PHOENIX – With a $40 million, 5,000-seat arena and Phoenix Suns’ icon Dan Majerle as head coach, Grand Canyon University is set to become the first for-profit school to play NCAA Division I basketball.
As of July 1, the school left NCAA Division II status, accepting an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference. That began a four-year waiting period to qualify for NCAA championships in any sport.
“It’s just a logical step for us,” said Keith Baker, Grand Canyon’s athletic director. “It’s something that we had envisioned several years back. Once that (invitation) came, we were at least prepared to start making the steps necessary in order to make it a reality.”
But the Pac-12 Conference and member Arizona State University have voiced concerns about the move, which applies to each of Grand Canyon’s 22 teams, including baseball, softball, volleyball and soccer, with 450 student athletes.
Grand Canyon, a private, Christian school, became for-profit and publicly traded in 2003. In addition to 8,500 students on its west Phoenix campus, the school has 47,000 online students.
In July, Pac-12 presidents and CEOs sent the NCAA a letter that, while not mentioning Grand Canyon, asked for further review of accepting for-profit schools. The letter cited “troubling reports” about how much attention and money for-profit schools commit to athletics and academics.
ASU President Michael M. Crow later told The Arizona Republic that he doesn’t believe in competing in athletics against a for-profit university. Phone messages and an email seeking comment through ASU’s media relations office weren’t returned by Tuesday afternoon.
Brian Mueller, Grand Canyon’s president and CEO, issued a news release at the time saying he had no quarrel with ASU and adding that the school has invested $300 million on classrooms, labs, dorms and athletic facilities over the past four years.
A Pac-12 spokesman referred a reporter to the letter and said conference officials had no further comment.
Baker, Grand Canyon’s athletic director, said almost all of the interactions he’s had with Pac-12 athletic directors and coaches are supportive of the move to Division I. The only Pac-12 team on the basketball team’s schedule this season is Utah.
“We’re moving forward as if there’s not a controversy,” Baker said. “There’s lots of schools to play.”
He called Majerle’s hiring a “phenomenal” complement to the Division I move.
“It just really adds that little bit of significance to what we’re trying to do here overall,” Baker said.
The basketball team’s first game is a Nov. 1 home exhibition against UC San Diego.
Majerle, who left a job as Suns assistant coach in January, said heading a Division I program was a huge selling point.
“I want to be able to compete at the highest level,” he said. “I’ve done that in the NBA, and now in college there’s nothing better than being a Division I program.”
While Grand Canyon was successful at the Division II level, Majerle said the jump is going to be a challenge.
“I know we’ll compete, but I don’t know how much we’ll win right away,” he said. “It’s a process.”
Junior guard Jerome Garrison, who graduated from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, said the team has been practicing longer and harder in preparation for the move.
“Everything’s just more intense,” Garrison said. “You have to be that way when you’re going to Division I because that’s going to be a fast-paced, strong, explosive game.”
Baker said the athletic department has hired more personnel to handle expanded duties and to improve academic support for athletes.
In addition to the basketball arena, which opened two years ago, the school built a $9 million student recreation center three years ago that doubles as a practice facility for the basketball, volleyball and wrestling teams. Grand Canyon also has made improvements to its baseball, softball and golf facilities, Baker said.
With his face plastered on billboards and aired on commercials, Majerle has been the focal point of Grand Canyon’s new marketing campaign.
This season marks the first time the school has marketed season tickets to the general public rather than just students, alumni and staff, Baker said.
So far, the division jump has had a mixed impact on recruiting, he said.
Recruits value that the school now plays in Division I, he said, but the four years during which teams can’t compete for championships turns some off.
The move didn’t require GCU to add any new sports teams to comply with Title IX, which requires equal participation opportunities for both genders, Baker said.
“I believe one of the largest parts of our invitation was our broad-based offering of sports to begin with,” he said.