ATHENS — As she stood inside Stegeman Coliseum last Friday night, watching the Georgia gymnastics team open its season with a win against Missouri, Senior Deputy Director of Athletics Darrice Griffin got a bit emotional about what she was witnessing.
It wasn't the GymDogs' victory that so touched her. It was that she was seeing them compete at all 10 months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down their 2020 season last March.
"We know that for our student-athletes, competing is what keeps them going," Griffin said. "It's their passion and it's their love, so to finally watch them do what they've been training so hard for, and in such different and difficult conditions, to finally watch them have those moments of celebration in front of fans, against someone other than the GymDogs, was really satisfying. If for no other reason than there was joy for them having that moment."
Earlier this month, Griffin, the Deputy Director of Athletics for Administration since coming to Georgia from the University of Massachusetts in 2017, was promoted to Senior Deputy Director of Athletics, taking over for Josh Brooks, Georgia's new athletic director following the retirement of Greg McGarity at the end of 2020. UGA president Jere W. Morehead said she was "a rising star" in college athletics.
"She is widely respected for her intellect, her keen understanding of current NCAA and SEC issues, and her strong management skills," Morehead said. "I have relied on Darrice to serve in a number of important roles not only in the athletic department but also at the university level. I value her wise counsel and am delighted that she is serving as Senior Deputy Director of Athletics."
For Brooks, having Griffin right there by his side as he takes over as athletic director is invaluable.
"It gives me confidence to come to work every day knowing that she's on our team," he said. "Darrice's leadership and expertise are invaluable to this department as we continue to attack every opportunity and challenge."
Being the No. 2 person in the UGA Athletic Association, and working as the sport facilitator for Georgia's powerhouse football program, is a long way from where Griffin started in her professional career.
After graduating with cum laude honors from Texas Tech, where injuries cut short her basketball career, Griffin started working in athletics at Columbia University in 2009, serving as Director of Women's Basketball Operations and Special Projects. Columbia, in New York City, a world apart from her hometown of Seagraves, Texas, has a much smaller athletic department than Georgia's. Because of that, Griffin was required to handle tasks inside and outside of the basketball program.
It was a life-changing experience. Griffin had gone to Columbia uncertain if she wanted to pursue coaching or working in athletic administration. She found her answer pretty quickly.
"I was Director of Basketball Operations by day and kind of helping with administrative items by night for our two senior leaders in the department," she said. "What I picked up on very early was this desire to want to help the entire organization and to reach beyond just one program. At the time, Columbia was doing some strategic capital projects for the soccer programs, so I was like, I want to help the soccer programs.
"It was very early on in my time there and it was this realization that I wanted to have a broader impact, and I wanted to help all of our coaches and all of our student-athletes accomplish their goals in our academic and athletic pursuits."
After two years working with women's basketball and other projects, she was promoted to Associate Athletics Director for Intercollegiate Sports Program, and she was on her way. In 2015, she went to UMass, serving as the Senior Associate Director of Athletics for Internal Operations/Senior Woman Administrator, before Georgia brought her to Athens two years later.
Georgia women's basketball coach Joni Taylor met with Griffin when Griffin interviewed for the job, Taylor said, "and I knew then that if she chose to come that we were going to be in great shape."
"She is so smart, she's the smartest person in the room, and she always wants to be able to listen and feel and understand, assess, and then she makes a quality decision and a sound decision," Taylor said. "When you're in the times that we're in, and even when you're not, it's so valuable for us to have someone with a basketball background, being not only our oversight (sport facilitator) but just helping make decisions when it comes to basketball because they have a feel and played the game and have been around it."
Among Griffin's many strengths is her ability to communicate with staff, coaches and student-athletes alike. You know she's listening, you know she's present and engaged.
"There's always a touching of the soul when you encounter her, from the standpoint of you know she's genuine and authentic. And if she asks you how you're doing, it is not a passing question," said Robert Miles, Director of the Life Skills Program at Georgia.
Listening and communicating well are very important to her, Griffin said. Paying attention to how you communicate is something she first picked up at home from her mother, Tami Wilson.
"I think it's a combination of nurture and nature," Griffin said. "It is very much my mom's style — she was always very present and very articulate and thoughtful and measured about how she parented us. ...
"I've always tried to live and work by 'seek to understand before you're understood,' so I want to conduct myself in a way with my communication that empathy rules, and that people feel heard in our engagements together."
The depth of that level of communication and understanding has been particularly valuable in the past 10 months, first with the pandemic and all the changes and challenges it wrought, as well as with the rise of the social justice movements across the country and increased attention to diversity and inclusion within the University of Georgia and the athletic department. Griffin has been at the forefront throughout, serving on various committees and helping shape the way forward at UGA.
"When the pandemic started in March, and there were so many challenges and unknowns, she stepped up and took on many responsibilities to help lead the Athletic Association during this time," Brooks said. "Darrice has an extremely bright future and we are fortunate to have her on our team!"
Said Taylor: "She has led a lot of the things that we've had to do during the time of COVID, during the time of the human crisis that we're in. She is the one who has had her head down, been meeting, disseminating information to us, helping make decisions at a very high level."
Griffin said she was very thankful to Brooks for his leadership and friendship since they started working together in 2017.
"I wouldn't be here without him," she said.
As much as Griffin enjoyed being at that gymnastics meet last Friday, seeing Georgia coaches and student-athletes compete and excel — it "is my jam and I love it," she said — it's often in the more quiet, low-key moments that she finds the greatest satisfaction in doing her job.
"It's a random Tuesday night when you're working through an issue and you're trying to help a coach process a difficult conversation, or a student-athlete prepare for a difficult conversation with a coach," Griffin said. "Saturday morning practices with women's basketball, when nobody's around and they're making the most progress as a program during the offseason when no one's watching and the lights aren't on.
"Those moments are probably the most special to me. I think it helps you build the most meaningful and lasting relationships with people."