On list of Northwestern questions still unanswered: Where is AD Derrick Gragg’s leadership?

Does Gragg have any real authority over the football program, or does that authority quietly reside, as some insiders indicate, with the board of trustees and the school’s preeminent benefactor, former insurance magnate and billionaire alum Pat Ryan?

SHARE On list of Northwestern questions still unanswered: Where is AD Derrick Gragg’s leadership?
Northwestern athletic director Derrick Gragg during a men’s basketball game at Welsh-Ryan Arena in 2023.

Northwestern athletic director Derrick Gragg during a men’s basketball game at Welsh-Ryan Arena in 2023.

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The NCAA and the University of Tennessee reminded us Friday what good, old-fashioned wrongdoing in college football looks like. Found to have committed hundreds of violations under former coach Jeremy Pruitt, the Volunteers were put on probation for five years and now face a hefty reduction in scholarships and other recruiting penalties, will have a whole mess of wins vacated from the record books and are on the business end of more than$8 million in fines. Good ol’ Rocky Top. God bless the SEC.

But just because there’s a new scandal in college athletics — isn’t there always? — don’t mistake that as meaning Northwestern has been relieved of its prominent position in the current news cycle. The long road from the Evanston lakefront to the end of this sordid mess is only beginning.

Longtime football coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired last weekend amid the public outcry accompanying a hazing scandal — hazing he claims he knew nothing about — and he won’t be going quietly. He had a monster contract at over $5 million a year through 2030 and still wants to get paid. To that end, he has retained powerful attorney Dan Webb, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, and threatens to sue — inevitably, perhaps — for breach of contract and tear open cans of worms that can only be imagined.

The university’s administration and its board of trustees have to be worried about Webb, who made his reputation decades ago by taking down Cook County judges in “Operation Greylord” and by getting Ronald Reagan’s former national security adviser John Poindexter, an admiral in the U.S. Navy, convicted during the Iran-Contra affair. Webb has represented so many heavy hitters — individuals and corporations alike — in litigation since then and become such a heavy hitter himself that this is kind of like hiring Paul Bunyan to prune the birch trees in your front yard. “Go Cats!”? Not anymore. “Go Cash!” Goodness, yes.

Fitzgerald wasn’t the only coach sent packing. Hard-driving baseball coach Jim Foster was fired barely a year after being hired for his alleged mistreatment and mismanagement of players and others in and around the program. Foster was hired by athletic director Derrick Gragg, despite a questionable track record that included a Rhode Island player dying after a 2011 team workout when Foster was coach there and a contentious end to his time as coach at Army.

According to reports, Northwestern investigated Foster’s conduct in Evanston without speaking to players at the heart of complaints against him — and all that happened before the Wildcats took the field in 2023 and went a preposterously bad 10-40. This was Gragg’s guy?

“This has been an ongoing situation,” Gragg said in an official statement, “and many factors were considered before reaching this resolution. As the director of athletics, I take ownership of our head-coaching hires, and we will share our next steps as they unfold.”

Yet Gragg himself has been a blatant non-sharer from the first day of the current football saga, an invisible, silent actor — or non-actor — as matters proceed ostensibly on his watch. Asked before, but again: Is Gragg in any position to lead a legitimate coaching search? Does he have any real authority over the football program, or does that authority quietly reside, as some insiders indicate, with the board of trustees and the school’s preeminent benefactor, former insurance magnate and billionaire alum Pat Ryan?

Perhaps the only person who ever loved Northwestern more than Fitzgerald is Ryan, who made a $480 million gift in 2021 intended in large part for an all-out recreation of Ryan Field. Which is not to be confused with Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Ryan Center for the Musical Arts, the Ryan Hall Center for Nanofabrication and Molecular Self-Assembly or the Ryan Atrium on Northwestern’s downtown campus. Ryan is Northwestern, and Northwestern is Ryan. The rub between the board and the administration — and where, or if, Gragg fits in all of it — as Northwestern football fights for its life in a conference in which it already struggled to compete will be fascinating.

For the longest time, Ryan — former chairman of the board of trustees — was a major Fitzgerald supporter and champion. But Ryan, who owns a significant chunk of the Bears, still has stadium dreams. The battle to move that $800 million plan forward in the face of opposition from parts of the Evanston community, and at a time when the Wildcats could be as uncompetitive as ever on the field, could be difficult and ugly.

What about alleged victims of hazing in football? What about aggrieved parties in baseball? Might any of them proceed with legal claims?

Efforts to reach Gragg continued to be unsuccessful. Beleaguered president Michael Schill continues to avoid interviews, too.

But none of this is going away. There’s just no hiding from it anymore.

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