By Nick Veronica / @NickVeronica
Niagara University introduced Simon Gray as its new athletic director Friday morning, filling the void created by the dismissal of Tom Crowley in September. Steve Butler served as the interim AD for the last eight months and will return to his position of Associate Athletic Director for External Relations.
Gray, 37, comes to Niagara from Eastern Kentucky University of the Ohio Valley Conference, where he had worked since 2005. He most recently served as the school’s acting athletic director. Gray’s 15 years in college athletics include stops at Richmond, East Tennessee State and Boston College. A native of Pittsburgh’s North Hills, Gray has a bachelor’s degree from Richmond and a master’s from EKU.
His upbeat personality and outgoing nature were on display at this morning’s press conference and should be well-received by the Niagara community. His first official day on the job is June 23. Below are Gray’s responses to questions about various issues facing Niagara, arranged in no particular order.
What attracted Gray to Niagara:
Gray: “I’ve certainly followed Niagara athletics. I’m a sports nut. I follow college sports, always followed it very closely. So I’ve known about the success they’ve had. Working in the business, you follow it even closer. I certainly followed when Ed [McLaughlin, now the AD at VCU] was here and knew all that he had done. I followed the men’s basketball success, the hockey success, some of the other successes. That’s what I knew about Niagara University when applying.”
He added that Niagara’s mission “aligns perfectly with what I want to do, which is raise the success, keep the success going academically and athletically, but also to help raise the profile of the university. That’s what I think the No. 1 priority of an athletics department is, to help the university.”
If Niagara has lost some ground locally of late, and how to rectify that:
Gray: “I can’t speak to that because I don’t know. All I can tell you is this: from the people I’ve met at this university, as high up as it goes in the executive leadership, I think they value athletics and know what athletics can do. How they feel about what’s happened in the recent past, I haven’t gotten into that. But I think you can tell from me, I’m all about energy and enthusiasm and passion moving forward, and I feel that sense on this campus.”
His first impression of men’s basketball coach Chris Casey and the job he did last season:
Gray: “Chris Casey is an exceptional man. He is very sharp, he’s very positioned, he’s direct, he’s ambitious, he knows what it’s going to take to win here. The more I’ve learned about the situation — I followed the team, obviously, last year, I know they beat Buffalo, that was big for the program — but they ended up with seven wins. I think the credit to him is that they were in many games, including late in the season. When you only have six or seven wins coming down to the end of the season, it’s very easy for people to lose their motivation. So it’s a tremendous credit to him that he was able to keep the team together and motivate them and stay in and be right on the brink of winning more games than seven. I’ve been impressed with his basketball knowledge, I’ve ben impressed with him as a person. I was able to meet his family last night. I think a brilliant future [is] ahead.
(Casey also told me Friday that leading scorer Antoine Mason is definitely returning to the team. Mason received his degree this spring and wouldn’t have had to sit out a year if he transferred. “I got to sit down with my parents and talk it over,” he told the Buffalo News in March.)
On Niagara’s facilities:
Gray: “I think that’s one area I’ve noticed and one area we talked about during the search process was the facility challenges. And let me tell you, that’s not foreign to other places. There are a lot of institutions in a similar boat. What I see as my job is to prioritize. One of the things I’m going to be doing very early on as the AD is getting input from the people who are already here. I have to take what the coaches think will make their programs better, then I have to sit down with the executive leadership and prioritize where we can get better. But facilities is an area that we will concentrate on.”
Status of the men’s hockey program and its place in Atlantic Hockey:
Gray noted his introduction to college hockey came while at Boston College, but said “I’m not as well versed as I will be very soon” on Niagara’s hockey situation.
He added: “What Union College did, it can be done, and it can be done at a national championship level. What we need to do is make sure our hockey program has the right resources to be successful and then we’ll look at the conference for sure.” (Union, which doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, won the national championship this year while other Frozen Four teams had budgets several times what Union spent.)
If he played sports collegiately and what his favorite sport is:
Gray said he plays racquetball recreationally and runs but didn’t play anything collegially. He said he loves all sports. His wife, Anne-Christine, was a collegiate golfer at East Tennessee State.
(Photo: Niagara athletic director Simon Gray (center) with president Rev. James Maher, C.M., his wife, Anne-Christine, and their three daughters.)