Had Niagara hired Simon Gray as athletic director when he applied 19 months ago it wouldn’t have secured the same level of administrative expertise it attained in welcoming Gray into the fold on Friday.
Gray admitted he was disappointed but harbored no animosity when Niagara declined to pluck him out of the finalists pool the last time around. Instead, he returned to Eastern Kentucky and was asked to serve two stints as the university’s acting director of athletics.
Filling that need broadened his experience, bolstered his resume and, sources say, made him the runaway choice to fill the vacancy on Monteagle Ridge.
Gray, 37, and a native of Pittsburgh, will take over for interim AD Steve Butler on June 23.
Gray’s introduction ceremony unfolded like a Disney production. He entered with his wife, Anne-Christine, and their three daughters, Emilie, 7, Elisabeth, 5 ,and Caroline, 2. The outfits of all three girls featured Niagara purple. Each clutched a stuffed purple eagle in her arms.
University president Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., gifted Gray with a No. 14 Niagara basketball jersey to commemorate the year. Coincidentally, it’s also the number worn by Antoine Mason, a good bet to become the school’s all-time leading scorer if he returns for his senior season. At this point all signs indicate Mason, a fifth-year senior with the right to transfer and play immediately, will be present when summer workouts commence next week.
“I’m so excited right now I’d like to put this jersey on and play a game,” Gray cracked.
Intriguing work awaits his arrival. Niagara has fallen behind other Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference schools in the facilities arms race. It has a women’s track team but no track. Dwyer Arena loses more of its luster with rival Canisius ice hockey headed to new digs downtown. The basketball teams remain challenged to remain on a facilities and amenities par with the likes of Quinnipiac and Siena.
“I think that’s one area I’ve noticed and we’ve talked about during the search process was the facility challenge,” Gray said. “And I’m going to tell you, that’s not foreign to other places. There are a lot of institutions that are in a similar boat. One of the things I’m going to be doing very early on as the AD is get input from the people that are already here, to take what the coaches think what would help make their programs better. Then I’ve got to sit down with the leadership and prioritize where we think we can get better. But facilities is an area that we’ll concentrate on.”
The Niagara AD position is seen as a stepping stone to greater things. Ed McLaughlin left after six years for the same position at VCU. His replacement, Tom Crowley, lasted 11 months before the parties quietly parted. He’s now special assistant to the commissioner of the Horizon League. But while the job might foster career ascent, it also presents difficult financial challenges. So what’s the allure?
“You know the people here,” Gray said. “They are incredibly special. They have a mission for the university and I think they have a mission for the athletics department which aligns perfectly with what I want to do, which is keep the success going academically and athletically, but also to help raise the profile of the university.
“And that’s what I think the No. 1 priority of the athletic department is, to help the university. We’re not operating on our own, we’re operating within the mission of the university. And when I got here and I met the leadership and I found out what their values were and where they wanted to take things, I was sold.”
Rev. Mahar said that while Niagara will always strive to improve infrastructure his experiences at St. John’s taught him a vibrant athletics culture can conquer perceived obstacles.
“It really begins with the people that you put in place and the culture that you build,” he said. “I think part of what we’re really focused on is establishing the excellence in the programs and in competition. When you can build that support you can really build a groundswell to be able to get people on board to provide legitimate opportunities for our student athletes in their training, in their competition, to be able to be on somewhat comparable stages. It will take some time for us to be able to do that but putting an athletic director like Simon in place really helps us to put initially the first building blocks in place.”
Gray has worn a number of hats in athletics, beginning as a media relations intern at Boston College. He also served in media relations at East Tennessee and Richmond (his alma mater). He arrived at Eastern Kentucky in 2005 and earned a master’s in sports administration in 2010. He worked in external development before serving in myriad roles internally, including lead administrator for the men’s and women’s basketball teams.