Grand Canyon University’s rising athletic program turning heads

Take a stroll around the campus of Grand Canyon University and new academic buildings, a recently renovated basketball arena and new student housing stand out. So do the sounds of the future.

Construction crews have been hard at work on GCU’s campus for months and the sights and sounds of the new developments, including a new soccer stadium, can been seen and heard on every corner of campus.

“We talk about being in the top 25 in all that we do,” GCU President Brian Mueller said. “And we want each one of our athletic programs to aspire to be in the top 25 in the country. And we’re making progress.”

The soccer stadium is part of an initiative started after the university’s move to NCAA Division I athletics three years ago. Mueller hopes to see his athletic program thrive in its new environment, and things appear to be progressing quickly.

GCU had a top-35 recruiting class in basketball this past season and recently received a top-25 vote in The Associated Press basketball poll. Grand Canyon’s swim team is in the top-20 in the country.

“In terms of that being our goal, to be a transitioning school and performing at that level is exciting,” Mueller said.

GCU has drawn national attention before even completing its transition to Division I, both for its quick path to success on the fields of play and for the financial investment the university has made in pursuit of that success. The school is in the middle of a $200 million campus-improvement project that included expanding its basketball arena and building new facilities, both athletic and non-athletic. Plans for further additions and renovations to its athletic facilities are being discussed, including expanding the school’s baseball and softball fields.

GCU has also drawn attention because of its unique position in the collegiate athletic landscape. The university is the only for-profit school in Division I. Though it does not worry GCU’s conference, the Western Athletic Conference, it has others worried about what it means for the future of athletics at the collegiate level.

Fast Rise

Part of GCU’s quick progress is thanks in part to the hiring of experienced coaches who have helped to bring attention to the athletic program.

GCU hired former NBA player and Suns assistant coach Dan Majerle to lead its men’s basketball team. One of the most decorated college soccer coaches in NCAA history, Schellas Hyndman, was hired to coach the men’s soccer team in 2015 after last coaching FC Dallas in MLS. And former MLB player Andy Stankiewicz has led the baseball team for the past four seasons.

Majerle’s leadership has not only helped the basketball team to a 24-6 record and second place in the WAC this season, it has also helped spark intense interest among GCU students, thanks to the help of the Havocs.

The student group attends every home game for every GCU sport and can include up to 2,500 students for home basketball games.

“You know I was brought here to make this team a top-25 team and that’s really hard to do and the guys know that,” Majerle said. “And that’s what drives me everyday when I get up and we practice and we go hard and what’s going to happen a couple years from now so we stay focused on that and we just get after it.”

Majerle does not shy away from talking about the difficulties of coaching a transitioning program but is pleased where his team and the university are today.

“We’re writing such a great story today. You can look back at all the teams that transition from Division I and Division II and in their third year there hasn’t been a record like this, not even close,” he said. “For us to be 24-6 in our third year of transition, that’s a great story. And why not just keep it going?”

GCU’s basketball team has become the crown jewel of its athletic program early in its Division I life. The Antelopes have jumped feet first into the Division I pool, scheduling tough non-conference games against teams like Kentucky, Louisville and San Diego State. Though GCU had tough losses to Kentucky and Louisville, its win over San Diego State is one of the biggest wins in the history of the program.

Next season GCU will play the second of a home-and-home series against San Diego State and will be making a trip to Durham, North Carolina to face Mike Krzyzewski and Duke as well as a shorter trip down Interstate 10 to meet Pac-12 power Arizona. Scheduling these games against top-level basketball schools gives the players and coaching staff much-needed experience and the program much-needed exposure.

The For-Profit Debate

GCU’s transition from Division II to Division I will be complete in 2017-18 when its 22 teams become eligible for NCAA postseason play.

It is a transition that has been met with resistance from those who are against the idea of for-profit universities. GCU is the only for-profit university currently competing in Division I athletics. It is a publicly-traded company, listed on the Nasdaq under the symbol LOPE, raising capital from investors on the open market.

“The biggest difference is that a for-profit institution is trying to make money for its owners and investors,” said Ben Miller, senior director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan educational policy think tank. “A nonprofit is trying to make enough money to stay in business but not really more than that.”

During a time when college debt among students is at a high, for-profit schools have been the subject of criticism from those who suggest they mislead their students. In October, for-profit Corinthian Colleges lost a $530 million lawsuit for allegedly steering students into predatory loans.

“The stigma you get when you hear about them is essentially high-cost, low-quality,” Miller said, “That’s not true for all of them, for sure, but I think the largest players are the ones that have come under the most scrutiny for that.”

Grand Canyon, citing the negative stigma of for-profit status as one factor, is pursuing a return to not-for-profit status. According to recent media reports, GCU is close to completing a transition to not-for-profit as soon as this summer.

Miller said a substantial amount of evidence built over several years indicates that many of the largest for-profit colleges engaged in practices that were not in the best interest of students. The aggressive recruiting of students, loan programs that can cause debt to pile up and allegations of poor academic quality are among the chief complaints lodged against for-profit institutions, according to Miller.

Those critical of Grand Canyon’s move to Division I athletics have pointed to those concerns and questioned whether the school’s athletic program is being used as a marketing tool with an eye toward driving profits.

However, Keith Baker, the senior associate athletics director for business operations at Grand Canyon, said the school’s athletic program is no different than one at any other university.

“There’s not a lot of difference for us,” he said. “We are like anybody else in terms of (the) administration tells you what your resources are and you live within those resources and you produce programs for student athletes, for the campus as a whole and for those who like to watch sports.”

Baker said moving up from Division II to I was “natural” to increase visibility of the university.

The Money

“When you really think about it, Division II athletics and Division I athletics, from a budgeting perspective, there is not as much of a difference as most people think, except for football,” Mueller said. “What you get, in terms of attention, if you are at the Division I level versus the Division II level, is a huge chasm.”

Mueller hopes the basketball program can grow to a point where it can make a small profit, but GCU’s athletic program is currently losing money.

“It helps us to be on the news, on TV, in the newspaper, yes those things are all good especially when you’re doing well,” Mueller said. “They don’t make up for the investment you make from a pure monetary perspective but they really help build the brand of the university.”

The added exposure from competing in Division I athletics makes it worthwhile, according to softball coach Ann Pierson.

“That’s what you see on ESPN and in the media,” Pierson said. “We see more about the bigger programs so we’re happy to be able to represent the university and get out in the public eye in Division I.”

Mueller, who was the men’s basketball at Concordia University, Nebraska while he was a professor there from 1983-87, doesn’t try to fool anyone about GCU’s monetary situation when it comes to athletics.

“It’s going to be difficult,” he said. “There are going to be a lot of universities that are going to have a difficult time maintaining their athletic programs going forward. It’s not going to be easy.”

With an athletic budget around $20 million, GCU trails only New Mexico State among WAC schools in spending on athletics. The Lopes still fall $54 million behind crosstown rival Arizona State though, which ranks 40th out of Division I public university athletic budgets.

ASU currently boasts 23 varsity teams compared to GCU’s 22, but the one-sport difference is a big one in terms of expense – ASU plays football while GCU does not.

Though football is the top revenue driving-sport for many athletic programs across the nation, it’s not in GCU’s future, Mueller said, nor are there any immediate plans to add any other additional sports to the school’s current roster, according to Baker.

“We are not in the place that we want everything else to sacrifice to have that one thing,” Mueller said. “There are a lot of schools that have done really well without football like the Big East schools like Marquette, Seton Hall, Villanova. (Also) Gonzaga, St. Mary’s. They are all schools that have built really good athletic programs without football.”

The transition from NCAA Division II to Division I isn’t a decision that is made by the school one day and accepted the next. It takes four years to complete the move, and WAC Commissioner Jeff Hurd said in an interview with Cronkite News there are a number of criteria a school must meet.

It begins with an entry fee that must be paid to the NCAA. According to Baker, GCU paid the NCAA $1.42 million for the initiation fee.

Next, the transitioning school must have an invitation from a Division I conference. Finally, the transition requires spending four years in purgatory, without eligibility for postseason play.

In November 2012, GCU announced it would accept an invitation extended by Hurd to join the WAC.

Hurd said the Antelopes had to be the right fit for the WAC.

“One of the criteria we were looking for was a non-football-playing institution that was either on the Division I level at the time or was interested in transitioning to Division I,” he said.

The WAC currently has eight member schools, none of which play football.

Hurd also said GCU was considered a fit for the conference because of its location “in or near a large metropolitan area.” GCU is only 11 miles from Sky Harbor International Airport, making it easy for visiting teams to commute to and from the airport.

Hurd says the WAC is not overly worried about GCU’s current for-profit status.

“It’s a different model. Is there potential for concern? Perhaps,” he said. “But there hasn’t been any indication on our end and within our conference that there’s been anything there that we didn’t know about already or that we didn’t expect.”

The WAC is spread out across a huge geographical area, from Seattle to Chicago, Bakersfield, California to south Texas, Missouri to Arizona, but the Antelopes are accustomed to long trips.

Baker said the move to Division I gives GCU more exposure, and “travel has always been a way of life for us. As a Division II school, most people don’t realize we were geographically isolated from any other Division II institution.”

The athletic program is funded from the general university fund, which pays expenses like coaching salaries, scholarships and facility use.

One recent facility move by GCU – a $10 million investment in renovating the Maryvale Golf Course, renamed Grand Canyon University Golf Course. The grand reopening of the public course was in January and it is now home to GCU men’s and women’s golf teams and GCU hopes to be able to fully fund both programs with profits from the course.

The university has a contract with the city of Phoenix to earn back its investment and continue sharing the profits for the next 30 years.

Recruiting

Attracting student athletes to attend GCU has been a challenge at times in the university’s probationary years. In terms of offering athletic scholarships, the school follows the same rules as any other Division I university. However, the trick has been convincing athletes to play at the university without the hope of postseason play during the transition.

Mueller says there is one major aspect the school has that has helped draw athletes to GCU.

“Community. The reputation and the brand that we’re building is that when you come to Grand Canyon you really join a strong, evolving community,” he said.

Exposure also opens new opportunities in recruiting, but Pierson said the shift hasn’t changed where GCU looks for recruits. She said the emphasis remains on recruiting Arizona talent.

“There are a lot of kids that have this dream of playing Division I so we’re able to get in the door with them,” Pierson said.

One of the biggest obstacles in transitioning to Division I is recruiting players who are not going to be eligible for postseason play until 2017-18.

Senior guard Ryan Majerle, Dan’s nephew, said the players on the basketball team understood the situation going into it.

“I think we got everyone buying in. Everyone on the team has bought into their role, bought into what their coaches are trying to teach,” he said. “And that’s hard to do, especially sometimes the team goals may not go exactly with your individual goals or where you want to see yourself as a player.”

Kailey Regester had dreams of playing Division I softball. Recruited out of Basha High School in Chandler, the senior pitcher said GCU was her first choice because it was a smaller university and close enough to home that her family could watch her play.

Not being eligible for postseason play while at GCU, Regester said it was “disappointing but at the same time you are getting to pave the road for someone else who gets to come and play at GCU in the years to come.”

According to Mueller, what GCU is trying to accomplish in its transition is bigger than building a successful athletic program or creating a national brand for the university. Located in the middle of a lower-middle-class area, Mueller hopes the expansion of the university will bring a new life to west Phoenix.

“The fact that we’ve invested all this money at 35th Avenue and Camelback is a really important thing because we want to use that as the driver to extend that prosperity and make this a middle-class community again,” he said. “We want the students to experience that as they go through here.”