Dr. Daryl Gross is the face of the Syracuse University athletics department, one of the country's most recognizable programs. He's also one of only a handful of African-American athletics directors in Division I-A who guide programs with a predominantly white alumni base and student body.
He doesn't, however, consider himself a trailblazer. Not even close. As a child growing up in Southern California, Gross remembers vividly the late 1960s, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the Watts uprising happened. Many others are responsible for paving the way, not him.
"That would be an arrogant thing for me to say, there were people who were water-hosed down and sliding through the street, so I can't be the trailblazer on that one," he said. "I didn't do all that. They set up so I can come through. A lot of brothers before me blazed this trail. There's so many people who went before me. Jim Brown and Ernie Davis had to stay in different hotels than their teammates. They are trailblazers, I'm just following the blazed trail."
With the hiring of Gross last December, Syracuse is one of nine Division I-A programs led by a black man. Others include Warde Manuel at the University at Buffalo, USC's Mike Garrett, Georgia's Damon Evans, Ohio State's Eugene Smith, Hawaii's Herman Frazier and Virginia's Craig Littlepage. The same week Gross was named at Syracuse, Army hired Kevin Anderson and New Mexico State tabbed McKinney Boston. Both are African-American.
Gross, who was an associate athletics director under Garrett at USC before coming to Syracuse, won't downplay the significance of race in his job and embraces the responsibility.
"This feels good," he said. "I don't feel like this is a heavy burden. I just feel like I know I'm going to do well, so I'll represent for African-Americans. I'll tell them, 'Just follow me, watch me, I'll make it happen and I'll show you how to do it.'
"I feel good about it, I like being in this position where I can be a role model for someone. I don't feel any pressure. I think it's a great situation and a great opportunity to make things happen."
Gross leads a program that once warned black male athletes against dating white women, and where it was impossible for the athletes to rent apartments in predominantly white neighborhoods. There were groundbreaking moments, such as when Syracuse made Wilmeth Sidat-Singh one of the first documented African-American quarterbacks in the 1930s, yet there are stories about a ban on recruiting blacks that ran so deep that the school initially refused to offer a scholarship to Jim Brown.
Shortly after Gross was hired at Syracuse, he took a walk around town and bumped into an African-American man.
"He told me, 'I'm just so proud that a brother is running this place, it doesn't even make sense to me I'm so proud,' " Gross said. "He told me it never would have happened before. You go back to the history of Syracuse and when Jim Brown was playing and the coach was telling him, 'I'm not sure, you have to earn your (playing time).' But a lot of people see me and say, 'Wow, times have changed.' "
Gross, 43, comes from privilege, although he was taught early there is no substitute for education. He credits his father, James, who played quarterback and linebacker at Alcorn State in the late '30s, and his mother, Betty, for his intensity and passion. Betty has a Ph.D, James an MBA.
They told him to perform better than everyone else and not to settle for mediocrity. His parents set him to achieve.
Gross attended Beverly Hills High School, where the actor Nicolas Cage was a class behind him. Gross played with the children of Shirley Jones of "Partridge Family" fame, and he usually saw America's favorite TV mom, Florence "Brady Bunch" Henderson, pick up her children after track practice. One of Gross' best friends is "Sleepless in Seattle" producer Gary Foster.
But Gross didn't dream of a career in Hollywood. At first he wanted to be a doctor. Then he wanted to coach football.
A wide receiver, Gross was a target for future New York Jets quarterback Ken O'Brien at Division II UC Davis and after completing his degree, coached the freshman team and later the varsity while attending graduate school.
Gross left UC Davis to become a graduate assistant football coach at USC, where he worked with future NFL quarterback Rodney Peete and completed his graduate work.
After working three years as a scout for the New York Jets, Gross went back to USC in 1991 as an assistant athletics director and quickly became known for identifying top coaching talent.
Gross recommended that USC hire NFL reject Pete Carroll as its football coach in 2000 and the Trojans have won the last two national championships. USC's 2005 team is again ranked No. 1 and has the potential to become one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport.
Gross also lured women's volleyball coach Mick Haley, track and field coach Ron Allice and water polo coach Jovan Vavic to USC and all won national championships. He was responsible for the hiring of Rick Majerus as the men's basketball coach, and when Majerus pulled out of the job for health reasons, Gross landed NBA coach Tim Floyd. On Gross' watch, USC produced 15 national championships and 30 Pacific-10 Conference titles.
After that, it was off to Syracuse, where he made the difficult, but necessary, move to replace longtime football coach Paul Pasqualoni with Texas assistant Greg Robinson.
He's using an athletics budget surplus left by Jake Crouthamel to spruce up the aging Carrier Dome by adding new artificial turf. There's a new 11,000-square-foot football facility under construction that includes a state-of-the-art weight room. He wants Syracuse to become a more identifiable brand name nationally so the school's logo was changed from an interlocking "SU" to a solid "S."
Gross honored Brown, Davis and Floyd Little by retiring No. 44.
When he first arrived, someone told Gross committees and meetings had to be set up to make changes.
"Just tell me where the icebergs are when I'm driving the ship," Gross said. "But don't tell me to stop the ship and wait for one of them to melt. I don't have time for that. Tell me where they are so I can maneuver around them."