College of Fine Arts

Derek van der Merwe grew up on a mission station in South Africa with a musical family.

Everyone in his family played an instrument … mom, dad and two sisters.

Derek was a violinist.

When Derek was nine, the family moved to Chicago and later to Michigan.

“I grew up playing in the church,” he said. ‘I’d have to play Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings and Sunday nights. And then I had orchestra on Tuesdays, Wednesday, music theory; and Thursday, private lessons.”

Derek van der Merwe, Assistant VP of Arizona Athletics (left) and Andrew Schulz, VP for the Arts, prior to the 2019 Fall Convocation.

He never played sports growing up.

“Between basketball games, I was the guy who swept the floor. I was kind of the manager; if they put me on the court playing basketball, I was abomination.”

But then in his senior year in high school, things changed.

Derek by now is a 6’3, 300-pounds. He hears about a Notre Dame football player who played trumpet. Somebody musical, like him, who tried football later in life. So, he decided to give football a go.

“That was the only driver. I was this big, big kid, really socially awkward, didn’t have a really good place in the world. I was kind of out of place and I decided to try something different.”

He played five games in high school, didn’t know the game well, but picked it up. As a first-year student at Central Michigan University, Derek walked on with the football team. And made an impression. By his senior year, he was the team captain.

Today Derek oversees the day-to-day internal management of Arizona Athletics in his second year as its Assistant Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. On Dec. 19, the violinist who became a football player will serve as the Keynote Speaker at the College of Fine Arts 2019 Fall Graduation Convocation.

Derek van der Merwe, COO for Arizona Athletics, addresses the 2019 Fall Convocation. Photo by Ed Flores

“I am deeply honored to be invited to speak at the College of Fine Art Fall Commencement Ceremony,” Derek said. “The entire sport industry is dependent on great artists in order to thrive, grow, and be successful. The relationship between sport and art is not mutually exclusive. An artist creates the narratives and stories, remembers the past, inspires the vision, piques the emotion, connects and defines the experience, and engages the masses. Sport without art is like a stone waiting for a sculptor.”

During his first year at Arizona in 2018-2019, Derek sculpted the athletic department’s first-ever comprehensive strategic plan, focusing on aligning athletics’ mission and vision, academic success and enhancing the fan experience.

He has over 23 years of experience in higher education and athletic administration at Arizona, Austin Peay State University and Central Michigan, his alma mater.

At Austin Peay, as the Vice President of the University, he was responsible for fundraising, community relations, public relations, marketing, communications, alumni relations, and developing the University’s first comprehensive strategic plan. During this period, he helped to reorganize a Center for Excellence in Creative Arts, and was active in creating and supporting fundraising strategies for art initiatives.

“How do you design a football stadium? Art. How do you engage the consumer experience? Art. Every part of our experience, the narratives, the storytelling. Every part of it is impacted by art.” — Derek van der Merwe

Derek started at Austin Peay as the Director of Athletics for two years before being promoted to the vice president and serving on President Alisa White’s senior leadership team responsible for the overall management of the University. As Athletics Director, he oversaw the construction of the new football stadium and secured a $2.5 million naming rights agreement.

“I enjoy the games, but I enjoy watching how the whole thing comes together. I enjoy looking at the fan experience. I enjoyed the administration and the management and marketing and the advertising and the business structures. How the whole enterprise is supported by these concepts of what I say is art. You know, it’s because it really is.

“How do you design a football stadium? Art. How do you engage the consumer experience? Art. Every part of our experience, the narratives, the storytelling. Every part of it is impacted by art.

“The ability of an artist to see something unique and special in something that is ordinary is what amazes me. It’s how the artist sees life and its beauty. It’s that creativity that inspires people. Only an artist can do that.”