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Northwestern Athletics Needs To Fire Athletic Director Derrick Gragg Yesterday

What are we even doing here?

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress / USA TODAY NETWORK

Hello readers. It’s Wednesday of Illinois Week here on B1G 2023 and I have yet to contribute to The Discourse. I promise I’m not done yet.

But there is actually an Illini-related tie-in to this opinion, which I would think uncontroversial: Northwestern still has more housecleaning left to do, starting with athletic director Derrick Gragg.

We’ve covered the firing of longtime head football Coach Pat Fitzgerald already, but you can’t tell that story without talking about how badly the situation was botched by Fitzgerald’s superiors.

Ahead of the publication of a summary of their investigation, Northwestern football’s power brokers convened, calculated what they would have to do to punish Fitzgerald enough to quell public outrage based on how much the public could find out, and then announced that punishment on a Friday afternoon. They grossly underestimated their own journalism school, and Saturday’s Daily Northwestern story with more details and accounts of the hazing generated even more testimonials, partially inspired by outrage at the leniency of Fitzgerald’s punishment.

Gragg and university president Michael Schill were then compelled to fire Fitzgerald on Sunday. They changed course not because they learned new information, but because the public was made aware of the information. It’s the same vibe as when the NFL gave former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice a light suspension after seeing the video of him punching out his fiancée in an elevator, but then toughened up once the public saw the video. It broadcasts a lack of integrity and every day Gragg and Schill remain employed by Northwestern will make things worse.

Precedent Down South

I brought up Illinois because we’re only eight years removed from the Fighting Illini, with interim university administrators after some scandal-fueled resignations, fired their head football coach just a week before the season started. Similarly, this coincided with the release of a summary of an internal investigation into allegations made by a former player of a hostile and abusive culture. For Illinois, the culture was head coach Tim Beckman’s total negligence of his players’ health, encouraging players to play through injury, trying to run the medical staff to his players’ detriment and shaming injured players. Former lineman Simon Cvijanovic publicly talked about how Beckman had handled his situation, and recruiting tanked while the investigation was on-going. Cvijanovic was slandered as a loser who just wanted to get back at Beckman for how he handled his playing career by making things up.

Illinois went through the 2015 season with an interim coach and the same athletic director Mike Thomas, whose first action as AD had been to fire Ron Zook and install Beckman. Obviously, there would have to be a coaching search, but it would be led by the man who hitched his wagon to the coach he just fired for cause...or so we all thought. Thomas was fired in November just hours before the full report was released.

That left Illinois with an interim president, chancellor, athletic director and head coach heading into the College Football Coach Hiring Season, and sure enough this motley crew drew up a two-year deal for Bill Cubit to be the head coach.

Believe it or not, this also inflamed old tensions between academics and athletics and ignited the question of “should Illinois simply go D3 in football if they’re not going to try?”

Illinois lost a whole recruiting cycle trying to hire someone to hire a head coach. They tried to throw tons of money at Colorado’s Rick George, an Illinois alum who was also an assistant coach under Mike White. He didn’t want that mess. AD Josh Whitman has been successful, but at the time he was both highly unproven and also the only option our interim administration really had. Illinois has been very lucky that Whitman turned out to be good at this job.

Whitman of course immediately fired Cubit and hired Lovie Smith. While Smith would prove not to be the solution, the early part of his tenure was somewhat doomed anyway due to being hired in March to take over a roster that would be undersized and barren in his second year.

The Fires Grew Beyond His Capacity

The same weekend, Northwestern’s baseball coach, who has been wildly unsuccessful, was also accused of fostering a hostile environment for players. He fired back by saying, almost verbatim, that those players are just mad because they suck.

Northwestern’s players were informed of the termination of their head coach in a team meeting. Gragg joined by Zoom. There is literally nothing more important that he could have been doing than managing this five alarm debacle. I guarantee you that every player in that locker room resents him now for not being personally present during this extremely important moment for their careers. If it’s not his responsibility, whose is it?

It is a very different job than most Power 5 AD gigs, in no small part because Northwestern is rightfully protective of their brand as an academic institution first. Academics at Northwestern are now calling to de-emphasize athletics in the wake of the Fitzgerald scandal. He and Chris Collins had seemingly been the perfect avatars: successful enough to make noise Northwestern isn’t accustomed to, and squeaky-clean enough to ward off concern about what athletic success might do to NU’s academic rep. This, by the way, recontextualizes the PR work Jim Phillips did as Northwestern’s AD.

How can anyone trust Gragg and to a lesser extent Schill to navigate the aftermath? Does anyone really want these people picking the next Northwestern football coach? The most intelligent move has been to turn over control of the program to newcomer David Braun, who should be empowered to run off any Fitzgerald dead-enders, whether they be coaches or players, immediately. There’s not really any other way they can clean out that particular culture. Nevertheless, there is simply no way for Gragg to regain public trust. Northwestern’s would-be boosters are notoriously risk-averse and won’t touch NU athletics while he remains.

Northwestern can’t rebuild from this dumpster fire until they extinguish the flames and take out the trash. What are we waiting for?