Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
Dr. Ingrid Wicker McCree is no stranger to hard work and service. It’s in her blood. That’s why when she abruptly decided to pursue a career as a college administrator instead of chasing a lucrative law profession, no one batted an eyelash. She was doing it for the culture. McCree joined North Carolina Central University in 1994 and began a lifetime of dedication to ensure that this historic HBCU would leave a legacy of sports excellence and achievement that would reign for generations to come.
NCCU became her home, literally and figuratively, because of the family values she felt on campus. It was at the Durham, N.C., campus that she met her husband, Geno, and the two raised their three children in a life centered on college athletes. McCree can recall working day in and day out as head coach of the women’s volleyball team, right up until three weeks before her youngest daughter, Sydney, was born—and then taking just two weeks of maternity leave before returning to the office. She placed Sydney's playpen in a corner of her office.
“I’ve always been very open to bringing your children to work if you need to,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity for children to grow up on a college campus. And in athletics, we’re such advocates for our students.”
While her oldest daughter Alexia graduated from NCCU, McCree’s son attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Sydney is committed to Norfolk State and will play volleyball.
NCCU students have remained at the center of McCree’s phenomenal work for the university. She comes from a family that has a work ethic steeped in serving others. Her mother was a director of nursing. Her father was a legislative aid for several congresspeople and spent part of his career as a social worker. She says it was inevitable that she’d wind up in a service role, too.
McCree says her switch from law to coaching and then college administration was an easy transition. She earned her undergraduate degree in criminal justice from George Washington University and planned to become an attorney before changing course. “I was actually working in a jail for pretrial services at the time during graduate school,” says McCree. But then fate stepped in. She was invited to North Carolina State University to become an assistant coach. While she was there, she earned a master’s degree in recreation resources administration and completed her doctoral studies in higher education administration. Still, she had no aspirations of pursuing a career in coaching until she ran into Dr. LeRoy T. Walker, the first Black president of the United States Olympic Committee, the first Black coach of a U.S. Olympic team and the former chancellor of NCCU.
“He said to me, ‘Ingrid, there are not enough Black women in coaching.’ And I thought, well, who am I to disagree with a legend like him? I changed my major to recreational administration.” She says talking with him shifted her mindset and started her on a new journey in athletics. “I’m so grateful he shared those words with me,” she says. “It really was a pivot in my career.”
An integral part of McCree’s thriving in her role was due in part to what she deems the “changing from a manager to a leader.” Dr. Debra Saunders-White, the first female chancellor to hold the position permanently at NCCU, recognized the value McCree added to the university and encouraged her to consider a position in leadership. Saunders-White knew her expertise and passion would be an asset. She told McCree, “You should be here.”
“That really transformed and transitioned me,” says McCree. She credits Saunders-White for teaching her to want more and inspiring her to take a leap out of her comfort zone. “She paid for me to go to the center for creative leadership, which was life-changing,” McCree says. “Before, I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be in this seat as a female and, especially, in a Black college.”
When Saunders-White passed away from cancer in 2016, McCree vowed to continue her legacy of building a great university for the community and the culture. “She gave me an opportunity,” says McCree. “She understood that I'm here for these student-athletes and this university. That's where my loyalty is.”
When looking back at her 28-plus years with NCCU, McCree says she feels an abundance of gratitude. She began her career at the HBCU as the head coach for women’s volleyball and softball and later became the first coach in NCCU history to win conference championships in multiple sports, capturing the school’s first CIAA titles in softball (1998) and volleyball (’99, 2004, ’05). She was inducted into the NCCU Athletic Hall of Fame in ’04 as head coach of the ’98 softball team and was later selected for induction into the CIAA John B. McLendon Hall of Fame in February ’16.
As NCCU athletic director, McCree was one of the driving forces behind the university’s reclassification to NCAA Division I. From 1998 until her appointment as director of athletics in 2008, she oversaw the internal operations of the athletics department, including all compliance and eligibility programs.
The HBCU had to meet dozens of NCAA and conference requirements to move up from its Division II status, including increasing its 25 full-time staff to about 75 in less than four years. McCree says that was a huge transformation for the department, the university and for her, because the work didn’t focus on athletics. It was all business-driven. To make NCCU more competitive, she helped court new donors to build up scholarships and put in long hours to help recruit staff and coaches. Upgrades like adding turf, new stadium seating and video scoreboards to the football field, locker-room renovations and a new arena floor put NCCU on the same level as its peers.
“I won’t be here, but [it makes me happy] just knowing that I served as a part of that future, for our student-athletes,” says McCree, who announced that she will be stepping down from her position at the conclusion of the spring 2022 semester. “Now we are part of the university’s master plan for upgrades of all of the athletic facilities to the tune of about $90 million.”
McCree says she’s looking forward to the next phase of her life after retirement. “I’ve been so blessed. It has been a total of 31 years in athletics, but this is my 28th year here at North Carolina Central. I’ll be retiring with my 30 years of service in the state system.”
Bryna Jean-Marie is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multichannel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.