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From athlete to analyst: former MSU football star Darien Harris reinvents himself in Broad College master’s program

By Emma Kauffman, student writer

If Darien Harris seems unafraid, it’s most likely a byproduct of the intense determination with which he makes his decisions.

Darien Harris. Photo by Matthew Mitchell.
Darien Harris. Photo by Matthew Mitchell.

He was determined to become a college football player, and in his senior year he led the Michigan State University team to the 2015 Big Ten championship and the College Football Playoff as co-captain. His determination to join the National Football League took him to the Cincinnati Bengals, and when his athletic career ended much sooner than he expected, he determined he would continue his education at MSU.

Although Harris is back in East Lansing, he acknowledges that the decision to return wasn’t easy.

Student-athletes “try to get as much out of [college] as possible while they’re here, but once they’re gone, they feel like there’s no space to come back,” said Harris. “[Student-athletes] don’t want to deal with coming back and people asking ‘What happened? Why aren’t you on a team? Why didn’t you make it?’ I can empathize with that because I got those questions.”

Darien Harris (45) during his athletic career at MSU. Photo courtesy MSU Athletic Communications.
Darien Harris (45) during his athletic career at MSU. Photo courtesy MSU Athletic Communications.

In fact, Harris did have a space for his return: the Master of Science in Marketing Research program, a nationally renowned postgraduate offering of the Eli Broad College of Business, headed by Jessica Richards.

“Darien has been phenomenal,” said Richards. “We are just so happy to support him as much as we can to get his master’s degree … even though he’s been a part of the pro athlete world.”

On a new top team

The MSMR program was ranked as the best marketing research program in North America in Eduniversal’s Best Masters in Marketing Ranking for 2018, “which is the best ranking you can get for an MS program,” said Richards, adding the MSMR program is boosted by more than 70 companies on its board – including GM, FedEx, Microsoft, and even the NFL, among other major players – that provide guidance to and recruit from the program.

Darien Harris. Photo by Matthew Mitchell.
Darien Harris. Photo by Matthew Mitchell.

“I actually kind of stumbled upon it. I had left Cincinnati and was back up here … waiting for the phone to ring,” said Harris. “I always knew that I wanted to get my master’s … it was really just a situation of figuring out which program started in the spring, which one [I’d] be interested I in … picking one and getting in.”

“There’s been a lot of blessings in disguise that have come from [the MSMR program], namely working with such great people like Jessica Richards; [she] has been phenomenal,” said Harris.

Richards has worked closely with Harris during his time in the program, assisting in the transition between the start of his postgraduate work and the end of his athletic career.

Darien Harris (45) during his athletic career at MSU. Photo courtesy MSU Athletic Communications.
Darien Harris (45) during his athletic career at MSU. Photo courtesy MSU Athletic Communications.

“Because I leave and come back (frequently, as his athletic career lingered), I’ve been a part of 3 different cohorts,” Harris said. “I have 25 new friends every single time I come back, and everybody has been fantastic in the program, and motivated. That’s why they’re putting people in these great jobs.”

Professor Dale Wilson has [also] had a couple classes that have probably been my favorites in the program, and he’s been really open to me leaving and coming back, and has been incredibly helpful,” said Harris. Wilson has been a professor of marketing at the Broad College for 34 years, specializing in courses surrounding marketing research and strategy.

“He’s a really impressive young man, in that you can just see the wheels turning,” said Wilson. “He doesn’t say much in class, but you can tell he’s soaking up the material.”

Not the only reinvention

Darien Harris. Photo by Matthew Mitchell.
Darien Harris. Photo by Matthew Mitchell.

The business realm was quite a change for Harris, whose 2015 undergraduate degree was in journalism. He’s used that degree to build an impressive freelance resume, with on-air work on the Big Ten Network, radio appearances, and more.

“For a while that was all I wanted to do, was just be in the media realm … but as you get into it, you realize more of what that entails,” said Harris. He wanted something different.

Harris doesn’t seem to be fazed by the challenges of choosing a new career path. In fact, academic success runs in the Harris family. His grandmother holds a PhD in social work and is a retired professor from Virginia Commonwealth University; his mother is an attorney with the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.; and his younger brother is currently attending Yale on an academic scholarship.

His background is another reason why Harris has been so passionate about his transition into the research and education realms.

“The opportunities that myself and my brother had … not a lot of people that look like us have,” said Harris, who is African-American. “That’s why it’s been big for me to move into that space, where I can create more opportunities for minorities and disenfranchised people.”

Harris plans to become an education policy analyst after graduation, using his knowledge of research to help improve the public school system.

“These are all things that will come down the road, but it’s been good for me to think about it now,” said Harris. “I think that being in this program, even if it’s not necessarily marketing research, just learning how to research is going to help me in whatever I do.”


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