Now in Division I era, Grand Canyon closes the gap
For-profit school on the plus side of the ledger after its first season playing Division I.
When Jerome Garrison got his first recruiting call from Grand Canyon, he didn’t know where the school was.
That’s not a good sign for a Phoenix-based university trying to recruit a player from its home city, but who could blame Garrison? Grand Canyon, an NCAA Division II school, wasn’t exactly on the radar of basketball players dreaming of playing in college.
“Nobody knew about Grand Canyon,” he said. “Nobody knew anything going on at Grand Canyon. All you heard about was (Arizona State) and (Arizona) here.”
But he decided to take a visit anyway. He had gotten into the recruiting process late, and at the very least, Grand Canyon could give him the chance to play college basketball with a scholarship. His mom encouraged him to keep an open mind. When he got to campus — hiding in plain sight at 35th and Camelback — he saw the palm-lined sidewalks, the state-of-the-art buildings and the vision for the future pitched by school President and CEO Brian Mueller. He was sold.
As a junior this season, Garrison has played 94% of his team’s minutes — in the top 10 nationally at the time his season concluded. He’s the star of a team that hardly resembles the one his friends told him he was “stupid, in a sense” to commit to out of high school.
Now a Division I school, Grand Canyon finished third in the Western Athletic Conference in its inaugural year in the NCAA’s top division. Garrison now plays in front of the WAC’s best crowds, and he’s coached by Phoenix legend Dan Majerle, who played for the Phoenix Suns and left his job as a Suns assistant to be the head coach of the Antelopes.
It’s been a quick rise for Grand Canyon, and an unexpected one at that. But after nearly three years playing for the ‘Lopes, Garrison has gotten used to adapting.
“It’s constantly something going on that school, so I guess you can’t sit around and get comfortable,” he said, “because they’re going to be making improvements all the time.”
A Bold Move
In 2003, Grand Canyon found itself $20 million in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. A private school without a large donor base from its alumni, the university had few options if it wanted to stay in existence, so the administration made a bold move: transform the not-for-profit institution into a for-profit company.
Grand Canyon wasn’t the first for-profit university, but for-profit schools are still largely out-numbered by traditional not-for-profits. However, the new model worked wonders for the university. GCU made a commitment to building an online student base, and in 2008, it went public, though it does not pay dividends to investors. Between the beginning of 2009 and the end of 2013, GCU’s after-tax income was $267.5 million, according to numbers provided by university spokesman Bob Romantic. During that same time frame, the school spent $401.8 million on capital expenditures, including classrooms, residence halls, GCU Arena, the student union and more. They plan to spend $295 million over the next two years and $400 million over the next four.
Athletics became a centerpiece for the school’s second lease on life.
“We did, and unashamedly so, we utilized the athletics as an enrollment tool during those crucial times when a lot of people thought the ground campus was going to go away,” athletic director Keith Baker said.
According to Baker, there was a time when roughly 30 percent of a 1,100-member on-campus student body was athletes. Now, thanks to the exposure partially created by athletics, enrollment on campus is more than 8,000. Baker said the goal is to get to 10,000 on-campus students by the fall of 2014, and 12,000 by 2015. This is due in part to GCU’s low tuition rates — Mueller said the average student pays $7,800 for tuition and $6,500 for room and board.
Though GCU’s status as a publicly traded company helped it build up the university, Mueller said that is not how the university will grow its financial resources in the future. Rather, having both online and on-campus students is the key to GCU’s future financial success.
“What gives us an advantage from a financial standpoint is the hybrid model — the fact that we have the 8,500 students on our campus, which will grow to 25,000, and the 50,000 online students, which will grow at 6 or 7 percent a year,” he said. “It’s that hybrid model, which is so efficient, that is giving us the dollars to invest (in academics and athletics),” Mueller said.
Because of its model, GCU can afford to put money into its sports teams to make them competitive with their peers in facilities and recruiting. As a result, the ‘Lopes out-shined many of their Division II peers. In November 2012, GCU announced that it would be joining the WAC in Division I, becoming the first for-profit school in that division.
The Pac-12 Conference and Arizona State took exception. Neither could be reached for comment for this story, but last summer, both asked the NCAA to reconsider Grand Canyon’s admission to college athletics’ major governing body, citing values differences between for-profit and not-for-profit institutions. Arizona State has refused to schedule games with GCU, and the Pac-12 threatened to follow suit, though it has not formally done so.
“Several of the Pac-12 institutions, having agreed to play us during the current academic year went ahead and did that, but did so with the idea that … we’ll play this year, but we don’t know what will happen in the near future,” Baker said.
Mueller noted that GCU still has “far” fewer resources than Pac-12 teams, and the school does not receive tens of millions of dollars in TV revenue like major-conference schools do.
The WAC never had an issue with GCU’s tax status, and commissioner Jeff Hurd said the school met all of the necessary requirements to join the conference at the start of the 2013-14 academic year.
“I think the whole idea of a for-profit is overblown,” he said. “The differences between Grand Canyon and any other public university or private university simply are Grand Canyon is a publicly traded institution. The term is for-profit, obviously, but there’s not an institution in the country that isn’t trying to generate a profit.”
The First Season
Even though he competition would inherently be tougher in Division I, Baker didn’t want to see a major drop-off in the competitiveness of his teams
“We wanted to ensure that there was that expectation of, I won’t say immediate success, but immediate competitiveness at this level,” he said.
So with that in mind, Baker let coach Russ Pennell go. It was a controversial move, because Pennell was successful at GCU, compiling a 72-44 record. However, the move also provided the ‘Lopes with the chance to get a Phoenix legend — one who Mueller said he had seen attending GCU games.
Majerle left the Suns organization after head coach Alvin Gentry was fired “not having any plans whatsoever.” Soon after, received a call from Mueller, who had reached out through former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, the namesake of GCU’s Colangelo School of Sports Business.
“They were going from Division II to Division I, they were planning to make a change at the coaching level and wanted to know if I’d interview and sit down and talk about it,” Majerle said, “and of course I jumped at it.”
For Majerle, it was the perfect situation. He would get to stay in Phoenix, where his kids live and where he owns five restaurants, he would get to be a head coach and he would get to be part of the building process for a program that had the resources to be successful at the Division I level.
“I didn’t have any expectations at all,” he said. “Obviously we were new in Division I. I started late, so I virtually had no time to recruit. I brought most players back from the Division II team that they had the year before. I didn’t know anything about the WAC; there are a lot of new teams with the WAC.”
Grand Canyon had been in a similar situation before. The ‘Lopes’ baseball team went to Division I in the early 90s, when GCU joined the NCAA. Previously an NAIA school, Baker said the ‘Lopes had success at times against Division I schools, but playing the “grind” of a Division I schedule was a completely different animal.
“With that baseball experience from the early 90s, I was a little bit nervous about how well our teams would do in this first year,” Baker said. “And to a degree, I’ve been very, to be honest, pleasantly surprised.”
Despite being picked last by the media and second-to-last by the coaches in the preseason WAC polls, GCU finished third in the conference, with a 15-14 (10-6 WAC) record. While the WAC isn’t exactly a powerhouse, it isn’t full of pushovers. The conference was rated 22nd out of the 32 Division I conferences by KenPom.com, and GCU was in the top 250 of the KenPom ratings at the end of the regular season.
Because the ‘Lopes are transitioning to Division I, they will be ineligible for the NCAA Tournament until the 2017-18 season, and therefore cannot participate in this week’s WAC Tournament. However, Majerle said there is a good chance GCU will be able to compete in the CBI or the CIT at the end of the year. That kind of success surprised even Garrison.
“The times we played Division Is with the teams we’d had in the past, we would compete but we’d rarely win,” he said. “Once we started playing the competition more often and seeing the different atmospheres we were playing in, realizing how to play at that level and what it takes, we just got comfortable. We went into the WAC thinking, let’s compete, let’s not just lose games. Let’s really go into the WAC and try to win the WAC.”
The possibility of playing in the postseason in the school’s first year in Division I was such a stretch that Majerle hasn’t even been able to pitch the possibility of postseason play to recruits.
“At the beginning of the year, I don’t think anybody thought we’d be good enough to play in those tournaments,” Majerle said. “To be centered to do that and to be able to do it in our first year is amazing. It just shows the potential we have, and how hard we work and the future of this program.”
The Pitch and the Support
Majerle’s recruiting pitch may not include the possibility of playing in the NCAA Tournament — at least, not yet — but he feels he still has some strong selling points for recruits. Among them: playing for an NBA coach, connections to the NBA, a beautiful campus in the fifth-largest city in the nation, a fun environment and the opportunity to play against the best — GCU will play Kentucky next year.
More importantly, Grand Canyon has the money and the resources to recruit. Even though the school is just transitioning to Division I, it is in a better place, resources-wise, than many of its smaller Division I counterparts.
“We’re fortunate enough where we have the funds where we can travel and recruit,” Majerle said, “and we’re going to use that to our advantage.”
Majerle was able to travel to Australia this year to recruit, and he signed two Australian players in his 2014 recruiting class — Gerard Martin and Matt Jackson — both of whom have competed for Australia at FIBA World Championship events.
Another advantage for Grand Canyon: the atmosphere at Grand Canyon University Arena. According to Baker, the arena has 4,200-4,300 seats — some were added midseason — and more standing room only space. The ‘Lopes averaged 4,614 fans per home game this year, and Baker said that at some games, more than 2,000 students — roughly a quarter of the student body — showed up. The arena will expand to 7,000 seats for the start of next season.
“Other schools we’ve been to, no one has really been there,”
Garrison said. “I don’t know if that’s just the lack of school support, marketing or whatever at those schools. But at Grand Canyon, they come out, and every game is sold out, and every game there’s something going on.”
GCU only played in front of two crowds all year that were bigger than any of their home crowds — at New Mexico and at Utah. The ‘Lopes’ WAC road games averaged 2,135 fans.
Part of GCU’s attendance success is by design. Baker said the school made a concerted effort this year to get students to games. Students pay an activity fee that gets them into games for free, but the university also held special events around basketball games. They extend invitations to prospective students to come to GCU for an overnight visit, and have started scheduling those visits around concerts and basketball games. They also hold special events for their vendors and sponsors.
The increasing enrollment has played a part in the improved attendance, and according to senior forward Blake Davis, so has the Dan Majerle factor.
“He was like a Phoenix legend,” Davis said, “so a lot of people at games are also Dan Majerle fans, too.”
‘The Next Butler, Gonzaga, Wichita State’
When Majerle met with Mueller and Colangelo about the job last year, he said their goals lined up perfectly: “to be a top 20 program, to put Grand Canyon on the map, to be the next Gonzaga, Butler, Wichita State, whatever you want to say.”
To a lot of people, that might sound like lip service. Any mid-major coach is going to say that, but many of those schools don’t have the financial resources to commit to their programs to make that goal a reality..
“We don’t have a football team,” Majerle said. “Basketball is the driving force for that university. Sports are a big part of the university, but basketball is the main sport that’s driving it.”
But how long will it take for Majerle to get the program where he wants it to be? Third place in the WAC is nice, but it’s not anything resembling a mid-major powerhouse. Majerle recognizes that there’s a long way to go, and he pointed to recruiting as key over the next few years, because the current team was recruited to play at the Division II level: “We have to continue to get better players,” he said
The short-term goal, Majerle said, is “to put ourselves in the conversation where we’re good enough to win the WAC, to win the tournament and to get to the NCAA Tournament.” He said he hopes to be in that position in four or five years, once GCU is eligible for the field of 68. To Majerle, there’s no time to be content in the transitional period.
“We don’t want to be patient,” he said. “We want to do it as fast as we can.”
That’s good, because if there’s one thing Grand Canyon has proven over the past decade, it’s that going slow just isn’t the ‘Lopes’ style.
This article was selected for educational purposes only.