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Bona feels like home for new athletics director

Even though he never attended St. Bonaventure, Steve Watson felt like he was coming home Wednesday when he was introduced as the school's new athletics director.

Watson, a Franklinville native who played high school basketball at Olean Walsh, spent many nights as a child in the Reilly Center stands watching Bona games during the 1970s. During the '80s, he played in the IAABO Tournament, a longtime high school staple in the building.

He was even offered a scholarship to play basketball for the school, but chose the bright lights of the New York City area when he went to Rutgers. Still, he said some of his favorite college memories were his returns with the Scarlet Knights, losses in 1986 and 1987.

Watson turned emotional and had to briefly compose himself while recalling the memories during his introductory news conference in the RC Hall of Fame Room.

"The one thing that really drew me was the passion people have for athletics here and the loyalty that they've shown," Watson said. "It's important that people care. They're loyal and they've stuck through things here good and bad."

Watson, 38, has spent the last four years as associate AD at Eastern Michigan. His father is Dr. John Watson, interim dean of Bona's School of Business and the radio analyst for Bona home games.

"My first challenge is to make sure my father understands I'm the athletic director and he's not," Watson joked. "He has a strong administrative background but this is what I do. I've done it for a number of years and I feel confident in my abilities to make good decisions."

Watson -- who stands 6-foot-8 -- was a second-team All-Western New York choice as a senior at Walsh in 1986, making that squad along with Nichols sophomore Christian Laettner. He played two years at Rutgers under Craig Littlepage, now the AD at Virginia and the chairman of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. He called Littlepage his main mentor through his seven-year career in athletic administration at Dayton and Eastern Michigan.

"Having that guy in your corner is pretty solid," Watson said.

Watson transferred to Bowling Green when Littlepage was fired and played his final two years under Jim Larranaga, the coach who directed George Mason on its improbable run to last year's Final Four.

Watson has to embark on an immediate review of the struggling men's basketball program and will also have to make a decision about women's coach Jim Crowley.

Crowley, in the final year of his contract, is just 57-119 in seven seasons. But the Bona women, who are 4-5 and play Saturday at Canisius, have faced a tough schedule that includes losses to two ranked teams, Pittsburgh and Bowling Green. Five freshmen and sophomores are playing major minutes and Crowley's three-player recruiting class is considered one of his best.

While the basketball programs are struggling, things are much brighter elsewhere in Bona athletics.

Baseball, softball, swimming, lacrosse and tennis have all made major inroads, with baseball and swimming capturing Atlantic 10 titles. The softball team set a school record last season with 23 wins and led Division I with a 3.59 cumulative grade-point average.

The school just completed a renovation of its baseball field thanks to a $900,000 donation from Thomas Marra, a former Bona player who is on the board of trustees.

"This is home. I grew up here," Watson said. "Some of my first memories are here. I'm passionate about this place."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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