Niagara doesn't have to apologize for the public face of the Taps Gallagher Center.
"It's old but it's a great place to play," men's basketball coach Joe Mihalich said. "People come to games, there's atmosphere."
What the public couldn't see is that behind the scenes the Taps qualified as substandard, particularly the women's basketball facilities.
"We always talked about it, we've joked about it: 'How do we burn this building down without ruining the gym?' " women's basketball coach Kendra Faustin said with a laugh.
The era of apologizing to basketball players and recruits for scant amenities is ending. The Gallagher Center has been shut down for the summer as workers renovate and/or create team areas, locker rooms, coaches offices and the sub-level student lounge. The $3 million project at the 62-year-old facility is scheduled for completion in late summer and will better position the Purple Eagles to recruit against their Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference rivals.
"If you didn't know the inside world of athletics you would say, 'Why do you need all that stuff to be successful?' " Faustin said. "And I'm not saying you have to have it to be successful. But it definitely helps in being competitive in recruiting and we know that recruiting is the lifeline to your program. I can't stress enough how much it will help us change our culture."
"You see what Canisius has done, they got the film rooms and the locker rooms," Mihalich said. "Marist has spent $3.2 million to renovate their basketball facility. It's what's going on out there. If you want to have a good program you certainly got to have the facilities that the good players want to play in."
"I think Taps is looking down from heaven and he's thrilled that we're finally doing something with the building," said director of athletics Ed McLaughlin. "It's going to be a great change, it really will."
McLaughlin, hired in July 2006, began tinkering with an overhaul of the Gallagher Center after Niagara won the 2007 MAAC basketball championship. Fundraising efforts commenced soon afterward. It would be a painstaking process raising capital, but the need was evident, especially in regard to women's basketball.
"We couldn't watch film in our locker room for example," Faustin said. "It wasn't big enough for our whole staff and our whole team to fit in there. So we would have to go downstairs and watch film down there. So here I am, drawing on the board, getting after somebody, and there's some student peering in the window. So that was interesting.
"Study hall, we used to have to go over to the library. There was no place for us to be as a team. Over Christmas break we eat every meal together and the cafeteria's not open, so here we are downstairs with all our stuff spread out, no refrigerator, no place to put anything. Now we have a space that is really for us and our student-athletes. I think that other institutions have those things and I felt that our student-athletes were a little sold short in that way."
> The championship quest
If basketball is the signature program of Niagara athletics, hockey runs a close second.
The school added the men's program, which began play during the 1996-97 season. In their fourth season, the Purple Eagles not only earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Division I Tournament but reached the Elite Eight where they lost to eventual national champion North Dakota. Niagara made its second trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2004 and showed promise as a program capable of cultivating a national presence. The women's program, which started play during the 1998-99 season, appeared in the Frozen Four in 2002.
The anticipated growth has stalled as the Niagara men were bypassed when the ECAC, one of the "Big Four" conferences, expanded in 2004. The Purple Eagles, who also made the NCAA Tournament in 2008, have since moved into the 12-scholarship Atlantic Hockey Association as their former league, College Hockey America, was weakened by dwindling membership.
The changing dynamics raise the question of whether the initial mission of Niagara hockey -- to compete for national championships -- remains a viable goal.
"It's realistic and it's still a goal of ours," coach Dave Burkholder said. "Our goal is to win a national championship here. I say that to recruits and truly believe that. I wake up every day and that's my goal, that's the goal of the program.
"It's only been 15 years," Burkholder added. "We have 15 years of history or tradition that we've built and I think we're still going in the right direction. Recruiting's been really good. We're proud of what we've done on the ice and off the ice. We've graduated every player that's played four years here at Niagara. We're really proud of that. Our GPA last semester was a 3.41, which should be the top male program and should put us in the top four out of the  sports on campus. So it's all good. Are we close to winning a national championship? No. But we're getting there. I still think it's possible."
"Going forward, we're starting to bring in some players who have had success at their level before coming in," said women's coach Chris MacKenzie. "Some are national level players and we hope that at some point that will get us up into the top 10 in the country. We can compete with the top 10. We're not quite there yet."
What will it take? It's a question difficult to answer given college hockey's state of flux. The Big Ten has announced it will form its own hockey conference and begin play in 2013-14. The dominoes will soon begin to fall in response as programs left out of the mix look for new homes.
Burkholder believes Niagara can better position itself for inclusion in a premier league by following through on the delayed expansion of Dwyer Arena.
"I think eventually we're going to have to do something to the rink in regards to finishing it off," Burkholder said. "I think it's a great atmosphere when the Dwyer is packed, but I think to take it to the next level we're probably going to have to build on what we have done.
"Bringing players in and seeing a fully finished rink packed with fans and a band and a great game atmosphere is top two in the recruiting process for a 17-, 18-year-old high school student looking to play Division I."
But McLaughlin wonders if the cost can be justified, or if it's wise for a small Catholic university to expand its 2,100-seat facility without knowing how the sport will evolve over the next 24 months. Seating capacity requirements prevalent in the elite conferences could be eased as schools look to realign in a way that cuts down on travel costs and missed class time.
"I think that will factor in a lot more than, how much does your rink hold?," said McLaughlin, who oversaw the addition of premium seating at Dwyer. "I just think those philosophical similarities are a lot more important than the facility similarities.
"If someone said to me here you can expand the rink by 1,000 seats tomorrow if you can demonstrate an absolute need for it, I think tomorrow would be hard because no one's saying to us you need this many seats to be in a league," McLaughlin said. "We're in a league right now. Our facility is competitive if not one of the better rinks in the league. And as I see the whole thing shaking out nationally, I'm not sure the league's are all going to have those requirements as they go forward. I just think there's going to be a lot of change."
> Coaches' salaries rise
Making the economics work always has been and likely will be a challenge at schools such as Niagara, which has an undergraduate enrollment of 3,800. Trying to keep up with the Fairfields within the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference can be daunting. Siena leads the way in basketball revenue thanks to recent successes and its ability to draw large crowds at a downtown Albany Arena. Fairfield recently built a new basketball facility and just hired a new coach -- at $400,000 per season.
"If someone said to me when I first got this job, 'By the way, someone is your league is going to be paying 400 grand a year, before any incentives, in five years,' I'd have said you got to be crazy. How can small Catholic schools afford that? But they do," McLaughlin said.
"That makes it hard. Hockey's getting out of control, too. Some of these guys, the new hires, you hear stories. So-and-so got $250,000 a year. So-and-so got $260,000 a year. It's getting harder. It's not as ridiculous as basketball, but it's getting ridiculous."
Rampant escalation in coaches salaries is one of the things that makes McLaughlin take a hard look at the need to expand Dwyer Arena. Balancing all the needs of all the sports programs requires give and take. For instance, Niagara has won two straight MAAC women's volleyball titles. Coach Susan Clements is bound to start receiving more lucrative offers. And plus there's the desire to become more competitive in other sports: Niagara ranked last overall in the MAAC's Commissioner Cup Standings in 2010-11, finishing last among men's programs and eighth out of 10 among women's programs.
"Volleyball's not the norm, but certainly we can be in the middle of the pack in a lot of stuff," McLaughlin said. "We've been there. We've had some new coaches cycle through too so that's been a bit of a challenge, but it always is.
"I think it shows our folks see there is a really big value in athletics, especially in the basketballs and hockey. I've been around five college presidents and there's not a better one than him [Rev. Joseph L. Levesque]. There's not. And the administration that works with him, we get a whole lot of support."
What do its sports programs mean to Niagara?
"I think I've heard Father Levesque say this: It's the window through which all your alums see the university," Mihalich said. "I heard somebody say, 'Nobody ever goes to the president and says, Hey, how's your library doing?' They say, 'How's the basketball team doing?' It's true. Nobody e-mails and says, 'How's your library?' They say, 'Can we beat Canisius this year? Can we beat Bonaventure this year?'
"We're lucky Father Levesque is as supportive of athletics as he is. I think he feels that a good, strong athletic department will attract students and keep the university's blood pumping."
This is the second of four stories about the state of athletics at the Big 4 schools. Today's installment deals with Niagara University.
GRAPHIC: BREAKING DOWN THE PURPLE EAGLES BY SPORT
Men's sports W L T Conf. Fast fact
Baseball 8-40 5-19 Haven't had consecutive winning seasons since 1971-75
Basketball 9-23 5-13 Mihalich's 13 seasons: 2 NCAA and 2 NIT appearances; 2 losing seasons
Hockey 18-13-4 15-10-2 3 NCAAs in 14 seasons; Ambitious non-conference schedule for '11-12
Soccer 6-9-2, 4-3-1 Lost MAAC final in '09; Made conference tourney 6 of last 8 years
Swimming and diving Seventh place at MAAC; diver Ian O'Rourke two-time MAAC champion
Tennis 3-15 3-3 Jeremy Quiroz MAAC Co-Rookie of the Year, All-MAAC Second Team
Golf Last place at MAAC; Trevor Kenney 10th out of 46 golfers in tourney
Cross country Eighth out of 10 teams in MAAC Championships
Women's sports W L T Conf. Fast fact
Volleyball 25-9 17-1 Two-time defending MAAC champions still loaded
Basketball 1-29 0-18 Couldn't build on strong '09-10 finish due to injuries, lack of depth
Hockey 11-18-5 8-6-2 Solid defensive team could be scary if it averages more than 1.5 goals per game
Lacrosse 2-11 1-5 21 wins since last winning season in 2004, only 10 wins last 5 years
Soccer 10-6-1 5-4 No losing seasons since '01 for the '06 MAAC Champs/NCAA participant
Softball 18-22 6-12 Graduate 2-time MAAC POY Teresa Healy, who's playing in Germany
Tennis Didn't field a team due to unforeseen circumstances; slated to return this year
Swimming and diving Co-host '12 MAAC Championships with Canisius at ECC's Flickinger Center
Cross Country Sixth place at MAAC highlighted by freshman Kim Vona's top-five finish
Golf Niagara's newest addition to roster entering just its third season of play
Note: Win-loss records unavailable for some sports