Derrick Gragg remembers Vanderbilt lagging behind in football when he played there more than 20 years ago.
Now he is taking notes from his alma mater.
Four months onto the job as Tulsa’s athletic director, Gragg recently returned to Nashville, his wife Sanya's hometown, for a family vacation. He took the opportunity to tour Vanderbilt’s multi-purpose indoor facility, which will open for the football team in October.
“At some point that will be a hot topic of discussion for [Tulsa] obviously. So I wanted to see what they were doing,” Gragg said at Conference USA Media Day in Dallas last week. “The program has progressed so far from when I played there 20, 25 years ago. I think it is very similar. It is a small private institution in a large, metropolitan city just like Tulsa is. So I do look at that program. I like James Franklin and I like what he is doing.”
Gragg played wide receiver for the Commodores from 1988-91. He was roommates with Corey Harris, who held the school’s single-season rushing record until Zac Stacy surpassed the mark two years ago.
Watson Brown, now the head coach at Tennessee Tech, recruited him but Gragg, 43, says he owes a lot to Gerry DiNardo, who arrived his senior season.
“He really, really was a lightning rod for me and helping me even come back to Vanderbilt and be employed there,” he said. “So I really owe a lot of my career, especially in the early stages, to Gerry DiNardo.”
Gragg’s athletic administration career started in 1993 when he was hired as an academic counselor at Vanderbilt. He quickly earned a promotion to director of student life in the athletics department. In 1995, he moved on and worked at Missouri, Michigan and Arkansas, where he earned his doctorate in higher education administration.
He has spent the last seven years at Eastern Michigan, where he led the charge for a multi-purpose indoor facility and was named the Black Coaches & Administrators (BCA) Administrator of the Year in 2008-09.
Gragg, a native of Huntsville, Ala., relishes the possibilities at Tulsa, which has been to eight bowl games since 2003.
“It is exciting,” he said. “I love challenges, and everybody involved in our business … we’re competitors. I wanted to be somewhere that was, No. 1, an academically sound institution. That’s very important to me. That is part of my makeup. Then just the success they have had in sports, it is very exciting for me and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
While success on the field was limited, Gragg remembers his days at Vanderbilt fondly.
He is in the early stages of writing a book, “Talented Ten,” about a group of his former teammates and their endeavors after college. Harris played 12 years in the NFL and won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. Carlos Thomas received his doctorate degree in business administration from LSU. Clarence Sevillian is the CEO of a hospital in Michigan.
“I met some of the greatest guys you could ever imagine,” Gragg said.
That core group never won more than five games in a season. In fact, Vanderbilt won a total of five games during Gragg’s first three seasons.
To see Vanderbilt coming off a historic nine-win season, therefore, makes him proud.
“We just couldn’t compete on that level when we were there” he said. “To be able to see them go into SEC stadiums and really have great opportunities to be successful there, I think now they’ve opened a lot of people’s eyes and shown it can be done there. Twenty-five years ago we had some elite players but we didn’t have the depth some of the other SEC schools. So it is good to see things come into balance.”