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Athletic Director In Residence: Dr. Derrick Gragg – Tulsa

By Dr. Derrick Gragg

Dr. Derrick Gragg, Vice President & Director of Athletics at Tulsa, goes into depth on a number of topics including the differences in leading a department at public vs. private institutions, the importance of disengaging periodically, and his thoughts on the Vice President title for an AD. On the topic of the future of the AD role, Gragg mentions the importance of engaging and listening to current Student-Athletes.


You’ve been an AD at both a private and public institution. What are the key differences aspiring administrators should take note of when reviewing opportunities? What are the pros and cons of each that may often get overlooked?


From my experience, there are several key, significant differences in working within athletic departments at public institutions and those at private institutions. One of the most significant differences is how laws regarding privacy and state “sunshine” policies are applied. Although everyone should be extremely careful with written correspondence (e.g., text messages, email, etc.), it is much more difficult for media members and others to obtain important documents and written communication from private institutions.


Many public university Athletic Directors, coaches and university officials are constantly and routinely requested to submit their correspondences to the media and other members of society who request the information (I remember those days well!). This can be very distracting and lead to less written, documented information. Personally, I prefer written communication because it creates a documented record of conversations, plans, concepts, and other important information that one can always refer to, especially when/if conflict arises regarding past conversations. Written correspondence also provides pertinent facts that are often lost in translation during conversations and help alleviate confusion and ambiguity.


Oftentimes the size of private and public institutions are much different as it relates to the student body, alumni, institutional staff, and governing bodies. Private institutions such as Tulsa, Rice, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and Wake Forest have far less students who attend those respective institutions, therefore, the alumni bases are smaller as well. This sometimes makes it more difficult to have large numbers of students attend athletic games, less alumni to provide financial support, and less alumni returning to campus to support the institution after graduation. Many larger public institutions have football stadiums that seat between 70,000-100,000 people or more, thus, the revenues generated at those venues far exceed those generated at many smaller, private schools. Private institutions such as USC and Notre Dame that have more national/global reach are not as challenged in this area.


From my experience it has been less difficult to collaborate with other units/departments on private campuses simply because there are less staff members at those institutions. For instance, when I served as the Director of Athletics at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), a public school, 15 or more people served on the President’s Cabinet. At Tulsa, we have 9 Presidential Cabinet members. Conversely, there tends to be far more members that make up governing boards at private institutions. For example, at EMU, there were eight (8) university Trustees but at Tulsa we have nearly 50. Thus, ADs at private institutions oftentimes must interface with far more Trustees, which can make building consensus much more difficult at times.


Lastly, the educational aspects of private institutions tend to be an “easy sell” to prospective Student-Athletes, their parents, and other family members, however, I have found that private institutions have sometimes been labeled as elitist and inaccessible by members of the community. Therefore, we have very focused intentional community service programming for our Student-Athletes to ensure that we have a connection with a wide range of community members. I along with other staff members also work hard to stay connected to those outside the university.


Your title includes “Vice President.” Does having the added VP label give you more credibility and/or leverage when negotiating relationships on campus? Should the VP title be an “ask” for any AD candidates involved in a search?


I do feel that the title of Vice President is significant in higher education because Athletic Directors play critical roles on their respective campuses and in the communities in which they live. Oftentimes the Athletic Director is the most visible, most sought after person serving on a President’s Cabinet, other than the President him/herself. Yes, in my opinion, ADs should seek the Vice President title, however, I do not think that an AD who is a Vice President is viewed more credibly or has more leverage when negotiating relationships on campus simply because of the title.


Regardless of title, Athletic Directors face opposition on campus simply because of the roles they play. Of course, this is nothing new as there have been critics and adversaries towards athletic programs since they were introduced on college campuses during the 1800’s. Therefore, to gain credibility and/or leverage on campus, the Athletic Director must immerse oneself in the culture and fabric of the institution and serve as the ultimate team player. Athletic Directors must regularly show interest in entities outside of their respective athletic departments by attending campus related events, serving as panelists for important campus-wide discussions and serving as guest speakers in classes just to name a few. I do feel the doctorate I earned years ago does tend to add credibility, especially with faculty members. Many faculty members I encounter respect my academic credentials, and that I have taught many graduate classes and have published articles and a book. However, I do not feel that the Vice President title I hold is viewed as significantly.


What are three ways you see the role of Athletic Director materially changing over the next, say, 10 to 20 years?


First, I believe that Athletic Directors must have more open, direct dialogue with their respective Student-Athletes. Many of us do this quite a bit already, however, ADs will have to interact even more with the Student-Athletes. I first observed how important direct interaction with the Student-Athletes was during my tenure at the University of Missouri working for Joe Castiglione. Joe set a standard by attending EVERY one of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) meetings during that two-year period we were together. I was very surprised by this because during my time as a Student-Athlete at Vanderbilt from 1988-1992, I do not recall having an opportunity to engage with the AD in a team setting or private discussion because that was simply not part of the culture of college athletics at the time. However, in today’s higher education culture, Student-Athletes are empowered and have a significant voice both collectively and individually. ADs must engage with, and listen to them much more directly than in the past.


Secondly, I feel that Athletic Directors and university officials will be forced do more extensive research on assistant coaches and other potential staff members than in the past. I was trained by my mentors to make sound head coaching hires and allow the head coaches to have full control of who they hire as assistant coaches. However, going forward, I think thorough vetting and extensive background checks for assistant coaches will become much more important, especially considering the recent situation related to men’s basketball.


Lastly, I think that Athletic Directors will have to immerse themselves even more into technology and Social Media in future years. In a time where it is becoming more and more difficult to fill football stadiums and arenas due to the large number of sporting events that can be seen on television or mobile phones and other devices, ADs have to engage constituents as often as possible. We have to be in tune with our respective target markets (especially students, younger alumni, and members of society) and “meet them where they are.” In the past, I have been reluctant to participate on Social Media platforms for various reasons, but I now understand how vitally important and helpful technology can be for our program. ADs such as Greg Byrne, Scott Stricklin, and others were ahead of the pack this area. By the way, add me on Twitter @DrGragg_TU and please check out my new joint Facebook page with my wife Sanya: Doc G Andme!


What tactics do you & your senior team employ to ensure strong mental health for your entire staff? On a personal level, what do you do daily or weekly to achieve a balanced body & mind?


Strong mental health and a balanced mind and body are critical for athletic administrators on any level. As everyone knows, we deal with stressful, anxiety-filled situations constantly; therefore, I strongly encourage and insist that our staff members take time away from the office both physically and mentally. Once, I made the mistake of working an entire year as an AD without taking any time away from the office and found it to be the worst year of my professional life. I was mentally drained from the month of October through the following academic year and vowed to never repeat that again. Since that time I have been much better at getting away and “staying” away. Of course, ADs are “on call” 365 days a week, 24 hours a day and must respond to certain people and situations no matter what, however, I have learned that it is definitely possible to strike a balance while being away from the office and still being available during those times.


Other senior staff members also often feel that they are “on call” as well, however, I definitely encourage them to attempt to totally disengage while away and only respond to extreme circumstances and/or emergencies. As one of my past supervisors once told me, “This athletic program was established 100 years ago and I’m sure it will still be here when you return in 10-14 days.” I have established this philosophy with my staff as well. I call it detach, disengage, and unplug. Getting away from the office is really not effective when one stays connected/plugged in the entire time while on vacation. Whether you travel during your time off or stay home, definitely avoid the office at all costs if possible. There is nothing worse than returning from vacation to feeling like you have never actually left the office. Of course if staffers are overwhelmed to the point that they are putting themselves in danger mentally or physically, I encourage them to seek professional assistance through our campus professionals who are trained in those areas.


On a personal level, I regularly try to carve out 30 minutes to an hour of “quiet time” each day where I make it a point to have focused thought, to regroup and reorganize my mental energy. I also focus more on reading articles and books that are not sports-related. Like nearly everyone reading this, I find that it is difficult to work out as much as I would like, however, we must all commit to some type of steady, consistent workout regimen. Stressful situations occur routinely in our field, therefore, try not to add to that stress by avoiding regular exercise. Yes, I’m eating a big bag of chips as I finish this up, but I do plan on running it off tomorrow!


During the academic year, I also encourage others to incorporate family life as much as possible into your everyday hectic lives. Whatever you do, DO NOT DISENGAGE from your families no matter how time-consuming and overwhelming your job may be at times. Have your family or significant other bring dinner the office so you can be with them before evening events. Make time to attend most of your children’s events; because, remember, you will never get that time back. I have found that attending school events and youth sport games where you can relax and enjoy competition without the pressures of winning can be very therapeutic.


Setting goals is part of the planning process for any athletic department, but setting the right goals is the real objective. Can you give an example or two of goals your team discussed, but decided weren’t quite the right ones?


During my career I have learned that having great vision is extremely important. I have also learned that adapting to the realities of one’s environment and culture are just as critical, therefore, setting the right goals is extremely important. During my first year at Tulsa, one major goal we discussed was constructing a multi-purpose indoor practice facility. We realized that because of the type of ledge stone incorporated into the majority of the buildings on the campus, facility costs would be more expensive than similar indoor structures.


The costs of building an indoor multi-purpose practice facility was approximately $30 million as opposed to much lower costs of such facilities on other campuses. The location for the proposed facility was also viewed as controversial to several Trustees and other constituents because the original proposed site is a large grassy area that students have used for recreation for decades. Although student use of the area has decreased drastically over the years, some older alumni and Trustees have emotional ties to the area because they spent large amounts of time there during their time as students. The second possible site that was discussed would have eliminated the our soccer practice field and it is located a bit too far for football Student-Athletes to walk while in uniform.


After more discussions and planning, we decided to shift our focus to a less expensive project that is just as critical, a Student-Athlete Development Center that includes a much larger, up to date academic center and an expanded strength and conditioning facility. The cost is between $12-15 million rather than $30 million. Remember, there is certainly nothing wrong with altering goals mid-stream to fit the current environment.


Another goal we set that had to be altered was preserving all 18 of our sport programs when the university transitioned from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference. We were able to maintain all of the programs the first two years, but because of university-wide budget reductions and other financial challenges, this goal would not be possible to maintain. Therefore, we were forced to eliminate our men’s golf program. Sport elimination is always the last option athletic administrators want to consider or implement because such cuts directly affect the Student-Athletes who participate in those sports and commit to their universities. I certainly empathize with athletic departments that have to make the tough decision of cutting sport programs.


How do you prepare to meet with a potential high net worth donor for the first time? Who preps you on the individual’s background, occupation, interests, etc.? Do you commonly do any additional research?


The best way to prepare to meet a high potential donor is to RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH! The Associate Athletic Director for Development routinely prepares me on the individual’s background and other pertinent information. First, I receive background material via email or in hard copy form for review. I then have a follow up conversations with the Associate AD and possibly anyone else who has previous experience with this person to ensure that we are on the same page regarding strategy and topics to discuss with the potential donor. During one briefing session, I recall someone mentioned that the potential donor always made comments about how professional executives should wear charcoal gray suits. Of course I wore a charcoal gray suit when I met with him the first time. (Always remember the “small things.”)


In addition to the information I receive from the Associate AD, I always do additional research to see if I can locate any important information that is not included in the original donor profile. Technology makes this type of additional research less difficult to obtain than it was in the past. I try to know and memorize as much information regarding the person, their interests and family members, etc. This shows the potential donor that you are thorough, prepared, and most of all interested in them personally as opposed to just being concerned with their resources. I also cannot express how important it is to listen closely during discussions without dominating the initial meetings with potential donors. Ask questions that will allow you to learn more about them and have them talk as much as you do or more. During my first year at Tulsa, in the first discussion I had with one of the university’s most influential donors, I learned that his mother was a Student-Athlete and alumnae of one of my Alma Maters. I did not know this before the discussion, but I could tell that the discovery made him feel very comfortable with me early on. Research, research, research and listen.


If you could give one brief nugget of wisdom to young athletics administrators, what would it be?


Humble yourself and remember that the Student-Athletes are the primary focus. So treat them with the same respect that you expect from others. Lastly, keep everything in perspective and always remember that there are some things more important than your job. Don’t miss out on life giving your all to your career.