Grand Canyon athletics will move up to D-I play next year

Grand Canyon University has decided it’s time to put its sports teams in the arena with the big boys (and girls).

The small Christian-based school in west Phoenix announced yesterday that it will be moving up from NCAA Division II to play in Division I, beginning with the 2013-14 academic year.  Its new home will be the Western Athletic Conference, the same league that Arizona State and University of Arizona played in before jumping to the Pac-8 in 1978, thus enabling it to become the Pac-10, and today is the Pac-12.

This doesn’t come as a major surprise.  The school has been steadily progressing toward making the move, as officials made it clear the upgrades to the athletic program in recent years have been designed with that lofty goal in mind.  Those upgrades have included both personnel and facilities.

Probably the first high-profile move in that direction was the hiring of Russ Pennell to take over the men’s basketball program for the 2009-10 season.  Pennell had been an assistant coach at both Arizona and Arizona State and was coming off a very high-profile experience on the national stage after stepping in to take over the UofA head coaching job, assuming the interim title after hall of famer Lute Olson suddenly departed the program.

Pennell took the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 that season, but the university opted not to renew his contract and he saw an opportunity at GCU to get on board as the school became committed to growth in its sports programs.

To sweeten the pot in attracting Pennell, the school added a new practice gym and locker room, and then provided him a pocket full of scholarships to begin the recruiting process.  It also gave the new caoch the authority to add three assistant coaches, a staff larger than many of the top D-II programs.

The school, which had a large online enrollment but just around 1,800 students on campus, had plans to increase the on-campus enrollment to 5,000 within a few years.  And the university acknowledged at the time that his hire was intended as a step toward taking the program to that next level of development.  The sports programs became the marketing tool that would drive that growth.

After the Pennell hire, the next step was to find a big name for its other major sport, baseball (GCU does not field a football team).  They did that in April of 2011 when they hired Andy Stankiewicz, someone with local ties but also with professional managerial experience with a very high-profile organization, the New York Yankees.

Stankiewicz had been an assistant coach at Arizona State from 2007-09 when the Sun Devils won three Pac-10 championships and made two appearances in the College World Series.  He had also played professionally with three MLB teams, was the manager for the Yankees’ Penn League team in Staten Island, and was serving as the minor league field coordinator for the Seattle Mariners before accepting the GCU job.

The final piece to the process was a 5,000-seat arena for its men’s and women’s basketball teams, which is also used for wrestling and volleyball.  The Arizona State men’s basketball team helped christen the new facility in an exhibition game before the 2011 season got underway.

That 135,000 square-foot Event Center is the centerpiece of a $60 million expansion plan that will include four buildings.  A  Recreation Center features three basketball courts and practice facilities for both wrestling and volleyball.

The invitation to join the WAC was something of a desperation measure by that conference, which is losing a majority of its member schools that have opted to switch to other conferences.  GCU will replace the University of Denver, which is leaving to join the Summit League.

With GCU on board next season, the WAC will have six member schools, which they must carry to keep from losing their automatic qualifying berth in the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

In addition to GCU, the conference will include Cal State Bakersfield, Idaho, New Mexico State, Seattle, and Utah Valley.

Re-classification to a Division I program is a four-year process.  If GCU meets all the NCAA standards during that time it will be granted full Division I member status.  But during the transition process, the ‘Lopes will not be eligible to compete in NCAA Championships.

That may become one of the most difficult parts of this venture into a brave new world for the tiny for-profit college. The school has built a strong athletic  component; last season, the ‘Lopes won a national title in men’s track and sent 16 teams from various sports to the post-season.  It also won the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup that recognizes the top D-II university based on athletic performance.

“Grand Canyon University is extremely grateful and thankful that this day has come,” said Director of Athletics Keith Baker, who played baseball at the school, graduated in 1982, and became its sports information director the following year.  “This is obviously not an overnight process.”

Baker said the NCAA application process has already begun.  Now he has less than a year to get the teams and his coaches ready to compete at the next level.

It’s an exciting time for the little school with grand visions.