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New AD fits right in at Bona

OLEAN – St. Bonaventure Athletics Director Tim Kenney has two framed All-America certificates hanging on the wall of his new office. He earned them as a swimmer at the University at Buffalo in 1992.

Don’t let that fool you. Kenney is a basketball guy.

His father was a high school basketball coach on Long Island. Kenney himself served a two-year stint after his college swimming career as an assistant basketball coach at Stony Brook. Kenney also was head coach of the Long Island Empire State Games hoops team that won a gold medal in 1996. The squad included future NBAers Wally Szczerbiak and Speedy Claxton.

Kenney worked the last 11 years as an assistant athletic director at the University of Massachusetts, and part of his responsibilities were to oversee the men’s and women’s basketball teams. He was intimately involved in hiring coaches and fund-raising for a $28.5 million basketball training center that will open this summer.

During his time at UMass, Kenney even served five years as color commentator for men’s basketball radio broadcasts.

So when Kenney sat down with Bona men’s basketball coach Mark Schmidt during the interview process in February, it was easy for him to sell the idea he could fit in at a place where basketball is king.

“I said listen, I understand college basketball,” Kenney said. “When you say you need something, some ADs who don’t understand think, ‘Why?’ You don’t have to sell that on me. Are we going to get there overnight with certain things? I said, ‘No.’ But bear with me. Give me some time. We will work on getting you the resources you need. You’re the premier program, and the rising tide floats all boats. That’s basketball here. We all know that. I think we hit it off right away.”

The 44-year-old Kenney has been on the job at Bona for three weeks. He knows maximizing the success of the basketball program is his biggest priority. He says he also knows that starts with forming a strong alliance with Schmidt, who enters his ninth season in Olean. Schmidt has posted winning records four of the last five seasons. He was joined at the hip with former athletic director Steve Watson, who left in December for Loyola of Chicago.

“He’s joined at my ear at the moment,” Kenney joked. “He’s been recruiting and I’m on the phone with him.”

Kenney says he understands Schmidt is a huge asset to the Bonnies.

“Even before this job opened, I always said Mark was one of the top three coaches in this league,” Kenney said of the Atlantic 10 Conference. “What he’s been able to do here with the resources he has compared to his peers in the conference has been unbelievable. He’s been not only competitive but successful. The biggest thing I see with him is his players get better. They develop.

“The goal is to get him more of the resources to help him be even more competitive. We want to be in the top half consistently and have a chance. With him at the helm, there’s no question about it, we can do that.”

Kenney said he immediately set out to reassure Schmidt that the coach’s position is as strong as ever, and Schmidt had gotten a positive read on Kenney from talking to UMass basketball coach Derrick Kellogg.

“Yes, I’ve got his back,” Kenney said. “Mark knows I’m in lock-step with him. That happened on the interview. We sat for an hour and 15 minutes. He had already spoken to Derrick. He felt comfortable already, and I think even moreso after we talked. Same thing with Jim Crowley,” Bona’s women’s basketball coach.

Making upgrades to the Reilly Center is a priority for Kenney and has been on Bona’s agenda. A 2012 master plan for athletics facilities called for $18.8 million in upgrades. About $3 million already has been committed to new outdoor athletics fields, and a $300,000 upgrade to the women’s basketball locker room was completed.

Most of the rest of the cost would go toward a new swimming pool (at about $8 million) and new seats and other upgrades to the Reilly Center.

“We have this plan from 2012, and we don’t need to re-do it,” Kenney said. “But let’s prioritize the rest of it.”

Bona has averaged about 3,900 for men’s basketball games the last five years. That’s 71 percent of the RC capacity of 5,480. The top five teams in the A-10 average well over 5,000 a game. Most of the rest of the teams in the 14-team league are in the same attendance pack.

“We have to be able to create a game-day atmosphere with some accoutrements like video boards and greeters and other things that encourage more people to come, on top of just the performance of the team,” Kenney said.

“The Reilly Center is a great place to play the game if you’re a Bonnie because of the crowd and the way it’s on top of you. It’s a little dusty and a little older. It needs to be souped up a little bit.”

Kenney said he’s in conversations to bring in a video scoreboard, which is not a huge ticket item, possibly in time for next season.

Kenney also thinks an upgrade in Schmidt’s recruiting budget is warranted.

“At our level the net has to be wider,” he said. “You can be on a kid and the next thing you know Clemson flies in at the last second. You need a bigger net of prospects.”

Kenney and his former UMass boss, John McCutcheon, had a lot of success raising money. Besides the new basketball training center, UMass built a $34.5 million football performance center, a $38 million recreation center and a new boathouse, and new lacrosse and softball fields.

“He’s going to bring a heckuva lot of energy, a lot of personality,” said McCutcheon, who left UMass in January to become new AD at California Santa Barbara. “He’s going to be out there in the community meeting with people. He’s always positive. He’s going to get people in a positive frame of mind. Those are some of his outstanding attributes, his positive outlook on things, and how aggressively he’ll go about trying to develop resources for the program there.”

“Fund-raising is all about the relationship,” Kenney said. “I’m more of a people person, and I utilize that to be successful in fund-raising.”

When McCutcheon left, UMass decided not to promote Kenney.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little disappointed, but at the same time it wasn’t crushing because I knew the situation,” Kenney said. “I understood a new regime wanted to go in a new direction. Eleven years is a long time in one place for athletics. I knew it was time to move your cheese a little bit.”

UMass has a fledgling football program, which moved up to the highest college level in 2012. The football team is in transition, without a conference starting next year. UMass last month hired a new AD, Ryan Bamford, who came from Georgia Tech. It’s clear UMass wanted an AD with a strong major-conference football connections. That’s not Kenney.

Kenney has big shoes to fill. Watson did a good job in Olean. Kenney has stronger fund-raising credentials than Watson had. But competing in the Atlantic 10, the seventh-rated conference in the nation last season, is a heavy lift for Bona.

The biggest A-10 schools dwarf Bona. Virginia Commonwealth and UMass have roughly 28,000 students each. Bona has about 2,300 students. Richmond has only 4,100 students but it has a $2.3 billion endowment. Bona has an endowment of about $60 million.

“The Bona way has always been to do more with less,” Kenney said. “But we don’t have all the sports that some of those other schools have. We don’t have football or hockey. We don’t try to do all the things they do.

“I know it’s manageable to be successful here. I knew it has challenges. Obviously every place has challenges. But having come into this building as an opponent and seeing the atmosphere, I’ve seen something that a lot of schools, including UMass, wish they had, which was a really rabid fan base.”

Regarding fund-raising, Kenney said: “You’re going to have to be out a lot, which means more time in Buffalo, Rochester, New York City.”

Kenney says his time as an undergraduate at UB helps him understand Western New York. His wife, Maureen, is a Grand Island native whom he met at UB. She was on the diving team. He has a firm grasp of the loyalty of the Bona family.

“During the interview process, my wife and I were walking across campus on a tour, and people were stopping us, saying hello,” Kenney said. “It was amazing how many knew that our swim team at UMass had just beaten St. Bonaventure by a hair at the A-10 swimming championships. They said, ‘We’re going to get you next year.’ I looked at my wife and said, ‘Do you think at UMass they even know we have a men’s swimming team?’ The vibe and the feeling we had coming across the campus from all the people we met, that just reaffirmed what a cool place this is and how it’s a place you want to work and make successful.”

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com