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Niagara struggling to get top athletic programs back on winning path

The crowd at the Taps Gallagher Center let out a hearty cheer at halftime of the Niagara University men’s basketball game on this Saturday afternoon in January.

The public address announcer had just informed the Purple Eagle faithful that Canisius, which had started its game an hour earlier than Niagara, lost at home to Saint Peter’s.

Yes, the rivalry with the Golden Griffins still burns deep on Monteagle Ridge.

Yet there was a sad element to the brief celebration. Deriving pleasure from rival failures is about all Niagara fans have to cheer about these days.

Woe is Niagara.

• The Purple Eagles’ men’s basketball team is in the midst of the losingest three-year run in its history. Under coach Chris Casey, Niagara ranked 316th out of 351 Division I teams this season. Moreover, the program has seen 20 players transfer over the past four years.

• The Purple Eagles’ hockey team ranked 58th out of 60 in Division I this year. It has gone 13-53-10 the past two years, an uncharacteristic downturn in the 15-year tenure of coach Dave Burkholder.

• The Purple Eagles’ women’s basketball team has not had a winning record in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in 11 years and ranked 291st out of 351 nationally this year.

• This will be the third straight year the Purple Eagles have ranked 10th out of 11 in the overall MAAC sports standings. Niagara fields 18 varsity teams. Only three had winning records in the MAAC in 2014-15. Only four of 18 currently have winning MAAC records this year, and 13 of 18 are in the bottom four of the MAAC.

• Niagara has lost to Canisius six straight years in the all-sports competition between the schools, called “the Battle of the Bridge.”

“It is very distressing,” said longtime Niagara fan Paul Parise.

“Where are we going?” asks Ralph Aversa, former Niagara councilman and NU follower for three decades.

“It’s a question I get every day, whether I’m at church or in the coffee shop,” said former Niagara basketball coach Jack Armstrong, who still lives in Lewiston. “I get the feeling, living in the community. But I support Chris Casey. I support Dave Burkholder. Those are good men. Those are good coaches.”

“If you’re asking me are we meeting expectations?” says Niagara Athletic Director Simon Gray. “No. Nobody is satisfied being 10th, nobody is satisfied with a losing record in the MAAC.”

Gray has been at Niagara two years. His boss, Niagara President the Rev. James J. Maher, has been at Niagara three years.

Gray says Niagara will turn it around.

“I can talk to the time that I’ve been here and Father Maher’s leadership and where we’re going,” Gray said. “There’s a commitment to athletics here, through Father Maher’s background and through mine. We’ve been at places that have succeeded, and that’s our expectation.”

“We’re clearly in a cycle of not being where we want to be in those three programs,” Gray said in reference to his three highest-profile sports. “But the good news in my opinion is I have seen improvement in the time I’ve been here. I know there’s a commitment to being better, and I expect we will be better in those three programs.”

Transfer U

Fan discontent at Niagara is focused squarely on the men’s basketball program. It has a rich history. It enjoyed 12 winning seasons in the 15-year tenure of Joe Mihalich, from 1999 to 2013. Niagara went to two NCAA tournaments and three NITs in that span. But Mihalich left in 2013 for more money at Hofstra University. Four players left with him and another four Mihalich recruits left a year later.

Casey has been scrambling to fill roster spots ever since. He has seen 12 of his own recruits leave, including four more last month.

“The transfers are the most distressing thing,” said Parise, a former president of the NU Booster Club. “Casey’s first year, it’s understandable with a new coach. … But year after year, there’s transfers. And in many cases these athletes don’t have options when they leave. Where are they gonna go? It’s not like they’re moving to Kentucky. They have limited if any options, but they’re leaving anyhow.”

Casey calls the transfers “a national occurrence,” and it’s true that more players than ever in Division I are transferring. But losing 20 players in four years far exceeds any national trend.

“I like coach Casey, and I just think it’s a new type of event happening in Division I college athletics that he’s learning to deal with,” said Jerry Wolfgang, another former NU Booster Club president and an instructor at Niagara. “Young men coming in on scholarship have a different view of their scholarship and their goals. … They’re listening to whoever that person is who’s whispering in their ear.”

Gray said he has interviewed every player who has left and the reasons for the transfers are varied. But he is satisfied Casey is treating players properly.

“Chris is cut from the Vincentian cloth,” Gray said. “He is absolutely a man of integrity. He takes community service very seriously. … He’s a man with a track record of winning. When he brings in recruits, I do believe he’s explaining to them exactly how it’s going to be. He’s a coach who holds his kids accountable.”

Gray and Maher were so convinced of that in September 2015 that they gave Casey a contract extension through the 2018-19 season. That was despite the fact he lost seven players to transfer and an eighth to expulsion last offseason.

Why the extension?

“Fair question,” Gray said. “One, we didn’t feel like in the two years Chris was here he had a fair chance to prove himself. So when you’re a head coach who has a couple years left on your contract, you’re really under the gun, not just personally and professionally but in recruiting.”

“He’d had to remake a team twice,” Gray said. “We’re very enthusiastic about the recruiting class that came in last year. This is the first time really since he’s been here that he’s had some stability, despite the four that are leaving this year. We have a tremendous core that is coming back, and we’re incredibly encouraged about them.”

Gray said Niagara is not throwing its hands up over the transfer problem. He said Casey is working hard at finding better fits for the program. He said the athletic department has studied ways to enhance academic support and other services for student-athletes.

Said Gray: “They also want to know what kind of academic support am I going to have here? Where am I going to lift? How am I going to work out? What’s my training going to be? When I need treatment in sports medicine, where am I going to go? What about career services? Those are areas we have improved in the two years I’ve been here and we’ll continue to focus on. I do think that’s a part of retention.”

Cash strapped

Niagara ranked 10th out of 11 MAAC teams in athletic expenses in 2014-15, according to data that annually is supplied to the U.S. Department of Education. The Niagara budget was $10.17 million, which includes athletic student aid. Canisius ranked seventh of 11, with expenses of $11.57 million. MAAC schools have varying numbers of athletes competing.

But the picture is the same for men’s basketball. Niagara’s hoops expenses also ranked 10th, at $1.4 million, ahead of only Saint Peter’s. The MAAC average was $1.9 million. That’s a big gap. And Niagara was well behind Canisius, which ranked fifth in spending, at $2.05 million.

“My reaction is that if you look at the MAAC, the three toughest jobs in the league are Niagara, Canisius and Saint Peter’s,” said Armstrong, now a broadcaster for the Toronto Raptors. “There’s a lot of heavy lifting that has to take place. … The job that Joe Mihalich did at Niagara was brilliant. To be able to sustain at a place like Niagara, based on location, resources, facilities, is really, really difficult.”

Armstrong points to geography as a big challenge.

“From a geographic perspective, there just aren’t a lot of talented players in Western New York to keep you afloat,” Armstrong said.

The MAAC competition is closer to more good players, and its recruiting and travel expenses are less. Not the case for Canisius and Niagara traveling to the New York metro area.

“You can run your program on the Eastern Seaboard cheaper, since you’re driving, you don’t have to stay in as many hotels, the players are in your backyard,” Armstrong said.

That makes the budget disparity for Niagara even greater.

Resources are not a new problem. Jim Maloney complained about Niagara spending before quitting as head coach way back in 1968.

“Niagara wants a champagne program on a beer budget,” the late Maloney used to say during a subsequent long tenure as a Temple aide.

Niagara was roughly 10th in the MAAC during Armstrong’s days, and it was roughly 10th during Mihalich’s tenure.

“This is what I will say,” says Gray. “No. 1 is it has been proven that you can win at Niagara. People have come in here and won. My impression is that budgets haven’t changed significantly over time. Secondarily, it’s very important to reiterate that Father Maher is committed to success in athletics. I’m committed to success. What that means is, whether our operating budget changes significantly or not, we need to go out and gather more support. We will.”

Niagara just hired a new university-wide fundraising chief, Derek Wesley, vice president of institutional advancement.

Can you win at Niagara?

“Sure you can win,” said Aversa. “Joe Mihalich won at Niagara. But once again, it’s in the coaching.”

“With the right coach? Yes, you can win,” said Parise. “And we don’t have the right coach.”

Facilities

Burkholder also received a contract extension through 2018-19 last September, but that one did not raise nearly as many eyebrows.

Burkholder posted winning years in nine of his 13 seasons through 2012-13 and took the Purple Eagles to three NCAA tournaments in that span. Niagara went 7-28-4 two years ago and 6-25-6 this year.

“I think there are reasons, not excuses,” Gray said. “We’ve been young in hockey. Last year we had 17 freshmen and sophomores, and we had 18 one-goal games and 11 games that went to overtime. Our record was poor in those games. But if you turn half of those games around, our season looks a lot better.”

“We’ve started our season both years with our starting goalie being injured,” Gray said. “But our team the second half of this past year was much better than they were the first half of this year. … We only lose 11 percent of our scoring this year. A large amount of our contributions last year came from underclassmen, and Dave has a large incoming recruiting class.”

One challenge for Niagara hockey is its rink, Dwyer Arena, is 20 years old. Rival Canisius plays in the new HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo. Another nearby rival, Rochester Institute of Technology, also just moved into a new arena.

Nevertheless, Gray says the fact Dwyer Arena is on campus remains a significant selling point.

“I’ve been round the league, and I worked a year at Boston College,” Gray said. “I think there are several parts of Dwyer Arena that are a significant benefit to us. Our premium club is one of the best that I’ve been around. The space we have for locker rooms for our hockey program, team rooms, all of those things are benefits.”

Gray acknowledges Dwyer “could use some aesthetic improvements.”

“Making improvements in the aesthetics of the locker room and the areas where our team is, whether it’s the weight room or other areas, those are the short-term priorities for us,” Gray said. “Dwyer would benefit from new lighting, as would the Gallagher Center, only because there are so many great LED options. But I’d say the student-athlete experience is always the No. 1 focus.”

Nowhere to go but up

Gray says he’s confident work behind the scenes will start to produce better results. He hired new women’s basketball coach Jada Pierce a year ago. He hired new coaches for men’s soccer, men’s and women’s tennis and strength and conditioning. He said last year was the second-best year in the last eight in giving to the Purple & White Club.

“I see my role as somewhat bringing stability in our first year, last year,” Gray said. “We inserted accountability and goals and evaluation and assessment. Not that it wasn’t being done before. But I think we’ve made improvements in our hiring of personnel in different areas, and we’re focused on improving our support services. All those things will help improve who we can get here and then retain them as well.”

“Our business is competitive, so people have to look at wins and losses,” Gray said. “But it can’t be lost that we have a successful graduation rate, and our athletics GPA is strong, particularly compared to our peers and the student body, and we take very seriously our commitment to serving the community.”

Said Wolfgang: “If you’re a true Niagara supporter I think you’ll be there and you’ll support them. I’m sure the university is not trying to de-emphasize athletics. They’re working hard. They’re producing graduates. I don’t see anything wrong with the system. You just need to come up with some winners.”

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com