Northwestern AD taking new role as strategist navigating NIL, more

Northwestern athletic director Derrick Gragg will be leaving his role to oversee athletic strategy for the university, focusing on name, image and likeness and other major initiatives.

Gragg, who has served as Northwestern's athletic director since June 2021, will become the school's vice president for athletic strategy after his permanent replacement is hired. He will remain athletic director until then and will advise university president Michael Schill and others on the search. The new athletic director and Gragg will work together in certain areas, while both will report to Schill.

Gragg told ESPN that he began discussing the role with the university in recent weeks, noting the massive changes in college athletics and the need to address areas such as NIL, potential athlete unionization/employment, conference realignment and gambling. He said growing revenue and NIL will be his priorities, and praised TrueNU, Northwestern's NIL collective being run by former football player and staff member Jacob Schmidt.

"I wanted to be able to help the university move forward in the new era of college athletics," Gragg said. "These departments are going to have to expand some and have to look at expanding differently. I don't know if the traditional athletic director is going to be able to do all of these things. It's a good time for the institution to be on the front end of changes."

Gragg added that he will be available to the new AD, but that person will maintain the department, including coach and staffing decisions.

Northwestern is still dealing with the fallout from the summer of 2023, which included allegations against both its football and baseball programs, and criticism for both Gragg and Schill. Longtime football coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired in the wake of hazing allegations, after initially being suspended for only two weeks without pay. A university-commissioned investigation largely corroborated the allegations but did not find evidence Fitzgerald knew about them. Fitzgerald in October filed a $130 million wrongful termination lawsuit against Schill and the university. More than two dozen former athletes have also sued the university for hazing and mistreatment.

Three days after Fitzgerald's dismissal, Northwestern fired baseball coach Jim Foster amid allegations of bullying and abusive behavior. Foster coached the 2023 season despite a human resources investigation into his behavior toward players and staff members. Northwestern is soon expected to release the findings of inquiries into the athletic department's culture and its accountability mechanisms, led by former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

In announcing Gragg's new role, Schill referred to the hazing investigation, saying Gragg, "helped us recover and set the stage for a new era of excellence."

"We are thrilled that Derrick will bring his vast expertise and institutional knowledge to this new role," Schill said in a statement. "Derrick will be instrumental in helping Northwestern navigate the emerging opportunities in intercollegiate athletics and the rapid transformations underway."

Gragg told ESPN that the past year has been among the most challenging of his career, but that he's proud of the way Northwestern athletes, coaches and others have responded. Interim football coach David Braun led the team to eight wins and a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Utah, and became permanent coach in November. Northwestern also made consecutive NCAA men's basketball tournament appearances for the first time, and its teams won seven conference titles.

"I'm really proud of our student-athletes," Gragg said. "This could have gone in a totally different direction. It shows the resiliency they have as a group."

Gragg came to Northwestern from the NCAA, where he served as senior vice president for inclusion, education and community engagement. He previously had been athletic director at Tulsa and Eastern Michigan.