CLOSE

Kamala Harris, Oprah Winfrey are just two notable alumni from historically Black colleges and universities. Here’s how HBCUs have changed over time.

USA TODAY

INDIANAPOLIS — Derrick Gragg rolled into Nashville in a Ford Mustang with his full-ride football scholarship to Vanderbilt. His mom Glenda Malone says she can only imagine how good he was feeling as he pulled up on campus.

He’d been heavily recruited as a wide receiver, one of the top 25 high school players in Alabama, by prime SEC schools. Auburn and Alabama were knocking at his door. But an animated talking to, a stern word and a foot put down by Malone and he’d chosen Vanderbilt, where academics would come first and football second.

On his recruiting trips, his mom would take him to the airport and let him go to the schools alone. When he went to Vanderbilt, Malone drove him up there, stayed the whole time and even sidled her way into the coach’s office when he offered Gragg the scholarship.

“He said I picked up the man’s pen and handed it to him,” Malone says, chuckling. “I don’t really remember doing that, but I bet I did. Because he was an athlete who, to me, was a student first.”

A student who would land on that Nashville campus in the late 1980s and realize his Mustang was overshadowed by BMWs and Corvettes. An athlete who would navigate a college career on a predominantly white, wealthy campus, sticking with a core group of Black players on Vanderbilt’s football team.

Derrick Gragg knows what college athletes face as a former football player for Vanderbilt. (Photo: Derrick Gragg)

Together, they called themselves “DaFellaz.” They were, Gragg says, “defeated gladiators, African American males who survived” on that campus.

“Vanderbilt, it was a culture shock for a lot of us. I call our class guinea pigs, the 12 of us were the biggest class of African Americans,” said Gragg, the NCAA’s new chief diversity and inclusion officer. “We called ourselves the grand experiment.”

Vanderbilt football had never had a dozen Black players on its team. After those 12 men went through, Vanderbilt and other schools in the SEC started recruiting more Black players.

Gragg and those fellow players were pioneers. Young men who together would make their way in a world of Black among white.

Those men would go on to great success; among the group are an NFL player who won a Super Bowl ring, a hospital CEO, a dentist, a colonel in the Army.

Gragg would forge success in college athletics administration, becoming the first Black man in many of his roles.

He was at Tulsa in 2020, the first Black athletic director at that school, when the call came in for a job he says would change his life.

‘About to lead a movement’

Gragg was vice president and director of athletics at Tulsa and had been talking to Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren about possibly making a move there.

About the same time, Warren, the first Black commissioner of the Big Ten or any major sports conference, had been asked by NCAA president Mark Emmert for some help.

The NCAA was looking to fill a high-profile position centered on diversity and inclusion. Warren agreed to be on the search committee and mentioned to Gragg that the post was open.

That was in May. Less than a week later on May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed in Minneapolis while being arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit bill​.

“That’s when everything in the social justice arena really began to pick up,” said Gragg, 51. “The job went from improving diversity and inclusion to one that would become the most impactful throughout college athletics and higher education. To me, it took on a different meaning.”

The NCAA represents 1,100 schools. So many students and athletes he could touch. He could truly change lives, Gragg thought.

“If you are fortunate enough to get this position, that job in Tulsa will be the last job you had,” someone told Gragg on his final interview for the NCAA position. “You are about to join, to lead a movement.”

After more than two decades in college athletics administration, Gragg began as the NCAA’s senior vice president for inclusion, education and community engagement in October. His role, as he sees it, covers so much.

“The one thing I always say, ‘I represent the underrepresented,'” he said. “That’s obviously people of color, women, people with disabilities, our international student athletes, our LGBTQ(IA+) community. I want to see people from underrepresented populations get more opportunities for success.”  

IndyStar’s interview with Gragg took place before the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments began and before outcries from women basketball players regarding inequity among their weight rooms, exercise equipment, gifts and food quality compared to the men.

IndyStar reached back out to Gragg for comment on the matter, but the NCAA said Thursday it had hired a law firm to conduct an independent equity review of all its championships. Neither Gragg, nor any other NCAA employee would be available for comment on the matter, the NCAA said.

But during IndyStar’s interview with Gragg, he made clear that women were a major focus in his new role.

“I want to be a champion for women, for people of color, for all those underrepresented groups,” he said. “I want to see more women coaches and administrators, more coaches of color. I want to see fairness and educate athletes on inclusion. When I no longer am in this role, I want to look back and be able to see all that I have done to advance those groups.”

Mother, son pioneers

A woman, Gragg said, was and still is the most prominent person in his life. Glenda Malone was a trailblazer who helped integrate Butler High School in Huntsville, Alabama.

Butler was one of Huntsville’s first public high schools to integrate, beginning in the spring of 1964 with two students. In 1965, Malone went in with about 30 other students and did her part. 

“Of course, they didn’t want us there. The school was plastered with rebel flags,” Malone said. “At any rate, I learned to deal with different people than I had ever been dealing with before.”

Gragg said his mom downplays the gravity of what she did.

Derrick Gragg with his mother Glenda Malone. He said Malone has been one of the biggest influences in his life. (Photo: Derrick Gragg)

“You can imagine the experience that she had back then and it was one that was fairly traumatic as you can imagine,” Gragg said. “She was a pioneer. It really helped build who she was and me coming behind her being a pioneer myself a lot of times. Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve either been the first or one of the first African Americans to hold my position.”

In addition to his job at Tulsa, Gragg was athletics director at Eastern Michigan and served in various leadership roles at Arkansas, including deputy athletics director. He also worked at Michigan, Missouri and Vanderbilt.

Those who knew Gragg as a youngster, said his mom, saw all of his success coming.

Growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, Gragg was a responsible, mature kid long before he should have been.  His two brothers would always tell their mom: “He won’t do anything bad even if he wants to.”

For Gragg’s kindergarten play at the end of the school year, his teacher assigned him the role of Dr. Quiz.

“And I said, ‘How did you come up with this?” Malone said she asked the teacher. “She said, ‘Girl, if anybody’s going to be a teacher in that class, going to be a professor or a doctor in my class, that’s Derrick.”

When Gragg graduated from elementary school, Malone noticed he was the only Black boy to make the honor roll every single six -week period.She asked him what he felt about that.

“He said, ‘I feel like I’m going to be at Harvard,'” Malone said. “‘Whatever they’re going to do OK, but I know what I’m going to do.'”

And so it went. At Lee High School, Gragg was involved in all sorts of things. He was crowned Mr. Lee High School his senior year, he was on the yearbook staff, he made stellar grades, he was vice president of the student body his sophomore and junior years.

Malone, a lifelong educator in the public school system, bought each of her three sons a card table. The family couldn’t afford those big wooden oak desks and there wasn’t space in their tiny rooms anyway.

“We weren’t rich people. We lived OK. We never lived below the poverty line,” said Malone. “I did the best I could with the money I had in our situation.”

Dictionaries and sets of encyclopedias filled their home. Schoolwork came before anything else.

“In order to play football or basketball or baseball, run track, whatever they were doing. In order to do that, you had to produce As and Bs,” said Malone. “If you get a C, that’s average. If you are average, you need to set your average behind right there and you don’t need to play football in my estimation.”

Academics, Gragg said, that’s how his mother groomed him.

But sports, that was his father’s love.

‘You are going to be a great man’

Gragg started playing football, basketball and T-ball at age 7. His father Phillip Turner, not his biological father but the man who raised him, instilled that love of sports.

“The man who raised me is the strongest man I’ve ever known,” said Gragg. “He was the one who really loved sports.”

When Gragg was a sophomore in high school, his dad’s kidneys began failing; Turner was told he had six months to live. He would live 17 more years, never once missing any of Gragg’s home college football games.

As a three-sport athlete in high school, Gragg was thriving. But it soon became clear football was where he shined.   

Clarence Sevillian met Gragg shortly after he drove that Mustang onto campus.  The two came to Vanderbilt as competitors, both wide receivers trying to earn a starting spot. They quickly became friends off the field, along with the other Black players. 

People have to remember, Sevillian said, while those men are great successes now, they were college students then and they wanted to do college-guy type things.

“Derrick was the responsible and more mature one back then. He was the father of that group,” said Sevillian, president and CEO Of McLaren Bay Region Hospital and president of six hospitals in the system’s north region. “He would always pretty much keep us in line.”

If they needed advice, it was Gragg they would go to. His advice was always solid.

Gragg says his success comes from many things, but among the biggest is the guidance from his parents. They never focused on race; they  talked only about possibilities.

“They would tell me ‘You are going to be a great man,'” said Gragg. “And I was going to be able to do anything I wanted to.”

More with Gragg

Personal: Gragg is married to Sanya and they have four children ages 7, 20, 24 and 27.

Life quote: “It’s easier to reach the stars when you stand on the shoulders of giants.”  

Fun fact: Gragg was in a singing group in college named Menage. It was an R&B group, along the lines of New Edition mixed with The Temptations. He was the choreographer of Menage. “So I could dance really well back then. I couldn’t sing as well, but I could dance.”  

He’s an author: Gragg has written a book about his time at Vanderbilt and those players he bonded with. It is titled “40 Days of Direction: Life Lessons from the Talented Ten.”

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: [email protected]