Athletics Director Neil Hooper draws 33-year career at King’s to a close

Athletics Director Neil Hooper draws 33-year career at King's to a close

Anyone can tell you Neil Hooper is not a cynic. He lives and works by values that are heartful, respectful and, increasingly, rare. And in an academic institution where complexity is the norm, he keeps it simple—and he keeps it real. That, more than likely, is key to the longevity of his career as Athletics Director at King’s. And, of course, talent, and determination.

His career, 33 years of it, is coming to an end after the most successful season in the history of Athletics at King’s, with four Atlantic Collegiate Athletics Association (ACAA) championships, two Canadian Collegiate Athletics Association (CCAA) gold medals and league accolades for numerous players and coaches. Hooper, who describes himself as something of a “lifer” where his job at King’s is concerned, has caught a glimpse of the future though nothing, as of yet, is clearly defined. “At a certain point you see that there is another phase to life,” he explains. “One thing for sure, I’ll have an opportunity now to spend more time with my wife, time to spend with my kids.” And, likely by the time you read this, his first grandchild.

No one who knew Neil when he was young would be surprised that he built a career in athletics. Growing up in Cape Breton, sports, he says, was just his way of life. His first love was hockey, then baseball, a little later soccer, and basketball later still. “I played just about everything, except gymnastics, which I hated, probably because I wasn’t very good at it,” he chuckles. Though he didn’t know it at the time, his life path in sports was pretty much set. “The coaches I had in high school shaped my lifetime sport experience. And my dad, who loved sports, and my mom, who never missed a game. It was fertile ground for someone who would go on to make a career out of sports.”

When he graduated high school, Hooper thought he’d likely become a teacher. “But Cape Breton University had a brand-new program, a BA in Community Studies with a sports option major. Plus they recruited me to play basketball for the CBU Capers.” A Master of Physical Education in Sport Administration at the University of New Brunswick, marriage to Colleen, his wife of 37 years and his first job as Executive Director of Basketball Nova Scotia followed. Then five years and numerous job successes later, Hooper learned that King’s was looking for a new Athletics Director. “It felt like a bit of a long shot, so I was truly surprised when I got the call. Other than my marriage and the birth of my three children, that was certainly one of the greatest moments of my life.”

His first two years at King’s, Hooper coached basketball in addition to his role as Athletics Director. “It was a one-person department which, I suppose, is a model only the brave take on. I had a filing cabinet, a desk and some paper and the university receptionist did some typing for me.” But immediately, there were successes. In Hooper’s first year, 1991, King’s won the men’s soccer championship, kickstarting a decade of King’s soccer wins with coach Dave Douglas. Between 1998 and 2002 King’s won seven championships in four years across the range of men’s and women’s sports. And there’s the badminton winning streak with six straight championship wins, including this year.

Hooper never considered a move to a larger university. “I fell in love with the smallness of King’s,” he says. What he’s valued most—and this is backed up by those who’ve worked with him or been coached by him—is relationships. “My long career at King’s has been based on strong relationships. Some of the first students I coached and the first people I worked with…we stay in touch to this day.” Trisha Miles, who has worked with Hooper since 2003 and is now Athletics Coordinator, fills it out: “Neil has led the department with kindness and compassion. And as the school has grown and changed, he’s maintained his warmth and openness. I think to maintain that over the course of your career is something to behold. It’s his ability to work with people, all different personalities. He has a way of drawing you in and listening and making you feel comfortable.”

Hooper is full of praise for his colleagues and expressed thanks to Miles for “her amazing work on behalf of the department and the university,” and to Varsity Administrator James Wise “for all of his contributions to the department.”

Thirty-three years’ worth of UKC students have benefitted from Hooper’s warmth and availability. “It has never escaped me that parents who send students here trust us to provide a great and memorable experience. We don’t take our roles lightly and my goal since I arrived has been to make this the best possible experience for everyone whether they’re a bench warmer or a starter. They’re all important. We don’t want to leave any souls behind.”
The broader world of sports education has benefited from Hooper’s rich talents as well. He’s served on countless ACAA and CCAA committees over the years, with three separate terms as ACAA President. He’s been CCAA Men’s Basketball Convenor, ACAA Badminton and Men’s Basketball Convenor and Co-Chair of the 2017 CCAA Women’s Soccer National Championship, among other positions. In 2019 Hooper was named CCAA Athletic Director of the Year.

Over the course of his career, Hooper has worked with seven UKC Presidents. “I have great memories of what we’ve built. They all brought different skill sets and points of view. They weren’t all sports fans, he notes, “but they were all dialed into the role that sports had to play.” Current President Bill Lahey, Hooper sees as a superfan. “He’s a sports connoisseur. He goes to every game. He’s an amazing individual who believes in people. We’ve shared a lot of common ground about how important it is to enrich the lives of students.”

Lahey says Hooper has created a “legacy of scholar athletes,” as Athletics Director.

“Neil has done a remarkable job of building and maintaining an athletics department that is perfectly suited to King’s. He motivates students and coaches and brings the community together in pursuit of excellence on the field and on the court, that includes the spirit of love and support that characterizes King’s. Working with him and assisting him and our scholar athletes in every way I could has been a career highlight for me. We will miss him tremendously, but equally we are excited for him to enjoy more time with his family and a well-deserved retirement.”

Among Hooper’s greatest hits—though, not surprisingly, he throws all the credit to President Lahey and the Advancement Office—was his considerable involvement in the creation of the Debra Deane Little and Robert Little Academic Scholarships for Varsity Athletes. Hooper had built a strongly supportive relationship with Nick Little, son of Debra and Robert, when he attended King’s and he got to know Nick’s parents as well. “It’s been a tremendous relationship with two of the finest people I’ve known. And the scholarships have given King’s an opportunity to attract students who may not necessarily have chosen us without them.”

As for this summer, there will be time with his family and his first grandchild and as much time as possible at their summer place in Cape Breton. There will be time, as well, to begin to consider what this next stage of his life might bring. But for the moment Hooper is thinking a bit…smaller. “I’ve taken up golf, a game that has me completely baffled,” he says. “I seem to have mastered the long drive and then it will take me five or six strokes to get to the hole.”

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