And so it begins. Grand Canyon University has just taken the first step on the long road to earning full Division I member status for its sports programs.
The small Christian college in west Phoenix officially became a member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) yesterday, one of five schools to join en masse to help keep the WAC from disappearing from the college sports landscape.
And now the Antelopes must travel a path from Division II to Division I status that will take four years to complete. In the meantime, they will be ineligible for post-season play – a requirement for any team that decides to make the transition to D-I.
The July 1 start date coincides with the start of a new fiscal year for the WAC.
GCU will join Cal State Bakersfield, Chicago State, Missouri-Kansas City, Texas-Pan American, and Utah Valley as the new members of the conference.
There are just three schools – Idaho, New Mexico State, and Seattle – returning after the majority of the members jumped ship to other conferences last year, leaving the WAC to desperately seek out replacements.
With just three that decided to stay, the conference was in jeopardy of losing their automatic qualifying berth in the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Six teams are needed to meet the qualifications; the roster is now back up to nine.
Long-time college sports fans in Arizona might remember the WAC. It was home to both Arizona State and University of Arizona before those schools moved to the Pac-8 in 1978, which has since evolved to the Pac-12.
With history in the making, it’s a busier-than-usual time for Grand Canyon’s athletic director, Keith Baker. He has begun scheduling orientation sessions for later in the summer, has webinars coming up with NCAA management to go through the initial stages of the membership process, and by Aug. 1 he must be able to confirm that the teams and athletes are meeting the new D-I eligibility standards.
But the school has been preparing for this move for several years, steadily progressing toward making the jump by initiating upgrades in the sports programs, from personnel to facilities.
They now have “name” coaches in their high-profile major sports of basketball and baseball (football is not offered). Andy Stankiewicz, a former professional player and manager was hired two years ago to take over the baseball program and, just a couple of months ago, former Phoenix Suns player and assistant coach Dan Majerle was hired as the new head coach for the basketball team.
Let’s not forget, either, the addition of Jerry Colangelo to the GCU administration as an assistant to the president, charged specifically with helping the school through the transition process. The former owner of the Phoenix Suns is one of the most prominent figures in the sports world, whose experience, reputation, and contacts will be invaluable during the next four years.
And the school opened a new 5,000-seat arena just in time for the 2011 basketball season. The 135,000 square-foot facility is also used for wrestling and volleyball.
One of the challenges for Baker and his coaches is the issue of scheduling. For the first year of the transition, GCU will still be considered a D-II school for scheduling purposes. That poses some challenges.
“While there are many Division Ones that would be open to playing us, that usually means if you count as a D-II opponent, they’ll only play you if you come to their place,” explains Baker, who is a born-and-bred Antelope. He played baseball at GCU and, after graduating from there in 1982, took on the job of sports information director.
Another downside the first year will be fewer home games on the schedule, which means the won-loss records of the various teams will be subjected to the inequality that comes with being on the road a lot.
But Baker is trying to put a positive spin on the problem: “I think our coaches are being very strategic in utilizing a larger road schedule during this 2013-14 academic year in order to build promises of return games for the future, so that (in the future) we will be able to have more home games.
“It’s just this first year that creates a lot of the issue for us. You just have to kind of grit your teeth and get through it.”
(Photo: GCU Athletics)