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Derrick Gragg named Northwestern’s new athletic director

Derrick Gragg will begin July 1.

Long-time athletic director and diversity and inclusion leader Derrick Gragg has been named Northwestern University’s new Combe Family Vice President for Athletics & Recreation, President Morton Schapiro announced Friday (June 4).

Gragg, the NCAA’s senior vice president for inclusion, education and community engagement, will begin July 1.

Related video: Watch Derrick Gragg’s introductory press conference

“I am thrilled and humbled to join the Northwestern University family at this pivotal moment in college athletics,” Gragg said. “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.”

Schapiro called Gragg a proven leader who has a track record of success at the NCAA, where he has led diversity, equity and inclusion efforts since last fall; at the University of Tulsa, where he served as athletic director from 2013 to 2020; and at Eastern Michigan University, where he held the same role from 2006 to 2013.

Throughout his career in college athletics, Gragg has prioritized representing the underrepresented and providing a voice and allyship to people of color, women and the LGBTQ community.

While serving as the NCAA’s senior vice president for inclusion, education and community engagement, Gragg has worked to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion are reflected on all levels in college athletics. He had a dual focus on internal and external initiatives and programming.

Gragg succeeds Mike Polisky, who resigned as the University’s athletic director last month. Polisky succeeded Jim Phillips, who served 13 years as Northwestern’s athletic director before leaving to become commissioner of the Athletic Coast Conference.

“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,” Schapiro said. “After talking extensively with Derrick, it was clear that he was the ideal person for the job.”

The search process was kept confidential to ensure the ability to identify and recruit the best possible candidates, Schapiro said.

Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Craig Johnson praised Gragg’s broad experience.

“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,” said Johnson, who served as search chair. “We look forward to welcoming him to Evanston and Chicago as the newest member of our Wildcat family.”

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Derrick stood out among candidates for having lived every level of collegiate athletics.

Craig Johnson, senior vice president for business and finance

Northwestern linguistics professor Robert Gundlach will continue to serve as interim athletic director until July 1.

The Wildcats have been ascendant — athletically and academically — over the last decade. Northwestern has won recent Conference or NCAA championships in lacrosse, field hockey, women's basketball, women's golf, women's tennis, wrestling, fencing, women's soccer, swimming and diving, along with four consecutive football bowl titles. Northwestern student-athletes have set a national standard in the classroom by any measure, including the top NCAA Graduation Success Rate among FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) institutions for three straight years and a record number of Academic All-Big Ten honors in 2020-21.

The group of more than 500 student-athletes also devotes thousands of hours of service each year in support of more than 100 community organizations in Evanston and throughout Chicagoland. 

“Derrick Gragg is an extremely talented, professional and visionary leader who operates with passion and integrity,” said Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren. “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. Derrick understands the critical components of what is required to embrace and empower student-athletes, coaches, administrators and the entire Northwestern community.”

Vanderbilt University Athletic Director Candice Storey Lee has known Gragg for many years, as they are both former Vanderbilt student-athletes and colleagues in the Southeastern Conference. She said Gragg’s leadership and commitment to diversity and inclusion has widely influenced college athletics.

“Derrick is an outstanding leader who has made an incredible impact at every stop on his journey,” said Lee, who also serves as Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs. “His student-focused approach to athletics gives voice and agency to student athletes, helping them become better on and off the field. I believe his values and commitment will greatly benefit the Northwestern community.”

A former football letter-winner at Vanderbilt, Gragg said he has always valued the impact of academics on athletes. He earned a master’s degree in sports administration from Wayne State University, then his doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Arkansas. Gragg joined the Arkansas athletic department in 2000 as an associate director, and eventually was promoted to deputy director.

Gragg became Eastern Michigan’s athletic director in 2006, then was named Tulsa’s AD in 2013.

Under Gragg's leadership, Tulsa athletics made the transition from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference in 2014-15. In the first six years of Tulsa's membership, Hurricane teams won 19 Conference titles, the second-most in the league. During his tenure, Tulsa advanced to postseason competition 53 times and produced 28 All-Americans, eight CoSIDA Academic All-Americans and 1,158 American Athletic Conference academic honor roll recipients.

Gragg also helped conceptualize the Tulsa Legacy Game, designed to pay tribute to the survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, which is widely recognized as one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history. The first Tulsa Legacy Game took place last year.

He administered the development and implementation of the athletic department's strategic plan, was instrumental in securing Tulsa’s largest-ever planned gift for athletics, and facilitated the department's first all-sport apparel agreement with Adidas, tripling the amount of athletics apparel for student-athletes, coaches and staff. He also served as tournament director for NCAA DI Men's Basketball Tournament First and Second Round games in 2017 and 2019 at Tulsa's downtown BOK Center.

 “I look forward to joining an incredible roster of coaches and staff in Evanston on this collaborative mission to help our Wildcats achieve at the highest level as students, as athletes and as people,” Gragg said.

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