By Dave Ruthenberg, Sports Editor
Enid News and Eagle
The University of Tulsa’s new Director of Athletics likely knew he had to hit the ground running. If not, he soon realized it after attending his 187th “meet and greet” style event last week when he met with members of the sports media.
Dr. Derrick Gragg was named the Golden Hurricane’s new athletic director in March and officially came on board last month and there hasn’t been much down time since for the easy-going, affable Gragg.
But don’t be fooled by his calm demeanor. Gragg, who came to Tulsa after spending the past seven years as the athletic director at Eastern Michigan University, appears to have a firm grasp on the challenges at Tulsa and may be uniquely qualified to steer TU through its transition after this season from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference.
In fact, Gragg sees that right now as his top priority.
“I think that is the biggest task, along with getting out and interacting with a lot of the people that support (Tulsa), along with the community,” he said. “That, and really being one of the faces of the program. Your head coaches need to do that as well, but as the main leader of the university athletic department, I need to be visible.”
Being visible in a state dominated by Oklahoma and Oklahoma State athletics can be a daunting obstacle, but Gragg’s experience at Eastern Michigan set him up to face such a challenge.
Located in Ypsilanti, Mich., EMU’s football stadium lies a mere seven miles from the football stadium at the University of Michigan, where the Wolverines regularly play in front of 112,000 people, attract the lion’s share of media and generally take up all of the collegiate athletic oxygen. What it doesn’t use up, Michigan State takes in the rest.
That left very little press coverage for a Division I program that struggled to get 5,000 people to its football games, rarely garnering more than a paragraph or two in the major newspapers.
Despite its obvious disadvantages, the Eagles still managed to win 23 conference championships during Gragg’s seven-year tenure, though success in football and basketball continued to elude the program.
Gragg’s experience at EMU made it mandatory to understand the importance of marketing, something he plans to apply at Tulsa, which averaged 20,020 fans per game at 30,000-seat H.A. Chapman Stadium in 2012.
“Having a marketing director that will focus on attendance and on promotions, rather than having to piecemeal everything is important,” Gragg said.
Winning and barnstorming
A major advantage Gragg will have over his last stop, however, is the fact Tulsa has been a winning program in football for the past several seasons, having won Conference USA divisional titles four times in the past seven seasons, including winning the conference title in 2012 and defeating Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl.
“We’ve won a lot here at TU and so I think we have to remind people that we do win a lot and there is a great product here,” he said.
Getting the word out beyond Tulsa still may be a challenge. At the “meet and greet” with sports media, the only non Tulsa-based media present was the Enid News & Eagle. Tulsa radio, TV and newspapers were all in attendance. However, conspicuous by its absence, was The Oklahoman newspaper.
Gragg plans to use several methods to spread the word.
“I think social media is big these days,” Gragg said. “You have to use resources like Facebook and Twitter to get the word out.”
A little barnstorming may be in the future too for Tulsa under Gragg.
“Sometimes you just have to go where (the people) are,” Gragg said. “We are talking about doing some of those barnstorm things across the state.”
New conference home
But an immediate task will be getting the word out about Tulsa’s new conference affiliation.
After several years in Conference USA, the Golden Hurricane will be joining the new American Athletic Conference in 2014. The AAC essentially will be made up of former Conference USA programs and the remnants of the old Big East.
“We’re going into a new conference and we’re elevating where we are,” Gragg said. “We need to reach people and explain to them why it’s different.”
Tulsa’s decision to leave was not unexpected once Conference USA started losing schools like Houston, Memphis, UCF, East Carolina, SMU and Tulane to the AAC (at the time it still was the Big East before the basketball-only schools left and took the name with them). Continuing in a conference that was bringing in schools like Old Dominion and Charlotte made little sense, while joining a conference where most of its rivals were heading that also included Cincinnati, UConn and Temple made more sense. Navy also will be joining the AAC in 2015.
“It was the right time to move on,” Gragg explained. “You continue to build the rivalries with Houston, SMU and Tulane — like-minded private institutions — and adding Cincinnati and UConn is going to be very exciting.”
Upgrading the competition
He also hopes to upgrade Tulsa’s non-conference football schedule by enticing larger programs with two-for-one or even three-for-one scheduling agreements where Tulsa may travel twice or three times in a series in return for a home engagement. He also mentioned possibly mixing basketball and football scheduling.
“We did that at Eastern Michigan,” he said. “We knew for instance Michigan State needed a football opponent and we packaged that with a home game for us and a basketball home game. We did that with Purdue too, the only problem is we beat them in basketball at our place and they probably don’t want to do that again,” he laughs. “That’s one of the risks of doing a deal like that. But here (Tulsa) we have been competitive against Arkansas and had that win over Notre Dame in football (a 28-27 win at South Bend in 2010), so we should be able to build upon that.”
Football the driving force
And while basketball is certainly a component of the athletic landscape, Gragg recognizes football is the driving force.
“Let’s look at conference alignment for what it is, it is football-related,” Gragg said. “I don’t know how much discussion there was about basketball or any other sport to be honest with you when the conferences started switching memberships. Obviously you have to have a focus and attention on that ... men’s and women’s basketball provides a lot of exposure and they’re revenue producing ... but 70-80 percent of any revenue within the athletic department comes from football.”
Gragg, 43, a married father of three children ages 19, 16 and 12, played football at Vanderbilt and spent three years in athletic administration at Vanderbilt, then at Missouri, followed by another three years at Michigan and then six years at Arkansas where he rose to Deputy Athletic Director under Frank Broyles before going to Eastern Michigan. He earned his doctorate in higher education administration at Arkansas in 2004.
While arriving with a solid pedigree, he also may be just the tonic Tulsa needed in the wake of the unseemly demise of its last athletic director, Ross Parmley, who was dismissed when it came to light he was involved with a bookmaker and had made payments to the bookmaker. It was a black mark for the private university that prides itself on being the little guy (Tulsa’s total enrollment of 4,092 is the lowest of any NCAA Division I football-playing school) who gets it done with integrity.
“It was important that my philosophy was in line with the university president (Steadman Upham),” Gragg said. “It feels a lot like my alma mater, Vanderbilt.”
Gragg proudly points out 59 of Tulsa’s approximately 400 student-athletes carried a grade point average of 4.0 last season and the school has won 49 conference championships across all sports since 2005. There has also been surprisingly little turnover in head coaches. At Gragg’s last stop at EMU he hired 10 head coaches in seven years.
Bill Blankenship will be entering his third year as Tulsa’s head football coach. One of the newer head coaches is former Kansas hoops standout Danny Manning who will be entering his second season as Tulsa’s men’s basketball coach.
‘Feels like home’
Gragg believes the time was right not just for Tulsa to move to the AAC, but was right for him to move on as well.
“At Eastern Michigan we were very competitive, but with less resources than others in the Mid-American Conference and people had to respect us and we were able to gain the respect that wasn’t there prior,” he said.
“It was a great run, but it was my time,” Gragg said. One of his accomplishments was the construction of an indoor practice facility, something he believes is important for Tulsa as well to continue to be successful.
“We want to win,” he said. “I like the entire feel of the city. I am from the south (Alabama) and lived in the Midwest. This feels like home.”