Jerry Conner is latest hire in Ariz Christian branding effort

Arizona Christian University is taking a page out of the playbook of Grand Canyon University.

Arizona Christian, which is evolving from the small bible-based college in Paradise Valley formerly known as Southwestern College, is using athletics to help brand its new identity.

Grand Canyon, a small Christian college on the west side of Phoenix, has been expanding its footprint in the state by expanding its sports offerings.  In keeping with that game plan, the Division II school made several high-profile hires, including former University of Arizona basketball coach Russ Pennell in 2009.  In the spring, GCU hired former major league player, Andy Stankiewicz, to take over the baseball program; he also coached at Arizona State.

The school also just completed a $40 million sports and entertainment arena that will provide a new home for its basketball team, a major step in the process of moving up to Division I status.

So the recent addition of a Hall of Fame coach to run the Arizona Christian women’s basketball program is also a step forward for that school.  It will lend increased credibility to the school’s sports identity.

And his deep roots in the local sports community will also increase the school’s visibility and provide a boost to recruiting.

Jerry Conner is the new head coach of the women’s hoops program, following early-career stops at a handful of Arizona high schools, and then 32 years as the boys’ head coach at Shadow Mountain High School in east Phoenix.  He was the only boys’ head basketball coach the school knew until 2006, when he retired.

That follows the hire of Doyle Wilson to take the reins of the ACU baseball program.  Wilson, a former Major Leaguer, was on staff at South Mountain Community College and started the program at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, building it into a national contender.  He definitely brings a high-profile local presence to his new job.

Both Conner and Wilson have one other thing in common.  They will both take over programs that are suffering.  Conner inherits a basketball team that went 3-18 and 1-5 in conference last year.  Wilson will try to resurrect a program that finished last season 14-34.

But the Conner hire represents a bit of a gamble.  His experience to this point has involved men’s programs.

At the high-school level, he won more than 500 games.  His Shadow Mountain teams qualified for the state playoffs 13 of his last 14 seasons, reached the Final Four six times, and won the state championship in 1996 (with Mike Bibby leading the offense) and 2000.

In 2002, he was inducted into the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

After retiring from the high school game, Conner took on the task of starting a men’s program at Blue Mountain College, an NAIA school in Mississippi that had been an all-women’s school until recently.  After just three wins in three years, he returned to Arizona to take a job as the boys’ coach at Sandra Day O’Connor High School in west Phoenix.

That didn’t go as well as expected either, as his O’Connor squad finished 10-15 overall last season.

But now he’s at Arizona Christian and faced with coaching a woman’s team for the first time.  Making that adjustment may prove to be as challenging as the job at Blue Mountain.

(Photo: ACU Athletics)