged I am to work with the university, where our coaches are among our finest teachers, and mentors and leaders. I look at that list and I just turn my head back and forth and I have to pinch myself. I apologize for being on your sidelines and screaming at referees and thank you for when I occasionally get a technical allowing me to come back the next day. As Paul mentioned, my name is Morty Shapiro. In the past dozen years, I’ve had the great privilege of serving as the 16th president of Northwestern. It’s my honor to welcome Derrick Gragg, his wife, Sanya Whittaker Gragg, and their entire family into the Northwestern community. Derrick, we only met a short time ago. But I actually feel like I’ve known you for years. You are a perfect fit for Northwestern. Your experience as a varsity athlete at a premier private university, your demonstrated passion for social justice, inclusion and equality and your record of mentoring and encouraging athletes in the classroom, in the community and on the playing fields make you an ideal match for us. In your inspiring book 40 Days of Direction: Life Lessons from the Talented Ten, you thank Sanya for following you to some of the most exotic places in the world. And I hope and pray that you’ll find Evanston, Illinois, just exotic enough. My personal regret is (that) I’m only going to have 14 months to work with you rather than 14 years. But I’ll be watching with pride as you lead athletics and recreation to ever greater heights. While there are certainly a myriad of challenges ahead for college athletics I can think of nobody better to deal with them than you. I am pleased to present to you Northwestern University’s Combe Family Vice President for Athletics and Recreation, Derrick Gragg.”
Dr. Derrick Gragg Opening Statement: “Well thank you, President Schapiro. And it’s so good to see everybody here, we haven’t been able to shake hands and see people for so long. And just seeing everything open back up, I really appreciate the coaches being here because I know how busy you are. And again, I’ll be back in a couple of weeks so we can get some first hand touches, face to face. But I want to say a few things, obviously. Starting with the President, anyone who’s been an AD in athletics knows that to an athletic director, the president outside of his or her main family is the person that’s the most important to the AD. And so I feel very comfortable coming here. We appreciate the invitation. We’re just so looking forward to being here. And although he has a short time, or as he mentioned, I look forward to being able to lean on him for counsel and advice as we move along. So hey, in the next 14 months, don’t lose my number. ‘(President Schapiro) Okay, got it.’ I appreciate it.”
“I also want to thank 300 other individuals who had a lot to do with this search, and I didn’t see the Chairman of the Board, Northwestern alum, Lanny Morton. Is he here today? If not, I really, really thank him. And universities move as their leadership moves, so I appreciate him. University Senior Vice President CFO Craig Johnson, who is also a Northwestern grad, he’s here, right here in the front row, appreciate you. And I definitely want to thank the HR international executive, Glenn Sugiyama, who’s over here, [he] handled all the logistics, top-rate search and and I appreciate what he does and what he brings to the table as well. And then I want to thank who I call my ‘personal board of directors.’ These are the people who are here in the first two rows starting with my beautiful wife. Have you seen the great purple dress? Sanya Whittaker Gragg who a lot of time, she told me that we could get here even when I didn’t think that we could. So babe, I really appreciate you. I thank you. I love you, raising our children allowing me to fly off and take you to exotic places like Fayetteville, Arkansas, and places like that. So I really appreciate it. Thank you. My mother Glenda is here today. I’m going to talk more about her later on. She’s in the front row. My mom, like a lot of years, has not missed one single significant moment in my life ever. And I remember sitting backstage with her 15 years ago, when I was about to become one of the youngest ADs in the country at Eastern Michigan University. And she says, you know, this athletic director thing is going to give you your first gray hairs. And she was right about that. But, she’s always been here. Her husband, Frank Malone, could not be here. But I’m telling you, he’ll be one of the most staunch supporters. He’s watching somewhere right now. And I really appreciate Frank as well. I have Mr. Jim Stapleton here in the front row, mentor of mine, met him when I was a young administrator at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, 20+ years ago, and little did I know, nine years later, when I did become the athletic director at Eastern Michigan University that he was going to be a trustee, and someone, a confidant, someone who basically watched my back every single day of those seven years at Eastern Michigan University and we need those types of people. So Jim, I appreciate you being here. It’s great.
“And then we have Kevin and Greta Warren. Greta couldn’t be here, obviously, the Big Ten Commissioner, this man has been a true role model, another former student-athlete who means so much to us, in this business in this industry. But he’s a great man of faith, a great man of God. And when I talked to him yesterday about some of the comments I was gonna make, just like he always does, he stopped everything. I’m in the back of a car, driving, and he prayed for me. And so I really appreciate that, Kevin, I really appreciate you. Then I have Mr. Tim Duncan. And this isn’t the guy who played for the Spurs. This is who we call the original Tim Duncan. He is the AD at the University of New Orleans. We’ve known each other since about 1999, a great fraternity brother of mine, and he’s in town chasing money, like we all do. But he took time to stop by here and be a part of this. So Tim, I really appreciate you and then the other person I want to thank he’s not here, but he is a part of Big Ten television. Everybody knows Gerry DiNardo. What you may not know about Coach Di as we call him, is he came into Vanderbilt University. After my junior year, they fired the football staff there. So he came in as the head coach. And he’s a cleaned up, polished TV guy now.”
“But back then in his first head coaching job, he wasn’t and I learned so much about not only football, but life from him. And he was a man who showed up. And I’ll never forget the first team meeting we had and I’m gonna clean it up Coach, because this is television. He got there about 10 minutes early, he started the meeting five minutes early, and I felt so bad because one of our teammates came in four minutes early, he thought he was on time. And Coach (DiNardo) went in on him, yelled at him, threw him out of the meeting. And then he said, ‘hey, the rest of you guys, shut up, look right at me, put your feet on the floor, and you’re gonna follow me.’ And that’s what we did. And just in that one year turn-around, he ended up being SEC Coach of the Year. And more importantly, when he went to LSU to be the head coach, I got the coaching bug. I thought that I’d want to coach and follow him. When he went down there, he really stomped hard to get me back to Vanderbilt. So blessed and fortunate, I was only 24 years old when I went back back to Vanderbilt as one of the first hands on academic counselors there working with the student-athletes, and I actually ended up counseling a lot of the people, a lot of my former teammates that I played with, and he had a lot to do with me getting that job. But when he went to LSU, he said, ‘Yeah, I could give you this graduate assistant job. But I think if you stay here at Vanderbilt, I think you can become an AD.’ And so he is the first person. So coach, I know you’re out there watching. He texted me the other day, I really want you to know how much I appreciate you. And so now I want to focus on three, three things and they are in three questions, three things. ‘Who am I? Why am I here? And where are we going after this press conference?’ So starting with who I am, and before you stands a man, a spiritual man, a man of God who grew up in deep south, Alabama, and that’s one way to talk about my mom, Glenda Malone.
“My mom back in 1965, along with a handful of other black students integrated a high school, deep south Alabama, Huntsville, Alabama. She is a pioneer and the things that she encountered during that period, but never, never shied away from education. Her parents were not educated. But my mom has three masters’ degrees. And not only that, when she got in last night, she could not even hang out with us because she’s working on some assignment. I don’t even know what she’s working on now, but she’s going to unretire herself and she’s going back into the classroom. So she’s working on even more education and then my stepfather- God rest his soul, the man who raised us. His blood isn’t coursing through my veins, but he was my dad. And he was the toughest man that I knew-now two totally different people. Now, he believed in athletics and unfortunately for him going into his senior year in high school, his kidneys failed. And he had to repeat his senior year in high school, he never got to live the dream of being a college athlete, but he really lived it through us. And so 20 years ago, I spoke at his funeral. And I named our youngest son after him. And I know that he is so very proud of this moment. And so in my household, we always had academic and athletic excellence and my mom, if you didn’t make all A’s, and that’s mostly A’s, and maybe a few B’s, you didn’t get to play ball. And so that’s what set the tone for me in my life. So I really appreciate it. And that’s why I think it’s such a great fit here, our student-athletes that we have here, and I’ll mention them in a little bit.”
“The second question is, why am I here? And there’s so many reasons to answer that question. I’ll answer that question by a question of my own. And it’s, are you kidding me? Of course, I’m here. This is Northwestern and enjoying the NCAA, people will ask me about that. I think Mark Emmert, for that opportunity. But when Northwestern calls you in this business, you listen. And when they called and Glenn (Sugiyama) called me, I called my wife. And we talked about it, and we had a lot of time to think about it. And at the end of the day, she was the one who blessed this situation. And so it’s Northwestern, we’ve been around so many people in the past few days. And it’s been like being on roller skates. We’ve been to meeting after meeting, dinner after dinner, and just to encounter trustees, alumni who are so fired up, so passionate about their institution. And I love the fact that Northwestern doesn’t play second fiddle to anybody. That’s the way I am. And I’m looking forward to being a part of that. 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. Your student-athletes are top-notch, and everybody I’ve run into, after they get through talking about the program and the university, and everything that’s been done here, they start talking about the student-athletes. And I’m so glad that I’m gonna get the chance to meet with some of them after this meeting as well. This is a destination job, and there are 130 FBS positions like this across the country. Fortunately for me, I’ve had two of them in the last 15 years. But this is an elite program. And it (has) separated itself. And so I’m looking forward to being a part of that.
“The location of the university, you know, is ideal. We’re 12 miles away from one of the best cities in the country. And then most importantly, and Tim asked me about this, this feels like home and he asked me the other day, he said, How does it feel? And I answered him, I said, it feels right. That’s the word, it feels right. It feels like home. It feels like we belong here. And so we’re looking forward to getting back. And so now the final question, Where are we going in the future when we wrap this press conference up? And so we’re going to continue to recruit the very best young women and men across the country to come into this program. And we have high expectations here, and they won’t change underneath, under my leadership. We expect them to first attend class, obtain knowledge, and graduate. And I tell student-athletes all the time, there’s no way especially scholarship student-athletes, that you come into a situation like this, with the everything that you have surrounding you, the academic support, the facilities, everything you need to do to succeed, that you should leave an institution like this without at least one degree. So they have to do that. Secondly, we want them to integrate into mainstream campus society, join organizations, participate on campus and become something other than a jock. I believe that’s important as well. And then thirdly, we expect them to train to become champions. That’s what makes our business great. That’s what makes getting up at five am every morning great, winning. We want to win.”
“And I know that you win here the right way. We also expect our student-athletes to interact with leadership. And President Schapiro, as he mentioned, he’s always around, I’ll always be around. And not only while they’re here, but being able to interface with the leadership, the alumni, the people who put this institution in the place where it is now, and making sure that they have access to them. We also want our student-athletes to give back to the community and always tell them to the little people who look up to them, the people who emulate them and want to be like them. That’s very, very key and critical as well. And last but not least, we want them to follow the rules. We want them to have integrity, because I’ve been involved in college athletics a long time and I’m telling you when you do it the right way. That’s the only way to do it. And so those are the expectations that we’ll maintain with our student-athletes. We want to build on our foundation as the premier academic and athletic program in the conference, I mentioned that, and one of the best in the entire country. And at the right time, I look forward to sitting down with President Schapiro and our constituents, our head coaches, and everybody else. And we’ll map out a strategic plan that shows where we’re going in the next five or 10 years. And so I look forward to engaging as many Northwestern constituents as possible. Again, I’ve met so many of you, I’m getting so many calls already. Coaches, thank you for texting me, I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, I want to make sure that we get some sit-down time together. And I’m looking forward to it. Now, I’ll close with this. And I said this at a board meeting at Tulsa, and the board members there were really trying to decide why they continue to do big-time athletics. And a lot of times we have those struggles on our campus, especially now, in the midst of a pandemic that’s still going on, all of you still have on masks, we’re being very careful.”
“When I went to Vanderbilt University, I had three things: I had a football scholarship. I had a Pell Grant. And I had a praying mom. And that led to the fourth thing, which was a great opportunity. And 32 years later, I’m sitting on this stage in front of all of you at one of the most important premier institutions across the globe. And that’s what college athletics does for people and I told the board, that’s why you’re doing it. You’re doing it for the person that I was 32 years ago. And everybody who knows me, well, knows that I like quotes. So I’ll close with two quick quotes. I’ll leave you with the first one (that) is from my mother, Ralph Waldo Emerson said do not go where the path may lead, go instead, where there is no path and leave a trail. And that’s for her. She’s a trailblazer. She left the trail and I’ve continued to be a pioneer. Behind her, my mother kicked down doors that I was able to just walk through after her. So Mom, I appreciate you again, I love you. And then the second quote is from the late, great John Wooden. My three oldest kids and a lot of the student-athletes I’ve encountered across America can almost probably quote this verbatim. And he once said, People usually know what they need to do to get what they want. They just won’t do it. They won’t pay the price. And so athletic excellence. We pay the price. I tell young people all the time, that’s really for them, keep paying the price. keep raising the bar, and let’s keep this thing going. And so again, it’s my great pleasure to be here. I’m so humbled. I’m so proud. And I cannot wait to get started. So go ‘Cats, and God bless. Thank you.”
Commissioner Warren’s Statement: It truly is an honor and a pleasure to stand before you today. This is a special day in the Big Ten conference. Northwestern University is special in the Big Ten conference as a founding member, as a university that handles itself always with grace, style, class, and excellence. And President Schapiro, I’m so fortunate that you and the Board and others here made the decision and the determination to name Derrick Gragg as Director of Athletics. Derrick and his family, his beautiful wife, Sanya have really been building for a day like today. 15 years as an athletic director, a leader; you have a man here who is absolutely brilliant, who is hard working, who is intellectual, who is passionate, who is 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 Derek. He will do everything in his possible wheelhouse to work hard, to lead with integrity, to make you proud, to be the leader that you desire to have here at Northwestern, and to do everything he possibly can, for all of the student-athletes. He will take a holistic approach to the student-athletes to make sure they are taken care of from a physical, mental, emotional, well being, academics will be first, you have an incredible academic program here. But also athletics will be first. And Derrick will be the leader that will continually help elevate this institution to championships in the Big Ten conference and also national championships. He also understands what it means to be a good colleague, so you, to the coaches, you’re blessed to have someone here with you who will work hard, who will be honest with you, who will be transparent, who (will) lead you, who will guide you, who will listen to the things that are most important. So all of the cornerstones that were established when this incredible institution was built. Derrick Gragg epitomizes each and every one of those. Today is also special, as I close, to his mother, Mrs. Malone. And I want to encourage people in this room, people on television, people in the world that need to know that sometime the road is rough. And I know as a parent who’s trying to raise people, like Derrick, young people, to impart to them the importance of academics first, and athletics second, and that if you really focus on becoming a student-athlete, days like today do come true. So to all the men and women here, who may be raising young people, who may be struggling, days like today, do come true. So Mrs. Malone, I just want to thank you, for those many, many nights, that you woke him up, that you stayed up with him, that you helped him with his homework, that you prayed for him and that you told him that if he does it the right way, that days, like today will come true. So this is as much about Derrick and his family. But it’s really more about you and your leadership. So for that on behalf of the Big Ten conference, and our incredible institutions, and our nearly 10,000 student-athletes and our 6.4 million active living alumni, I just want to thank you for your leadership of what you’ve done for this man, to put him in a position today, to be the leader of this incredible university. I wish you well Derrick, I will always be there for you. And just like yesterday, I will always keep you and your family in my prayers. So with that, congratulations and ‘Go ‘Cats.’ Have a great day.”
Q&A Portion with Dr. Gragg
On the day-to-day responsibilities of being an AD and how he was lured from a job with the NCAA to being an AD back on campus: “People always want to know what ADs do. It’s pretty unpredictable. And I remember when I became an AD a long time ago, an older AD told me ‘don’t fill out your schedule, because it’s going to fill out itself.’ So I try to spend as much time as I can getting around, especially in the beginning, in the new stages, getting around to people to constituents. There are a lot of people that we call the ‘number ones’ and some of them are here today that I need to have a personal touch with. And then when it comes to the daily work, I’m glad that I’m coming in during the summer, where things are just a little bit slower. And being able to transition, but there are so many people that you have to touch base with, so many, and the student-athletes are key and critical too. And I’ve done this a couple of times. And I’ve been able to work it out but it’s a big job. And it requires a lot of time. And that’s why I’m glad that I have the wife that I have because this is all we’ve ever done, this is all my family’s ever done, and we’re looking forward to being here.
On addressing the turmoil around Northwestern’s AD position: “Yes, I’m looking forward to that. Because I think particularly, now, during the social justice movement, which is the biggest social justice movement that’s occurred during my lifetime, you really have to lean in with people and particularly our young people. I say this all the time, young people, they initiate and spark and keep social justice movements going. And so I’m looking forward to engaging with them, (I’ve) been engaging from the NCAA, you brought that up on a higher level across the nation, and really engaging them, finding out what it is that they want to come out of this movement and having critical conversations that matter, creating action plans and moving forward. But again, the one thing that 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.”
On the issues that face college athletics: “There’s several things that we’re dealing with. Now everybody knows about name, image and likeness topic. That’s a key and critical issue for everyone. Fortunately, for us, our state does have a law on the books related to that. And I know President Schapiro and other people have had a lot to do with that. Because we don’t want our student-athletes to be at a disadvantage. So being able to profit from their own name, image and likeness. I think that’s very important. That’s something that did not exist, obviously, 30 years ago when I played so that’s a key issue. The transgender student-athlete issue that falls under my wheelhouse at the NCAA and dealing a lot with that a lot of people have been asking questions about why the NCAA awarded championships in sites or states where they have those types of anti-trans laws. The quick answer to that is that those laws don’t go into effect until July 1. But the next question after that is what happens after July 1. So they’re working very, very hard on that. And that’s one of the big issues I’ll be involved in on the way out. Gender equity. And you’ve seen that play itself out with the NCAA as well, people ask questions about that. The one thing I will say is that Mark Emmert and his leadership team did a great job of dealing with that head-on, and correcting some of the inequities in real time as we went on. And so I’m one of the co-leads from the inside of the NCAA, that’s dealing with the Kaplan group who’s doing a great job. Hope to have a report out about that in July. And then another big issue is are our student-athletes employees? And maybe some of you have seen some of the jargon around Bernie Sanders, congressman Bernie Sanders, and what he may be trying to do through Congress. So there’s always been a big debate about whether student-athletes are employees, I have my own opinions about that. But we’ll work through all of those issues.”
On setting up the Tulsa Legacy Game in remembrance of the 1921 Race Massacre in Tulsa: “Well, I appreciate that. And I can’t take all the credit for that… there’s been a lot of talk about the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa that eliminated the most prominent section of African American(s), not only loss of lives, but everything being destroyed there. And it’s never recovered, having been in that city for seven years. So we wanted to bring some more awareness to it. And we started a legacy game, and they’re gonna play it every year. And it’s just a fantastic way to bring everyone together to talk about these social justice issues. And we were fortunate, because this is the 100 year anniversary, and so it’s getting a lot of national attention, but it’s gonna carry forward and I have to really thank Aaron Fletcher, who was one of our assistant football coaches there. He really had a lot to do with that. Now Aaron has left Tulsa, he’s at the University of Missouri now, that’s a name you should keep up with too, he’s going to be head coach one day. But I love coaches like that. And I love people like that. We’re so multi-dimensional in this business. A lot of people think we just do sports, but he’s just a fine example of someone who came up with a concept, a great idea. And I think that it’s going to carry on forever. And now because of my schedule, I won’t be able to go to the game probably most of the time. But I’m looking forward to it carrying on.”
On what needs to be done to ensure equality for female athletes: “Well obviously, I haven’t been here very long so I don’t want to come in and start devising a plan without talking to the student-athletes, talking to the coaches. [I] got a chance to meet Kelly (Amonte Hiller), who is a great coach, and sat with her at dinner the other night at President Schapiro’s home. But that’s another one of the things that we have to really lean in on, make sure that we have our eyes and ears open and recognize these discrepancies. And myself, I’ve always been in the middle of those issues. And I think that’s what led to me becoming the Senior Vice President of the NCAA. So just looking forward to meeting everybody and talking about a lot of those things.”
On what changed Dr Gragg’s mind to listen to Northwestern’s pitch after Polisky stepped down: “Yeah again, I talked to my wife about it. And we’ve done this a lot. But again, it’s Northwestern. And it is a position that anyone in our business would want to have. And I call Commissioner Warren too, he’s the only person outside of the family that I talked to. And he basically seconded everything that I thought about the institution about the people and everything else here. And so again, in my background, where I went to school, how I grew up, everything is very similar to Northwestern and that made me feel very, very comfortable.”
On what Northwestern athletics needs to reach the next echelon of college athletics: “As you can see, they (NU athletics) have done such a great job. And I have to commend Jim Phillips too who is a good friend of mine. We started in this business together; the things that he’s been able to get done with a lot of help. And so again, going back to the stadium, I think by and large, that’s what most people are talking about. Of course building a stadium… there are a lot of steps that go with that and if that’s the next project ready to go, we will jump into it with both feet and get it done because our student-athletes, as President Schapiro mentioned, they are top-notch, top-level and they deserve to play in the best facilities that are available so I’m looking forward to it as we go forward.”
Q&A Portion with President Schapiro
President Schapiro on the timeline in hiring Dr Gragg: “Derrick’s name surfaced; I’m looking at Craig Johnson, our Senior Vice President and Chair of the Search. And my understanding Craig, is that he was on the wish list very early. And when he was approached, he said (that) he wasn’t willing at the time to let his name go forward. So after what happened with Mike Polisky stepping down, the first thing the committee did, and the chair did was look at the people who were originally on our dream list. And Derrick’s name was there. And then we approached him again, and he said, ‘You know what? I talked to Sanya, and my family and I think I’m willing to go forward in conversations.’ And once that happened very quickly, we visited him, we fell in love and thank God he agreed to come.
“I’m very close to Commissioner Warren. Commissioner Warren is very close to Derrick. And so I knew about him. And I wasn’t surprised he had recently changed jobs and said ‘sorry, no conversation.’ And then when he was approached again, after things fell apart with Mike Polisky, He then said, you know, I’ve been thinking and praying on it. And now I think I might be willing to have a conversation not committing, nor did we commit to him. But when we visited with him not all that long ago, we quickly realized he was the perfect person.”
President Schapiro on a plan for updating Ryan Field: “We’ve invested mightily in our athletic facilities. When I came here 12 years ago, we had great coaches and great programs, but we hadn’t invested a lot. We had invested some but not all that much. And since then, along with investments in humanities, buildings, and science buildings, and social science buildings, performing arts, we got to athletics as well. There is one big project left, and that’s Ryan Field, which dates back 100 years or so. And it’s not exactly the facility befitting the stature of Northwestern, nor the success of our football program. I love Derrick when you mentioned Coach DiNardo, whom I’ve always loved, and I know that he won the SEC Coach of the Year your senior year when he won five games, but I think it’s right from your book that the preceding three years you won five (games). Well, 10 is a bad year for us. So get that, write that down. So this is a team that finished 10th in the country at 7-2, if we played a full season, I’m sure we would have won 11 (games) at least and so our aspirations are really high. And you do need the right facilities. Just look at where we are right now today.”