St. John's athletic director Mike Cragg was back in the familiar confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium for the Red Storm's 91-61 defeat Saturday after spending 30 years working his way up through Duke's athletic department, most notably as a deputy director of athletics under Kevin White and the senior administrator overseeing the Blue Devils' men's basketball program. 

The Chronicle's Hank Tucker sat down with Cragg Friday morning to discuss the biggest things he learned from his time in Durham and his first impressions of his new job after getting hired by St. John's last September. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: How does it feel to be back here where you worked 30 years with your own school this weekend?

Mike Cragg: It feels pretty surreal. Obviously I’m familiar with the place, so I can go and get my cup of coffee where I need to go, but it’s great to be back and it’s fun to see the things that we’ve been a part of and maybe have a fresh appreciation.

TC: You worked under three athletic directors here. What did you learn from Tom Butters, Joe Alleva and Kevin White that you’ve taken into your job now?

MC: First and foremost, from Tom Butters, for giving me the opportunity to advance in my career at a young age—that means recognizing people in your organization, look for their strength that maybe nobody else sees, so I learned that. But also the number one thing from Tom Butters was the phrase of being in the kid business. Our student-athletes, at the end of the day, we’re here for them. We serve to better their education, to better their experience and help them perform at the best of their athletic skills, so I learned that from Tom Butters at an early age too, where he would always remind us, when you’re making decisions, make the decision of what’s best for the kids.

With Kevin White, there’s no better athletic director in the country today in a very modern business-centric world that we live in. We’re here to serve the kids, we’re in the kid business, but you’re not naïve, and you can’t be to the fact that we’re in a very huge business. How you treat people, but how also you focus on the brand, the experience, the opportunities in revenue, those are all vital to the success. There’s nobody better in the country than Kevin White at doing that in his career, so I think through his thinking virtually every day, and now being in the chair, that’s made me look at it even differently.

Then obviously with Coach K, there’s no more important influence in my life day to day, on and off my job than Coach K. A day definitely doesn’t go by that I don’t think about while I was here and since I’ve been gone of how he would look at something at the highest level, and again always looking at it as opportunities. He beyond anybody else, if there’s a vision for what can be done, then it can be done, and he lives that every day here at Duke basketball. I think I lived that every day here at Duke basketball and it’s how I live at St. John’s athletics now.

TC: When you walk around here and you see the state of the men’s basketball program and look at the facilities you helped manage, what are you proudest of accomplishing in all your roles at Duke?

MC: I think I’m most proud of just being able to provide the best possible opportunities for the student-athletes at Duke, especially through facilities. When we set out with the Bostock Group and all the efforts to have a master facilities plan, which by the way, we’re going to do at St. John’s, is that we were going to impact every single coach, every single student-athletes, every single person, and we accomplished that. If you look around, there’s not a program that’s not touched by what we did over the last eight years, so that’s what I’m most proud of. 

I think people going into that felt like they’re doing this for football, or they’re doing this for basketball, and it couldn’t have been further from the truth. We did it for football and basketball, but we did it for all of the student-athletes, so I’m excited for the future of Duke athletics in the next 5-10 years when these infrastructure facilities are really going to create huge dividends as world-class athletes come here and want to be trained here and be a part of an educational experience second to none.

TC: What made this the right time and the right fit to leave?

MC: I’ve always said it has to be the right fit, and you’ll know it when it is. For us, St. John’s clearly was that, a school where athletics are important in the big picture for the university, obviously a focus on men’s basketball in particular. There’s a lot of work to be done in fundraising and increasing revenues, and at the end of the day, it’s about the quality of kids and the teaching that goes on and the coaching, just like at Duke. St. John’s has that same importance, so as we’ve met people, they’ve been terrific and it’s been a great decision.

TC: What kind of challenges do you have with revenues and branding without having a football team?

MC: There’s a whole lot of challenges, but we’re in a great place of opportunity in New York City, Madison Square Garden, Big East, so we’re at a place where we’re competing with nine other schools in the Big East that are all coming at it from a very similar way, so the football factor isn’t a factor in that none of the schools really have that. Villanova does, but none of the schools have that, so it’s all a matter of how our institution’s priorities can make it the best it can be, so I see it as we’re on 10 equal playing fields. 

With Madison Square Garden, we have something very unique in all of college athletics. In New York City, we have something very unique, so using your assets to be the best you can be, those are appealing opportunities, so for us being able to capitalize on that with fundraising and organization, we can do that. Those are the things we did here at Duke. 

TC: How does a big game at the Garden compare to a big game at Cameron?

MC: Totally different. The good news is I’ve seen lots of big games in the Garden for Duke, so I know it’s a magical place, but there’s nothing like Cameron. We have an on-campus arena that seats about 5,200, so for us, we need to make that a loud, fun place for students, active, so we have that opportunity as well. We kind of have the best of both worlds. We have on campus and then MSG. There’s only one Cameron in the world, but there’s only one MSG in the world, so I think that’s been a successful formula for Duke to have that as a quote ”home court” for the last 20 years once a year. Now, we have the opportunity that that could be our home court for our Big East season, and we’ll create some big nonconference games as well, so we’ll expand our relationship with the Garden.

TC: You’ve only been in New York for a few months, but is St. John’s a place where you feel like you could spend the rest of your career?

MC: Yeah, for sure. The people are great, the school is a very intentional opportunity for all that want to be educated. The example of our basketball team, we have a lot of kids that have transferred from other schools, but they want to be educated and they want to have an opportunity. The same thing applies to the whole entire university. There’s a lot of transfers, it’s very diverse, it’s a multicultural campus, so we love that as a family. We’re very proud of being at St. John’s, and that’s what you want to be. Can you see yourself there? I’m proud to be there every day, so the answer’s yes.