Cats Corner: Unsung Heroes: The Darby Effect

Lawrence Price, Reporter

Cats Corner is introducing a new audio series, Unsung Heroes. We’ll hear from individuals involved in Northwestern athletics, who you may not see in many articles, nor on the field, court, or track, but definitely make an impact on the team’s success. We sat down with Darby Dunnagan, the director of Player Development for Northwestern football, to learn more about what she does for not only the team, but the people that look up to her as well.

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LAWRENCE PRICE: When you think of your favorite sports teams, who comes to mind? I’m assuming it’s the athletes? For some more hardcore fans, maybe you think of the coaches? But what about the people working off the field, doing so much of the work without any of the hype? Well, that’s all about to change. Today, I’m introducing a new series on Cats Corner called Unsung Heroes, highlighting all of the people inside Northwestern athletics who are making it happen for the ‘Cats behind the scenes.

Our first hero without a cape is football’s Director of Player Development Darby Dunnagan. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Lawrence Price. This is Cats Corner, a podcast that gives you an inside look into Northwestern sports, both on the field and in the locker room.

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LAWRENCE PRICE: On Saturdays throughout Fall Quarter, Northwestern football fans take to the stands of Ryan Field, the home turf of the NU football team. While the pregame clock winds down, the roar of the crowd gets louder and louder as ecstatic fans flood the stadium. But they weren’t the first to arrive — not by a long shot. Hours earlier, members of the video operations team were already on the field, preparing for their most important day of the week. Before being promoted to her new role of Director of Player Development this April, Darby was the Director of Video Operations, and she was the first woman in that position in a power-conference program.

DARBY DUNNAGAN: A lot of people don’t understand or really know what we do, so it is kind of one of those hidden roles that at the end of the day, we kind of wrap everything together and give everything that we need to our coaches and our players to be successful.

LAWRENCE PRICE: As a young kid from a small town in Virginia called Rural Retreat, Darby found her love for football at an early age. This passion eventually led her to play the game throughout middle school, and later become the student manager of the University of Virginia football team during her freshman year of college.

DARBY DUNNAGAN: Football has always been a part of my life. I can remember being really young and sitting on the armchair of my dad’s Lazy Boy and rocking back and forth and watching football games with him. I can remember even being at Girl Scout camp and I would have the NFL stat books and I would just be memorizing stats of NFL players.

LAWRENCE PRICE: After her first year at UVA, Darby wanted to take her passion for the sport further than the role of student manager. She decided to join the video staff, which is where she found her calling. From there, she worked as a graduate assistant for video operations at Marshall University for two years and the video coordinator for the athletic program at Memphis for seven. In 2013, Darby came to Northwestern to work with video operations, and she’s been here ever since.

DARBY DUNNAGAN: I found that video in general was a great fit for me. It gave me an opportunity to stay involved in the game. I was a part of something bigger than myself. I think that’s one of the best things about working in sports is that you have a role on the team, and everybody’s working towards a common goal, and to me that was very alluring, and in staying in college sports was really alluring to me too because I was thinking like, “Where else in life do you get the energy and the passion that you get on a live game day, right?” So, I think that’s why I loved it. Video was just somewhere where I was able to be successful. To me, I saw a problem and I fixed it.

LAWRENCE PRICE: Darby was the Director of Video Operations for Northwestern Athletics from July 2013 to April 2021. Besides supervising the video staff, she orchestrated the filming of each Northwestern practice and game, obtaining opponent footage and game film for offseason projects and more. On top of that, her team, who she liked to call “in-house IT support,” managed the software, laptops, and iPads the team used to rewatch play-by-play videos on.

TYLER HASKINS: We wouldn’t be able to do our job as players, coaches wouldn’t be able to do their job as coaches, without her. And the main reason for that is because we can’t learn from what we go out and do on the field, every day in practice, or on Saturdays in a game without Darby. If we didn’t have her we wouldn’t be able to get to our film and stuff like that because our coaches aren’t skilled in that area to be able to pull up the film and take care of it when it’s acting up or what not, we need her for that.

LAWRENCE PRICE: For red-shirt sophomore defensive back Tyler Haskins, the play-by-play videos weren’t just important for him when working on his craft, but off the field as well. As a member of Northwestern News Network Sports, Tyler created his own segment titled Draft Wrap, where he broke down the tapes of NFL prospects and evaluated their stock for the NFL draft. To make this happen, he needed film from previous football games, so he went to Darby.

TYLER HASKINS: No matter how busy she is, no matter what she has on her plate, she has been very quick to the punch with getting me those videos. I’ll send them the exact clips that I needed, and she would give it to me right away. She would always be happy to do it, would give me feedback on my videos that I would put out. That was something more personal to me where I was able to grow our relationship together, and how she helped me and kind of touched my life in a way.

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LAWRENCE PRICE: As she enters her eighth year at Northwestern, Darby said the thing that keeps her here is the people, student athletes and the students in the video office she interacts with on a daily basis. Weinberg sophomore Andrew Young, a student on the video team, said Darby’s ability to create a welcoming and trustworthy environment is what makes her so special.

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ANDREW YOUNG: Her diligence is really inspiring for me as someone who wants to follow in her footsteps and work in professional sports or college sports I think that the way she approaches every day like it’s an opportunity to prepare the next game or the next practice is really inspiring just because there’s not a second wasted, and, like I said, she does all of that while still maintaining a very friendly attitude.

LAWRENCE PRICE: Andrew began working with video operations in the Fall 2019 for his work study, and he immediately felt like a part of the team. On his first day of practice, he found himself inside the office filming side-by-side with the coaches. Andrew said this showed him the level of trust Darby had in him and the team around her.

ANDREW YOUNG: It’s my favorite part of my college experience. We have a job to do and I think she’s very good at striking a balance between when it is time to joke around, and also making sure that we’re helping the coaches to the best of our ability so that they can best prepare the players for Saturdays. She doesn’t sacrifice being a good person and being really approachable and being very open to having conversations with a freshman, who doesn’t know anything about the program and is just trying to learn. She is exactly the perfect example of someone who really wanted to work in sports and has just worked her butt off every single step of the way and gotten to every position she’s been in just through hard work, through the knowledge she has of the game.

LAWRENCE PRICE: This determination truly paid off during this past year’s abnormal season. On March 22, 2021, the Collegiate Sports Video Association named Darby the Big Ten Conference Video Coordinator of the Year. This year, Darby was a finalist for The Bob Matey National Video Coordinator of the Year award, which she had won previously at Memphis in 2013.

DARBY DUNNAGAN: I was shocked that we won this year, this is definitely a team award. I was shocked that we won this year because of the turmoil that we were in. But I also think it speaks volume that we were able to pull it together and still succeed in those categories and it was noticeable by our peers. Based on the hard work that we put in, in the quality of product that we put out, it wasn’t a surprise to me that my team was able to get that done.

LAWRENCE PRICE: Next to being named the first woman to become the director of video operations for a power-conference program, Darby was also the first and only woman to win this award since it began in 1998. She expressed her gratitude for her mentors at UVA and Marshall, but as one of the few women in the field, she had to become a pioneer in the industry.

DARBY DUNNAGAN: There wasn’t a role model for me, there was never anybody that looked like me that I looked up to and that was something I was always cognizant of and something that I have made been very aware of later in my professional career to try to be a role model for some other women in the industry that maybe I didn’t have when I was at their point in their career. So, I think it was a natural progression for me to see that we were missing role models and want to be that way.

LAWRENCE PRICE: Although Darby has set down the camera, she’s still supporting the members of NU athletics. In her new role as Director of Player Development, she’s now making sure athletes are dominating off the field as well.

TYLER HASKINS: She’s not out front and trying to ask for credit or anything like that and that makes her such a great person because she does a whole lot for other people without expecting anything in return, and that’s the humility in her. She’s so humble and she comes to work every day and does her job and she loves it, and you can tell because she comes in and treats everyone with respect in the same way that she will want to be treated. And whoever steps in to fill that supervisor Director of Video Role has got some big shoes to fill, because she was very good at her job and still is and then does an amazing job as Director of Player Development.

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LAWRENCE PRICE: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Lawrence Price. Thanks for listening to another episode of Cats Corner. This episode was reported and produced by me, Lawrence Price. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Madison Smith, the digital managing editor is Haley Fuller and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey.

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Twitter: @LPIII_TRES

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