Exactly 89 days have passed since July 7, when former Northwestern football head coach Pat Fitzgerald was given a two-week suspension following an investigation by Maggie Hickey of ArentFox Schiff.
In that span of nearly three months, the school fired Fitzgerald due to accusations of hazing and racism; relieved former head baseball coach Jim Foster of his duties after reports surfaced of an abusive culture, and hired Ben Greenspan to lead the program; has seen lawsuits filed against it by athletes in almost every sport; and has attempted to turn the page to its 2023 fall seasons.
At the helm of such institutional decisions and all Wildcat teams is athletic director Derrick Gragg, who became the subject of scrutiny and denouncement — even publicly from members of NU athletic teams.
With Northwestern’s homecoming this week and nearly halfway through the 2023 football season, Gragg sat down exclusively with Inside NU’s Bradley Locker and David Gold to reflect on his decisions and conversations this summer, searches for head coaches in several sports, previous reports about his own professional interests and Northwestern’s foreseeable athletic future. This article marks the fourth interview with Gragg since the firing of Fitzgerald, and first with student media.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Inside NU: How would you assess the general student sentiment around athletics with everybody back on campus, three weeks into the school year so far?
Derrick Gragg: Well, first of all, after a very distressing and challenging summer, it’s been so great to have everybody back on campus. I’ve been getting the same remarks from professors on campus that I’m in contact with — we had a board meeting a couple of weeks ago. I want to credit our student-athletes for their collective resilience, because they’ve been through a lot. But, I think student interest in our events is up. We appreciate that, and we appreciate the students. I want to thank the students, the way they rallied around the student-athletes. Record attendance at volleyball games, record student attendance at women’s soccer. We had 700-plus students at a women’s soccer game last week, and I think our highest attendance before that had been about 150. So, we recognize that, and we want to continue to recognize that. We actually did a pregame event for all the students and faculty that people partook of while they were here. So, we want to continue to do things like that, to bring students…
Just to comment on [the ticket system] too: I want to credit [Associate AD for Marketing and Fan Engagement] Daniel Nunes and our marketing team, because they’ve been working a lot to come up with different creative ways to meet the ticket demand from the students, so that’s a great problem to have. Every system is not perfect, as you know. So, we’ll continue to tweak the system as we go along, because we want to make sure that we reward the most passionate, dedicated students first. We don’t want our system crashing like it did last year. So, we’re trying to avoid that. And then, we want to provide much more exposure to some of our other great sport programs that some students just aren’t accustomed to attending. And that’s why we put the system in place, and that’s what’s [driven] the attendance in some of our other sport programs. It’s working good so far. We know we have some complaints. We’ll continue to monitor those. We’ll continue to take feedback, and we’ll continue to tweak it as we go along.
INU: Was there ever any consideration to expanding the student section in Welsh-Ryan Arena, including the second tier right above what’s been the traditional student section?
Gragg: We talked a lot about that. We did expand the student section, but at some point, you still have to make sure you take care of your patrons, your season ticket-holders, those who we’re counting on to help with our revenue generation, too. So, I think we’re still going to look at expanding it a bit more for this season, as well. We’re going to try to do everything we can, because there’s huge demand. We don’t want to turn anybody away, and that’s another thing that we’re trying to do as we continue to implement this system.
INU: Have you noticed a shift in donors or alumni sentiment toward athletics since what’s happened over this summer?
Gragg: We’ve had great donor support. We always have. We’ve been able to rely on the alumni, the families and the donors here for many, many years. I think that that’s going to continue. We just finished the Combe Family Tennis [Center] indoor facility, and that was based on great donation from a lot of our alumni donors. So, we haven’t seen a drop-off as it relates to that. Everybody knows how committed the Ryan Family is to the institution, and to the Ryan Field project. Right now, we’re hoping to continue that. We also completed our field hockey turf project; we completed Blomquist [Recreation Center], which was closed down all summer. We’re moving ahead with some of those things.
We’re also excited about being able to renovate the softball facility, and we have great donor interest in that right now, too. That’s been introduced to the board in this past meeting, and we look forward to moving ahead with that project as well.
INU: Would that be an expansion of seats? What would that renovation look like?
Gragg: Some expansion of seats, and just the remodeling of the entire complex. That’s a great championship program, and we believe in ensuring that our student-athletes be able to compete in the best facilities possible. That’s what we’re driving toward with that project.
INU: Is there any rough timetable for that yet?
Gragg: No, not yet. But obviously, we want to be able to complete it as soon as we possibly can.
INU: Speaking of the Ryan family, were there conversations with the Ryans about the decisions made this summer before those were made, in order to make sure that donors and everyone were aligned with the decisions the University was making?
Gragg: Obviously, we have a lot of communication with the Ryan family. I meet or talk to someone within the family, mainly Pat Jr., probably every week or 10 days. So, we keep in close contact. We’re also on a committee together that oversees the stadium project, so we’re in regular communication. They remain very committed to the university and the project.
INU: What’s your relationship been like with members of the football team, some of whom openly criticized the decisions you made on social media, and were public with that criticism?
Gragg: I’ve said this before: any leader in a position like this has to understand scrutiny and criticism are going to come, whether it’s from inside or outside the organization. What I ask is that people at least respect the decision-making processes. A lot of discussions go on when decisions are made like this.
Regardless of the criticism, I’m a former student-athlete. This is my 30th year doing this. I’ve spent my entire adult life, almost every day on a campus since 1988 when I went to Vanderbilt and played football. So I understand it, and I empathize with them because there was a coaching change made going into my senior year. It was far less scrutiny than this; social media didn’t exist back then, obviously. This is far more public, and it’s unorthodox because of the timing of it. In a regular change cycle, with coaches, it would happen late-November, December. But this happened, by and large, just a couple of weeks after some of these student-athletes were just coming here to start practice. I empathize with them, and that’s why we’re being sensitive to that. We’re trying to be as responsive as we can, and we’ll continue to do so.
With people on the outside of the organization, the factions or the different opinions...the one thing we want everybody to do is to rally around the student-athletes, because they deserve it. Right now, they’re competing very well. We expect and look to get back to 3-3 this week. We’ll be off a week, and then we go into the last six games with a fighting chance with all of our goals right ahead of us. That’s what we’re looking to do.
INU: You promoted a coach who had never coached at the FBS level in David Braun. What have you seen from him from when he stepped on campus in January, to becoming an interim head coach in July, to now?
Gragg: First and foremost, he’s a competitor. I won’t get into what he says in the locker room, but he’s usually spot-on with what he says postgame, with what he says pregame. He has really rallied the team to stick together under very adverse circumstances. He’s also done a great job of keeping the staff together. What we’re looking at is, student-athletes between 18 and 22 years old. And, all of a sudden, their lives have changed drastically. For him to be able to manage that, there’s a lot of emotion there. You have to deal with the parents, and keep the team on track, to continue down this road of success that I think we’re on. It’s really been very positive. He came from a program that produced national championships; he was [FootballScoop’s] Coordinator of the Year on that level. So he’s not accustomed to losing, and I think he’s responded very well.
INU: Have you talked to members of the athletic department, President Michael Schill or Braun himself about removing that interim tag, and what would the head coaching search look like?
Gragg: We’re right at the initial stages of it. I’ve talked to David Braun about it, but I won’t share too much publicly about the search right now.
INU: You also made the decision to hire Ben Greenspan as the baseball head coach. What did that process look like, especially so late in the hiring cycle to get a standout candidate?
Gragg: We talked to the current players, and we talked to alumni. I wanted to talk to some of the younger alumni in particular about what their thoughts were. We decided at the end of that, that it’d be best to forge ahead with a search. We got tremendous response right off the bat. We talked to some of the best head coaches and assistant coaches in America. We used DHR International as the search firm to assist us with that process. Ben Greenspan comes highly recommended. Very accomplished. He’s a Big Ten guy through and through. He was the captain of the baseball team when he was at Indiana. He was on the coaching staff that took the team to the [College] World Series. He was at Michigan, and he’s been at Arizona State, so great deal of experience. The student-athletes have responded to him very well.
I also want to point out that we hired Rachel Stratton-Mills as our director of swimming and diving. She’s one of only a handful of women that’s ever been placed in a position like that with a combined program. She comes to us from Arizona State, and was one of the top assistant coaches in America. As everyone knows, great programs like this are built on the backs and shoulders of great coaches, and I think those two fit in very well with the great staff that we have here now.
INU: Some of the players and recent alumni seemed like they understood that assistant coach Brian Anderson was going to be the head coach moving forward. Can you walk us through why you decided not to promote Anderson to full-time coach, and if you feel there was adequate communication with the players and others associated with the program?
Gragg: Obviously, with who we chose and looking at the entire pool, including Brian Anderson, we wanted to make sure that we got the most experienced person as possible, so we really feel like we got that. [Greenspan] is a great fit. Again, he’s a Big Ten guy. He has 15 years of experience.
As it relates to what’s communicated to student-athletes or other people, when you do these searches, you have to keep confidentiality at the forefront, so you don’t want to share a lot of things. It would be great to be able to. Years ago, there used to be more searches that maybe included one or two student-athletes, but because of the advent of social media and all the ways information spreads, that’s been fairly limited as we moved along. I think we had a great process, and search firms helped with that too.
INU: You mentioned search firms. Will a search firm be used as well for the head football head coaching search?
Gragg: We will have a search firm for that. Again, I don’t want to talk a whole lot about the football coaching search.
INU: Jim O’Donnell of the Daily Herald reported that you had been instructed not to hire a search firm. Is that correct?
Gragg: That’s incorrect. We have enlisted a search firm to help us and assist us with the football search.
INU: The previous baseball head coach, Jim Foster, was technically relieved of his duties and placed on indefinite suspension. Are you able to comment on whether or not he has technically been fired yet?
Gragg: No, I’m not able to comment on anything regarding the past baseball coach.
INU: 670 The Score reported that boosters were more involved in hiring Coach Foster than the athletic department had alluded to originally. Is it true that these boosters had a bigger say in hiring Jim Foster?
Gragg: No, that’s incorrect. Any time you hire a head coach, most prudent athletic directors seek guidance and advice from alumni, former players, and that was the same thing that we did with Ben Greenspan. At the end of the day, the athletic director makes the call on who gets hired.
INU: Speaking broadly about the baseball team, the turnover that’s happened and not a lot of success in the last few years. What would you say your relationship has been like with the members of that organization?
Gragg: That’s a great question. Let me ask you. What do you think? What are they saying?
INU: Players were definitely unhappy with the lack of communication, at least in the chance that we had to speak to them. One player said that the department was “functioning right now with the sole purpose of keeping mouths shut,” so a strong comment there.
Gragg: I think when you’re making decisions and trying to move programs ahead — we haven’t been to but one NCAA Tournament in baseball, and that was in 1957. So, we wanted to make sure getting a second chance at that, we got it right. We didn’t want to spread a lot of information out there, that would get out there and basically make candidates afraid of being involved in the search process. I think Coach Greenspan is doing a great job of communicating. He has a lot of touches with those guys, and he’s doing what he needs to do as the head baseball coach. I think they’ll rally around him.
INU: The day Jim Foster was relieved of his duties, the transfer portal closed at midnight for baseball players. Did that looming deadline change your decision? Maybe speed up the process more than you had originally intended to?
Gragg: No, that wasn’t taken into effect. Once you make changes with coaches, there’s another 30-day window that opens up.
INU: Another sport that had hazing scandals this offseason was volleyball. You made the decision to give head coach Shane Davis an extension in Dec. 2021. University spokesperson Jon Yates confirmed to us, and the public, that Davis was suspended in March of that season for a hazing incident. Were you aware of that suspension when you granted him an extension?
Gragg: I’m not going to comment on anything regarding Coach Davis. The volleyball team is off to a good start. They just beat a ranked team. We want to make sure that we keep that going and help support our student-athletes.
INU: What is the plan going forward for football assistants that were retained through the 2023 season?
Gragg: I think everybody on staff, that’s the staff who want to be here employed. The decisions regarding employment will be made after the season.
INU: In a more macro sense, now that three months have elapsed since the start of July, would you say you regret anything you handled this summer, or any decision that you made?
Gragg: The situation became so litigious, so quickly. I wish, in looking back, that we would have been able to get more information out publicly. That’s probably the one thing. But, what we did was, we focused a lot internally on trying to make sure that we had all the systems in place in everything we needed to move forward with our student-athletes. That’s what we focused mostly on, and I’m glad we did that. But, I wish maybe in the beginning, we could have gotten more information out.
INU: In retrospect, would you have liked for the full Hickey investigation to have been released to the public?
Gragg: I can’t comment on the report. I don’t want to go down that road.
INU: There are other ongoing investigations in the athletic department, with football associate head coach Matt MacPherson and Loretta Lynch. Are you able to share any updates or timeframes for those?
Gragg: Loretta Lynch and her team from [Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison] met with our entire head coaching staff, all our head coaches and our leadership team a couple of weeks ago. I think that went very well. She laid out the timetable. These are reviews — these aren’t investigations. I would stress that, and so we welcome that.
We’ll be looking a lot at reporting systems, looking a lot at culture. I think it’s a great opportunity for our coaches and everybody else who’s involved with it to talk about the way that they’ve built success here. We have a very close-knit group of coaches. A lot of them have been here for 10, 15, 20 years. They’re very tight and are willing to support us as we move forward. We’re looking forward to having more dialogue with that team.
INU: In the midst of athletic controversy, did you ever personally worry about your job security as athletic director of Northwestern?
Gragg: I think when you’re in this position, I wouldn’t say worried about it. You always know that when decisions are made on this level, you have to be prepared for scrutiny, criticism, backlash or the fallout. I’ve been involved in many situations during the course of my 30-year career, but I have a compliance background.
I believe in doing things the right way. The one thing that I can say is with that background, I learned a long time ago to act with integrity, do the right thing, receive information, report it to the right authorities. That’s what we’ve done in all these cases, so I stand by that.
INU: What were your conversations like with President Schill during the summer about your job status or your plan of action?
Gragg: I wouldn’t get into any of the conversations that President Schill and I had. Those are private conversations, but he’s been very supportive.
INU: There’s little question that, despite the scandals of the summer, Pat Fitzgerald is one of the most decorated players and coaches in Northwestern Athletics history. What is the school’s plan moving forward to recognize Fitzgerald, if at all?
Gragg: We haven’t had a lot of discussion regarding that topic. I wouldn’t want to touch on that in this article.
INU: The Daily Herald reported that you have shown interest in Washington’s vacant AD position. Is there any validity to that?
Gragg: No, that’s incorrect. I haven’t been contacted by whoever the search firm is, who’s handling that. I’m sure a search firm is handling it. I haven’t reached out. I also think that they said that my contract was two-and-a-half years. That’s also incorrect.
INU: Would you like to share how long your contract is?
Gragg: No, but that’s incorrect.
INU: Northwestern’s deal with Under Armour has been in place for 12 seasons. What’s the status of the school’s partnership with the brand? Are you able to disclose any conversations you’ve had with Under Armour or any other outfitters?
Gragg: Obviously, we’ve had a great partnership with Under Armour. We appreciate the partnership that we’ve had. It’s a long-term partnership that will be reviewed in the upcoming year on both sides. We’ve been very pleased with having them as a partner.
INU: This summer, the Big Ten will expand from 14 to 18 schools. Are you concerned at all regarding travel for non-football athletes, who may have to venture across the country multiple times per week?
Gragg: That’s been a big topic of conversation, as you can imagine. One of the main things is to transition into the new Big Ten. Right now, we’re working a lot on scheduling models. We have a joint group meeting the week after next, starting with next Sunday, where all those things will be discussed.
Obviously, we want to make sure that we always ensure that our student-athletes are safe and that their well-being is first and foremost. Working on models to make sure that we support them and keep maintaining our academic excellence in particular, because everybody knows that that’s one of our foundations here.