Analysis: Putting together a call list for Northwestern's Athletic Director opening

Northwestern is looking for its fourth athletic director in four years.

Derrick Gragg is being re-assigned to a brand new position in NU's athletic department. The Athletic cited sources saying this was a way for NU boosters to push Gragg out of the leading role without firing him. Gragg will still have a hand in NIL and decision-making.

Ever since Jim Phillips departed to run the Atlantic Coastal Conference as its commissioner, NU hired Mike Polinsky who resigned after 10 days following allegations stemming from a sexual harassment lawsuit from a NU cheerleader. Northwestern then scrambled and hired Gragg, the NCAA's senior VP for inclusion, education and community engagement.

Now, with the university doing its best to sell Gragg's move as a re-assigment as opposed to a demotion, NU needs someone who understands the NIL landscape and can finish the major capital project of the $800 million renovations at Ryan Field while also having the grace to navigate multiple ongoing scandals that still follow the university in the past year, the biggest being the Northwestern football hazing scandal that still follows the university. 

The good news is Northwestern has its most important coaching hires in place after Chris Collins took the 'Cats to its second-straight NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history and David Braun shook off the interim football coach tag following an eight-win season capped with a Las Vegas Bowl title.

Northwestern just needs someone to lead that program.

The last two candidates Northwestern hired as its athletic director were sitting athletic directors at their previous institutions. We’re going to assume finding a candidate with prior AD experience or a lengthy resume in athletics would be a trend that NU continues, especially as the university is still navigating its multiple scandals.

Here are seven candidates we've compiled into a call list for Northwestern’s athletic director opening:

Derrick Gragg speaks during his introductory news conference as Northwestern athletic director on June 7, 2021. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Travis Goff - University of Kansas Director of Athletics

In terms of a search party, this would be a swing for the fences. Goff has been outstanding as Kansas’ AD, so much so that he earned a hefty raise on May 30th when KU inked him to a new seven-year contract through 2031. Still, Goff worked at Northwestern from 2012 to 2020. He knows the University and is well-respected. It would take a lot to get him to depart Lawrence, however.

Chris Reynolds – Bradley University’s Director of Athletics

Speaking of ADs with Northwestern ties, Reynolds, who has done a magnificent job in Peoria reviving the Braves' men’s basketball team and other programs after taking over in 2016. He came to Bradley from Evanston, after serving as NU’s deputy director of athletics and recreation. On a national level, Reynolds has earned his flowers after he chaired the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee during the 2022-23 season. He’s well-respected.

Allen Greene – Tennessee’s Senior Deputy Athletics Director/Chief Operating Officer

Greene might not be a sitting AD, but he was one previously. Greene was the AD at Auburn for five years from 2018 to 2022; before that he was the AD at Buffalo from 2015 to 2018. He’d bring extensive experience and a knowledge of the Midwest thanks to his educational background. He’s a Notre Dame graduate and an alum of the Irish’s baseball team.

Steve Watson – Loyola University’s Director of Athletics

An option just a few miles south on Sheridan Road is Watson, who runs Loyola’s athletic department. He’s been in Rogers Park since Nov. 2014 and has led the Ramblers to some consistent success, including a transition from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Atlantic-10, both conferences Loyola can claim regular-season men’s basketball titles This includes Loyola’s Final Four run in 2018. He has a focus on academics, getting Loyola to rank in the top two in the nation in Graduation Success Rate in 2017 and 2018, tying for first in both years.

Sarah Baumgartner – University of Texas’ Executive Senior Associate Athletics Director for Sports Administration

Baumgartner is a Wheaton, Illinois, native, played softball at Illinois and was a senior associate athletic director at Rutgers. She knows the Big Ten well, and the consensus is that she has been ready for an AD job for years. There are not many candidates that have a resume as long as Baumgartner’s, as well as someone with an understanding of the Big Ten that's had the chance to lead plenty of high-level projects.

Sean Frazier – Northern Illinois’ Director of Athletics

The last time Northwestern hired an AD from Northern Illinois, it worked out rather well. Jim Phillips was hired from NIU, and he led NU for over a decade. Frazier has been leading the Huskies athletic program for over a decade, and he’s found consistent success for NIU football. Frazier has been recognized for his abilities, too. In 2023, he was one of five finalists for the Sports Business Journal’s Athletic Director of the Year honor. Also in 2023, Frazier was named third vice-president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.

Jesse Marks – Northwestern’s Deputy Director of Athletics & Assistant Vice President

The last time Northwestern had an AD opening, interim AD Janna Blais was one of the four candidates who were reportedly finalists for the job. Marks, who has been with NU since 2021, is far from a consolation choice by any means. He was instrumental in getting NU to OK its temporary lakeside field for the next two years. With much of NU athletics still needing to heal, turning to someone who has familiarity with the university would be a good idea.

Who fits the best?

When considering the best fit, Travis Goff, who took over for Jeff Long at Kansas, cleaned up the mess left behind by former football coach Les Miles and oversaw renovations at Kansas' football field, would be someone that NU could trust to lead the program into the future. However, his price tag might be too high. 

Baumgartner is considered a rising star. Her expertise with capital projects cannot be ignored, as well as her experience in the Big Ten. Someone like Baumgartner doesn't have the resume and reputation she does for no reason. She's ready to lead a department. That's if the department decides to look outside of Evanston. If not, elevating Marks, who has done plenty for the university behind the scenes, would be the right move.


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