LORETTO – As James Downer went through the list of 15 years worth of people he wanted to acknowledge, he caught the irony when noting the “infectious passion” he hoped to replicate of Dr. Frank Montecalvo, who headed up the search committee that decided to make Downer St. Francis University’s 12th athletic director two weeks ago.
“This is a very bad choice of words in a pandemic,” Downer said.
The bright, sunny skies under which Downer was formally introduced as the new head of Red Flash athletics on the campus mall on Wednesday afternoon served as a stark contrast to the clouds of uncertainty looming over all college sports in the wake of the coronavirus.
Later Wednesday, the Northeast Conference voted to postpone all fall sports athletics competition and championships.
The Flash were six weeks away from the biggest regular season game in the football program’s history as they were scheduled to travel to Buffalo for the team’s first-ever contest with an FBS opponent and a lucrative payday. St. Francis also is trying to maintain the momentum its flagship men’s and women’s basketball teams have been riding in recent years.
Downer’s task is to build on that at one of the smallest Division I colleges in an atmosphere where even some of the biggest schools are cutting back and dropping sports.
“Not too many people are trying to get their bearings on a new department and deal with COVID, as well,” Downer said. “I’ve chosen to take a very simple approach to that and feel that if we can do that, the rest of the job will come fairly easily.
“This lull provides a unique opportunity to get some footing and learn a little more about the department and the direction we’d like to take it as opposed to hitting the ground running.”
Downer takes over for Susan Robinson Fruchtl. A Springfield, Illinois, native, Downer spent the past three years as senior associate AD at Eastern Kentucky. Before that, the former Millsaps College baseball player had stops in the Presbyterian, Nicholls State, Oklahoma City and Central Oklahoma athletics offices.
He was picked from a group of two dozen applicants. St. Francis president Father Malachi Van Tassell said Downer’s personal character, his experience at faith-based institutions and his involvement at small colleges where he had a chance to get his hands dirty in multiple aspects of being an athletic director were his biggest assets.
“When you look at his resume, he has a well-rounded array of experience – sports administration, fundraising, negotiating of contracts with different companies,” Van Tassell said. “When you put all those together, plus having worked at a small school, we think he’s going to bring a lot of fresh ideas, as well as enthusiasm, to get us to the next level.”
In spite of the current setting, Van Tassell said the university is committed to maintaining all 23 of its sports teams. He even tossed out the idea of adding one or two more at some point.
“Sports is an enrollment driver for us,” Van Tassell said.
Although much of his work will be done behind the scenes, behind a desk and in the Stokes Club, Downer sounded every bit as competitive as his Red Flash coaches.
“This department has achieved 43 consecutive semesters of cumulative GPA above a 3.0. I want 44 straight semesters. This department has ranked in the top three in the Northeast Conference Commissioner’s Cup over the last five years. Simply, I want to win the Commissioner’s Cup every single year. We have won the Northeast Conference Building Communities Award two out of the last three years. Again, my charge does not change – I want to win that every single year,” Downer said.
While his sons Max, 5, and Caden, 3, frolicked around their mother, Erin, in the front row, Downer joked about how he thought they were going to be disappointed to find out their dad was an athletic director and not a basketball coach.
That, however, wasn’t a disappointment to Downer himself. Wednesday’s press conference was the culmination of a dream for him, and his voice cracked and he shed a few tears while addressing an audience of about 75-100. Downer’s father was a vice president of development at a small college, so Downer grew up around coaches and administrators.
He admitted the current landscape would be a challenge, with the possibility of canceling games and even entire seasons, but it was a challenge he was eager to take.
“The news is not going to stop, the pandemic is not going to stop, so I’m not going to pause on that,” Downer said. “I’m going back to work. It’s a challenge, but it’s what I signed up for.”