Inside Leadership: Derrick Gragg

June 2, 2016

This article first appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of Athletic Management.

In 1988, Vanderbilt University welcomed a football recruiting class that included more African-American players than ever before. Many were economically disadvantaged and initially struggled at the affluent and predominantly white school. But they bonded and supported one another and most went on to highly successful careers.

Derrick Gragg, Vice President and Director of Athletics at the University of Tulsa, was one of those players. Without a blueprint for how to succeed at Vanderbilt, Gragg says the young men forged their own path and figured out how to overcome the obstacles they faced. A few years ago, Gragg became inspired to write down what they had learned together so he could impart it to today’s student-athletes.

The result is Gragg’s book titled 40 Days of Direction: Life Lessons from the Talented Ten. In it, he connects a lesson to a member of the group, which includes CEOs, a decorated military veteran, and a Super Bowl champion. The advice ranges from making choices, to avoiding negative influences, to breaking cultural barriers, and each chapter challenges readers to reflect on their own lives. It was published last fall and Gragg has done book signings in Memphis, Nashville, and San Antonio, with future stops planned for Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York City.

Here, Gragg explains why a busy NCAA Division I athletic director spent many late nights writing at his computer and what he hopes the wisdom of his former teammates and lifelong friends can mean for today’s generation of athletes.

Why he wrote the book

Throughout my career, I’ve talked to groups of and individual student-
athletes about leadership, life lessons, and general do’s and don’ts. Obviously, there are many student-athletes I don’t come in contact with, so I thought the book would be a good educational tool for those outside my reach.

Second, I went to college with some extraordinary men. All of these individuals are very special, and they’re the reason I am who I am today. I wanted to spotlight them and give others a chance to learn from them.

The other reason I wrote the book is that a lot of its lessons are things I’ve been telling my two teenage sons since they were young. Although I had a fantastic stepfather, my biological father was not influential in my life, and the book is a way to reach student-athletes in similar situations today.

The most important message

Sometimes the younger people I talk with on campus think I was born this way and just ended up in my position. They don’t understand everything I had to do to get here. But they can’t understand where I came from unless I tell them, and sharing that is a big part of leadership. The book tells the stories of all these guys, who came from different places and situations, and shows how they accomplished so much.

Beyond student-athletes

The life lessons are really for anyone. For example, the chapter about belonging applies to people in the business world the same as it does to athletes. The chapter about not allowing other people to step on your dreams with their negativity can relate to almost everything in life.

I’m also hoping to reach parents, guardians, teachers, and coaches. I want to show how they can influence young people and offer them some talking points to use when mentoring the current generation.

His thoughts on racial issues affecting college campuses today

My mother racially integrated a high school in Huntsville, Ala., in 1965, so I know firsthand how much progress we’ve made, but there are still a lot of bridges to cross. One thing we have to focus on is male African-American graduation rates, particularly among student-athletes.

Research shows that the more integrated students are in mainstream campus life, the more likely they are to graduate and be successful. So a college athletic director has to be involved with everything going on around the campus, which is why I requested to be a Vice President here. That ensures I sit in on big decisions that have an impact well beyond athletics. If you want athletes integrated into the campus, you have to make sure athletics is integrated into it as well.

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