Grand Canyon Has Found the Secret to Rapid Division I Basketball Success

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2016

Grand Canyon fans before an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

PHOENIX — College basketball's top division has 351 members for the 2016-17 season, an increase of nearly 11 percent since 2000. But even the most diehard fan would be hard-pressed to know much about the newest Division I entrants, most of whom toil in anonymity for a few years until they do something noteworthy like make the NCAA tournament and pull off an upset.

Grand Canyon University is trying to change this perception. It's unwilling to wait around hoping someone will notice it. The Antelopes have turned the spotlight on themselves, potentially taking attention away from an established D-I program in their market, and in doing so may have found the cheat code needed to be instantly successful.

The Phoenix-based private school is in the fourth year of an NCAA-mandated transition period, having moved up from Division II prior to the 2013-14 season. It's not eligible for the NCAA tournament until 2017-18, but even without that opportunity, it's made headlines in a way no other new D-I team has. And that's by design.

"We wanted to be competitive right away," GCU President Brian Mueller told Bleacher Report.

There's a big difference between wanting something and making it happen. For Grand Canyon, it required having the right people involved in the transition process and getting high-profile programs to treat it like one of the them instead of the new kid in school. The latter wasn't an easy sell, since GCU is unlike any other D-I school in that it operates as a for-profit institution.

GCU's controversial business model, its aggressive approach to the transition and its early success mean it stands out from the pack of recent Division I additions.


Building Blocks

Grand Canyon is one of four transitioning D-I men's basketball programs along with Massachusetts-Lowell and Texas schools Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word. Each is in its final year of the process.

For GCU, the move was part of a long climb out of the gutter that began when it resorted to a for-profit model in order to avoid bankruptcy. That was back in 2004, when the Christian university had about 900 students on an aging 95-acre campus that hadn't changed much in its 50-plus-year history.

"We were in a bad spot," said Mueller, who came on board in June 2008, when the school was in much better financial shape.

A few months later, an initial public offering on the NASDAQ exchange raised $254 million in capital. Most of that went toward establishing a massive online curriculum that now caters to the more than 40,000 students who make up more than two-thirds of the school's total enrollment, which includes 17,500 non-online students.

Once expansion of the physical campus began, so did the discussion about jumping to Division I athletics. GCU was successful in D-II, winning the Directors' Cup—awarded to the most successful athletic program in each division—in each of the final two years before it moved up. But Mueller said part of the push to move to D-I came because "nobody cares" much about D-II, particularly in a market that includes all four major professional sports and a well-established D-I program in Arizona State.

If GCU played in D-I, however, that would be different, even in a crowded market.

"Philadelphia has five Division I programs as well as all the pro sports, and they're able to all be successful," Mueller said.

That's when two of the most well-known and well-regarded sports figures in Phoenix stepped in.

In 2011, Jerry Colangelo, former owner of both the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks, helped spearhead the move when he invited NCAA President Mark Emmert to visit GCU's growing campus. Colangelo had first gotten involved with the school to help establish a sports business program, and its business school is now named after him.

Mueller said Colangelo put GCU in touch with Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg, whose school started to move up from Division II in 2008. That led to GCU's getting an invite to join Division I and the Western Athletic Conference in November 2012 (to join D-I, a school must receive an invitation from a conference).

Jerry Colangelo and Dan Majerle in 2003, when Majerle had his jersey retired by the Phoenix Suns.
Jerry Colangelo and Dan Majerle in 2003, when Majerle had his jersey retired by the Phoenix Suns.Barry Gossage/Getty Images

The next step was to find a coach who could pilot the jump. And it just so happened Colangelo knew someone who was looking for a change.

Dan Majerle, a 14-year NBA veteran who was a fan favorite during his time with the Suns, had been part of the Phoenix coaching staff since 2008. In January 2013, when the Suns fired head coach Alvin Gentry, Majerle looked to be in line to get the interim gig.

"But they decided to promote Lindsey Hunter—skipped over me and a couple other guys—so I said I'm leaving," Majerle said. "Mr. Colangelo called me...asked would I be willing to sit down. I just loved the vision they had. It happened pretty quickly."


'Toughest Crowd I've Ever Faced'

GCU Arena opened in 2011 as a 5,000-seat facility and averaged 4,373 fans per game during the Antelopes' first Division I season in 2013-14. It hasn't been tough to fill 7,200 seats since a 2014 expansion, and GCU has drawn 6,947 spectators per game for five home contests this season. That includes a record 7,493 fans for a Dec. 3 game against Louisville.

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Yes, that Louisville. Though Grand Canyon is not yet a full D-I member, it's managed to convince some big names to play it in Phoenix. The Dec. 3 contest was the only true nonconference road game the 11th-ranked Cardinals scheduled this season, and it nearly proved disastrous. They had nothing to gain from playing such a game, but Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino had agreed to a home-and-home as a favor to Colangelo. Louisville trailed by one at halftime before winning 79-70.

"This, in college basketball, in my 40-plus years, was the toughest crowd I've ever faced," Pitino said afterward, a message the school has now incorporated into its pregame video montage. "Whether we go to Duke, Kentucky...nothing was as tough as that environment tonight."

Pitino was particularly in awe of the Havocs—the GCU student section that takes up one side of the court and goes through a variety of choreographed chants, cheers and dance routines before, during and even after games. Before tipoff, the Havocs are the center of what's called the Purple Pregame Party.

Grand Canyon's average crowd this season would have ranked 71st in Division I last season. About 15 miles away, in Tempe, Arizona State has averaged 5,991 fans per game for its four contests at the 14,000-seat Wells Fargo Arena. The Sun Devils ranked 94th in 2015-16, averaging 5,806 spectators per game.


The For-Profit Stigma

Grand Canyon and Arizona State used to be frequent competitors in many sports, including men's basketball, with the Sun Devils helping open GCU Arena in a November 2011 exhibition. But the teams have yet to play since GCU moved to Division I, with ASU reportedly initiating a protest by the Pac-12 Conference against allowing a school with a for-profit model to compete at that level.

Arizona State officials declined to comment for this story, but in July 2013, ASU President Michael Crow told the Arizona Republic, "We are against using athletics as a mechanism to make profits. It's contrary to what we're trying to do."

The Pac-12 issued a three-year moratorium on its schools scheduling GCU, a ban that ended after the 2015-16 season. Arizona will be the first Pac-12 school to play the Antelopes in basketball when it hosts them on Wednesday in Tucson, and Mueller said he hopes that will prompt other schools to follow suit.

But that probably won't include Arizona State, which Mueller believes pushed for the ban not because of concerns about its business model but rather out of fear that contributing to Grand Canyon's athletic success could cause ASU to lose out on prospective students from the region and beyond.

"Arizona State competed against us in 20 different sports when we were Division II and had no problem," Mueller said. "They didn't care. But once we moved to Division I..."

Mueller said labeling GCU as for-profit is misleading because that lumps it in with other such schools, many of which have come under scrutiny for poor management and/or predatory student loan practices. He said all that makes his school qualify as a for-profit institution is that it's publicly traded and thus only people who own its stock can profit when the price goes up. He said there are no dividends paid out to shareholders from money taken in by the school via tuition or other sources like athletics.

"We don't make money on athletics," Mueller said. "It's a major loser."

Despite that, Grand Canyon continues to expand its athletic footprint on campus, where more than 9,000 students live in dorms. A 5,000-seat soccer stadium opened in August, ground was recently broken on a basketball practice facility and the school's baseball and softball stadiums are set for major facelifts in the near future.

Mueller said investing in athletics is important to continue to foster a sense of community on campus. This could be seen prior to the Louisville game, when dozens of students camped out in a grassy area north of GCU Arena to ensure they were first in line for seats in the Havocs section.

In 2014, GCU began the process to shift back to nonprofit status, meaning it would buyout its shareholders, but in February, its main accrediting agency blocked that move. Mueller said there's no longer a need for outside investment capital because of the school's strong financial standing, which prompted the attempt to go nonprofit. If the school makes another effort to drop its for-profit status, it won't be until late in 2017.


Recruiting, Then vs. Now

In 2013, Majerle inherited a roster that was built to play in Division II but would be facing tougher competition. The players he sought to add had to be better but also willing to play on teams that wouldn't have a shot at the NCAA tournament.

"It was extremely hard at first," Majerle said. "I went to Australia. It seemed like kids there didn't care as much about getting into the tournament. I looked at overseas kids, took some kids who were hurt and took a chance on them. Maybe we'd get some transfers."

Joshua Braun, a former Phoenix-area prospect, said he had offers from Ivy League schools and those in the West Coast Conference and some minor Pac-12 interest, but when he tore his ACL, "a lot of teams backed off." Grand Canyon's previous staff had offered him, and Majerle honored that offer.

Braun said he knew he wouldn't get a shot to play in the NCAA tourney early on (he redshirted his first season and will still be eligible in 2017-18 as a fifth-year senior), but he understood he could help build a foundation for future teams.

"We're trying to pave the way...create a basketball culture," Braun said. "We get to establish that."

Senior DeWayne Russell is averaging 25.4 points per game, which is the second-best mark in Division I.
Senior DeWayne Russell is averaging 25.4 points per game, which is the second-best mark in Division I.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/Associated Press

DeWayne Russell, who played prep ball in Peoria, began his college career at Northern Arizona but looked to transfer after his first season in 2012-13. He ended up picking GCU over offers from nearly a dozen other programs, including a handful that have made the NCAA tourney in the last two seasons. UAB, which upset Iowa State in the first round of the 2015 tourney, was one of those programs, as were 2016 qualifiers CSU Bakersfield, Iona and Iowa.

"It did weigh in a little bit," Russell, a senior, said. "But how great the people were here ... that was more important. Most people don't get to meet those kind of people in their lives. I was going to be able to come there and start something that's going to be special for years to come."

Majerle's biggest carrot in those first years was the possibility of getting to the NBA some day. He used his story of being "a 6'5" center" who played at Central Michigan but was a first-round draft pick in 1988.

"In recruiting, it helps to have an NBA guy," he said. "A lot of these kids didn't know who I was, but their parents did."

With the transition nearly over, Majerle has had to switch gears with his pitch. He can now cite GCU's early success and also its tremendous home-court atmosphere to woo prospects.

It worked on freshman wing Oscar Frayer, an Oakland, California, product who picked GCU over Nevada, Oregon State and Saint Mary's. He said he made his visit in January for the Antelopes' win over WAC power New Mexico State before a then-record crowd of 7,413.

"I didn't even take another visit after that," Frayer said.


Can Grand Canyon's Success Be Matched?

GCU is 5-4 this season after two straight wins, including a 76-72 home victory over San Diego State on Dec. 7. Last year, the Antelopes won at SDSU and beat Houston in Las Vegas on their way to 27 wins and the quarterfinals of the Postseason Tournament. They were 15-15 in their first Division I season in 2013-14 and 17-15 the following year, and a fourth consecutive non-losing record is likely.

To compare, the three other transitioning D-I schools went a combined 123-141 in their first three seasons and are a collective 12-14 this season.

Of the other schools that have jumped to D-I since 2000, only a few have come anywhere close to being this good right away. Florida Gulf Coast made the NCAA tournament in 2013, its second post-transition year, pulling off two upsets en route to the Sweet 16, and in 2009, North Dakota State became the first team in 37 years to make the tourney in its initial season of D-I play.

Comparing Attendance of Newest Division I Programs
SchoolAvg 2015-16 CrowdTop 2016-17 Crowd
Abilene Christian1,3331,750 (Nov. 11 vs. Schreiner)
Florida Gulf Coast3,6684,415 (Nov. 16 vs. Texas-Arlington)
Grand Canyon5,8057,493 (Dec. 3 vs. Louisville)
Houston Baptist750678 (Nov. 18 vs. Dallas Christian)
Incarnate Word924685 (Nov. 15 vs. St. Edward's)
Massachusetts-Lowell1,0431,472 (Nov. 26 vs. LIU-Brooklyn)
Nebraska-Omaha2,2651,814 (Nov. 19 vs. Rice)
North Dakota1,8502,207 (Nov. 11 vs. Crown College)
Northern Kentucky2,2962,141 (Nov. 26 vs. NC Central)
Southern Illinois-Edwardsville1,6643,017 (Nov. 18 vs. Southern Illinois)
Bleacher Report

But before FGCU's "Dunk City" squad toppled Georgetown and San Diego State, it was a complete unknown, led by a head coach (Andy Enfield) who few had heard of. NDSU had been a perennially strong D-II program before it moved up, serving as a breeding ground for coaches such as Creighton's Greg McDermott and Nebraska's Tim Miles, and as the only game in town, it made sense to move up.

By moving to D-I, Grand Canyon opted to scrap everything it had accomplished and start fresh, hoping the name recognition of Colangelo and Majerle could help it tap into the sports-rich Phoenix market. It's worked so far, and all signs point to the program's continuing to move in the right direction—though its success has come so rapidly that it may have unintended consequences.

When asked after the win over SDSU if he expects it will become difficult to get marquee opponents to play GCU on its home floor, Majerle said, "They've already stopped answering my call."

That's a good problem to have for a fledgling D-I team.

Grand Canyon may end up serving as a blueprint for other lower-level programs in major metropolitan areas that are interested in moving up. If, for example, another school in the Charlotte area—Johnson C. Smith University or Queens University, for instance—ever opted to join D-I alongside Davidson and UNC-Charlotte, maybe it would be wise to get Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan involved in the process.


All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.


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