On March 20, University of Tulsa president Steadman Upham announced former Eastern Michigan University athletic director Derrick Gragg would fill TU's vacant AD position.
Of course, the search that landed Gragg in Tulsa began when former TU athletic director Ross Parmley was fired for his alleged involvement in sports betting with infamous Oklahoma sports bookie Teddy Mitchell last November. While Gragg may be as qualified as any of the roughly 200 candidates who applied for the job of TU's highest-ranking athletics administrator, it's clear Upham placed considerable value on avoiding past mistakes.
During his career, Gragg has experienced a substantial amount of success as an athletic director, with his former EMU Eagles amassing 22 Mid-America Conference championships during his seven-year reign. In addition to those titles, Gragg's resume also includes respectable statistics regarding student athlete graduation rates and academic progress rates.
The only concerning fact about Gragg's career at EMU, however, may be the most important in regard to University of Tulsa athletics -- dismal performance of his former school's football and basketball programs.
While Gragg's athletic programs at EMU experienced a considerable amount of success, the truth is that most of the championship programs he's overseen are in the areas of swimming and track and field.
It's no secret that in college sports, schools are largely measured by how well they perform in football and basketball. They're moneymaking events, largely filled with tradition and fan bases that rival those of their professional counterparts.
In Gragg's seven years at EMU, the school's football program recorded a dismal 18-66 record, with the best season finish being a pedestrian 6-6.
It's hardly the type of track record that will send excitement through the hearts of Golden Hurricane football fans.
As many are aware, TU's biggest area of opportunity continues to revolve around bolstering the city's interest in Golden Hurricane football and basketball. Last year's average attendance of 20,020 was the lowest its football program has seen since 2004, and as recently as February, Tulsa's H.A. Chapman Stadium was ranked the worst venue in the Football Bowl Subdivision of the NCAA by Stadium Journey magazine. While it may be difficult to believe Tulsa is that much worse than many of the 124 venues that encompass the FBS, most Tulsa sports fans would agree the university's football experience leaves much to be desired.
New Leader. Dr. Derrick Gragg introduced as TU’s Director of Althletics
COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF TULSA
On the basketball side of TU's sports spectrum, the lack of sufficient audiences has become such a concern that former head coach Doug Wojcik was fired following the 2011 season largely because of waning attendance. While former NBA star Danny Manning has garnered the support of most TU basketball fans and administrators, the issue with Golden Hurricane hoops remains finding ways to fill seats.
The hiring of Gragg is an interesting one because of these continual issues regarding TU's football and basketball programs. While Gragg may be a poster child for compliance and credibility, his history hardly suggests a guaranteed improvement to Tulsa's two most popular sports programs.
Gragg is certainly aware, however, of the daunting task he's assumed.
"We have to do a good job of becoming Tulsa's team," Gragg said Friday in a press conference announcing his hiring.
Of course, the common assumption is that the only way to ensure this is to revive a somewhat lost culture of winning. Over the last 60 years, Tulsa has been ranked in college football's Associated Press poll just four times, and in basketball the Golden Hurricane hasn't cracked the list of top teams in over a decade.
But it's clear the Golden Hurricane has no interest in becoming the next Crimson Tide -- or Sooners for that matter.
During his initial meeting with members of Tulsa sports media, Gragg outlined his demands as the school's new athletic director without a single mention of winning. Student athletes going to class, earning degrees, integrating into mainstream society and developing careers all took precedence over oft-heard ambitions of capturing titles and gaining national recognition.
"I'd rather lose than win a bunch of championships the wrong way," Gragg said.
The hiring of Gragg is bittersweet. On one hand, Gragg is an antithesis of sorts to his state counterparts, Oklahoma's Joe Castiglione and Oklahoma State's Mike Holder. It seems far-fetched to think Gragg's tenure will usher in Tulsa's version of Bob Stoops or transform average athletic programs into stables of professional caliber talent. Essentially, it seems as if Tulsa's identity in the world of college sports will remain unchanged.
On the other hand, it's refreshing to know that academics will remain a priority at TU. What makes Golden Hurricane sports special is the importance the institution places on academics and, because of this, the on-field accomplishments of the school's student athletes are made all the more special.
One thing's certain, however. The choice of Gragg will provide Tulsa University with a responsible, upstanding individual to oversee the school's athletics.
While Gragg spoke little about the transformations he hopes to make and goals he has for the university, the first words he uttered as he took the podium Friday may have been the most important and impactful.
"You can trust I will not let you down."
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