What is athletic director Derrick Gragg’s role in this tumultuous period for Northwestern athletics?

The last week of turmoil surrounding Northwestern’s football and baseball programs has thrown a spotlight on one key administrator — athletic director Derrick Gragg.

The university fired longtime football coach Pat Fitzgerald on Monday in the wake of a hazing scandal. Now, the department is facing a similar choice after accusations of a toxic workplace and problematic behavior were levied against head baseball coach Jim Foster.

What is Gragg’s role in this tumultuous period for Northwestern athletics? Here’s what to know.

How did Gragg get here?

When Northwestern originally reached out to interview Gragg for the athletic director opening in spring 2021, he turned down the opportunity — decisively.

Gragg had just been hired as the NCAA’s vice president for inclusion, education and community engagement in August 2020. After less than a year in the role, he wasn’t ready to leave. So Northwestern turned its attention to other targets, ultimately landing on former deputy athletic director Mike Polisky as their new hire.

That decision barely lasted two weeks. Polisky’s hiring earned immediate backlash due to his position as one of four defendants along with the university in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a Northwestern cheerleader.

The cheerleader said Polisky dismissed her concerns about long-term patterns of sexual harassment toward Northwestern cheerleaders and accused her of fabricating evidence. Other members of the cheer program had also informed Polisky of racially discriminatory policies and felt their concerns were ignored.

Nearly 400 people including Evanston mayor Daniel Biss marched in protest of Polisky’s hiring. Six female faculty members wrote a letter to the university provost demanding an outside investigation into the hiring process. Ultimately, Polisky resigned only 10 days after he was announced as the new athletic director.

By the time the university began its search for Polisky’s replacement, Gragg had changed his mind. Northwestern named Gragg to the position on June 4, just three weeks after Polisky’s exit.

With his new role, Gragg became the first Black athletic director in university history.

Gragg pledged to advocate for students

In the wake of Polisky’s sudden exit, Gragg pledged his commitment to listen to students on topics of discrimination and harassment to prevent future cases of abuse or wrongdoing.

“One of the things we cannot do is ignore (students),” Gragg said.

Gragg cited his own experience — both with the NCAA and as an athletic director — as keys to preventing future situations of abuse, mistreatment and wrongdoing within Northwestern athletics.

“I have a lot of investigative experience,” Gragg said. “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.”

What is Gragg’s role in football coach Fitzgerald’s firing?

By the time Gragg arrived in Evanston in 2021, Fitzgerald had already been a mainstay of the Northwestern football program for two decades since he was hired as the defensive backs coach in 2001. He had already been inducted into the Northwestern Athletics Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame.

Fitzgerald signed a 10-year extension months before Gragg’s hiring, further entrenching the presence he had been building at his alma mater since being named head coach in 2006.

Following the findings of an external investigation into reports of hazing within the football team, the university issued a two-week unpaid suspension to Fitzgerald last week. But that decision was quickly called into question following a report by the Daily Northwestern, which detailed the extent of the hazing culture that had plagued the team for years under Fitzgerald. The coach was officially fired on Monday.

The athletic director is typically in charge of hiring and firing head coaches. However, Northwestern president Michael Schill has spoken for the university this last week, issuing the original statement on Fitzgerald’s suspension and stating that he was the one to relieve Fitzgerald of his duties on Monday.

Gragg has not made a public statement on Fitzgerald’s status or the football hazing investigation. The university declined to make him available for an interview or comment on Tuesday.

Where was Gragg when the decision was made?

According to tweets from Northwestern football players Charlie Mangieri, Marshall Lang and Peyton Warford, Gragg delivered the news of Fitzgerald’s firing to the team through a Zoom call while he was out of town on vacation. Lang called it “embarrassing administration.”

Gragg returned to his on-campus office on Wednesday, according to the university.

What did Gragg know about baseball coach Jim Foster?

When Northwestern announced Jim Foster as the new head baseball coach last June, Gragg cited Foster’s “combination of on-field success and student-athlete development” at West Point as the deciding factor in the hire. He added that “the future of Wildcats baseball is exceptionally bright with Jim at the helm.”

But within months, the program had begun to fall apart. A collection of current and former players, alumni and people close to the program told the Tribune they reported problematic behavior dating back to last fall to the university, which prompted an HR investigation. Complaints of Foster’s behavior detailed to the Tribune included an intimidating workplace environment, expletive-filled tirades directed at staffers, and pressure on players to forego medical advice on injuries to maintain their roster spots.

Several coaches told 670 the Score they approached Gragg multiple times before filing the formal complaints that triggered the HR investigation.

In an HR document obtained by the Tribune, the investigation confirmed there was “sufficient evidence” that Foster “engaged in bullying and abusive behavior” and directed the duty “to take appropriate remedial action” to the athletic department. But Foster has remained in his position with no visible proof of action since the investigation.

Meanwhile, hitting coach and recruiting coordinator Dusty Napoleon, pitching coach Jon Strauss and operations director Chris Beacom left the team within the first week of the season in February.

Northwestern graduate and longtime professional sports broadcaster Glenn Geffner emailed Gragg in March and June, stating the baseball program was “in shambles” and urging Gragg to address issues relayed to him by “current and former members of the Northwestern baseball family spanning decades.”

After Foster’s first season concluded with a 10-40 record and 16 players in the transfer portal, at least a half-dozen players individually met with Gragg or other athletic department leaders to voice concerns about the coach, sources told the Tribune.

Where was Gragg before Northwestern?

Gragg was the athletic director for Tulsa from 2013 to 2020, when he joined the NCAA. Before that, he served as Eastern Michigan’s athletic director from 2006 to 2013. He previously held assistant and associate roles at Michigan and Arkansas and was the director of compliance at Missouri.

He started his career in 1993 as director of student life at his alma mater, Vanderbilt, where he was a member of the football team. Gragg holds a doctorate in higher education administration.