You know your college has stepped up to play with the big boys when it dumps its athletic director and hires a vice president of athletics.
Yesterday, little ol’ Grand Canyon University announced the hiring of Mike Vaught as its new veep, replacing Keith Baker, who has been the AD at the small Christian college in west Phoenix for the last two decades.
Baker graduated from GCU, pitched on the school’s national-champion baseball teams in the early ’80s, served as the sports information director for six years and as the assistant AD from 1989 to 1994 when he took over as the athletic director when the school’s former president stepped away from the job.
But his days in that role have been numbered for some time as GCU president and CEO Brian Mueller began using the school’s sports programs to drive its growth. The school built a new 5,000-seat sports arena, which opened last year, as the showcase for the athletic department. Then he began hiring top talent for the school’s major sports, most recently adding the high-profile and popular former Phoenix Suns player, Dan Majerle, as its men’s head basketball coach.
So Baker needs to take the off-ramp on the new expressway that Mueller is building. Plans are to keep Baker at the school, but likely in a role outside the athletic department.
When former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo was brought on board a couple of years back to serve as an advisor to Mueller, there was no question Majerle would be just the first step in Colangelo’s plan to move GCU to the next level.
The Antelopes are in their second year of a four-year transition to become a fully-accredited Division I program, currently playing in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). And this year they have added the pre-season No. 1 team in the country, Kentucky, as the opener to their men’s basketball schedule — and will also play Indiana and Harvard later in the schedule. It’s easy to see Colangelo’s fingerprints all over that move.
Now the school has made the shift from an AD to a VP, just like the Pac-12 big boys in Tempe and down in Tucson.
There are a number of reasons Grand Canyon settled on the 53-year-old Vaught to lead them into Division I, not the least of which is a resume that includes stops at SMU, where he was the deputy athletic director for six years, and also at Rice University, where he was the assistant AD. He also worked in the trenches, serving as an assistant football coach at Arkansas, Missouri State, and the Naval Academy.
His experience in the arenas of higher education and athletics brings instant credibility to the GCU programs.
But there was more to it than that, says Mueller: “He’s also a prolific public speaker, has a robust track record in fundraising, and shares a deep commitment to the Christian faith and values that we espouse at our university.”
All important attributes, but the fundraising component is significant since it takes money to play at the next level. Lots of money.
At Rice, two of his biggest achievements were getting the football team to its first bowl game in 45 years (by hiring Todd Graham, who is now the Arizona State head coach) and raising approximately $5 million in a whirlwind fundraising effort that took just 14 weeks.
And at AdvoCare International, his employer for the last two years, he was the director of corporate sponsorships — ie: the money man. He helped develop partnerships with major sponsors like Major League Soccer, Roush Fenway Racing, the NASCAR Nationwide Tour, and several football bowls.
GCU Arena was just expanded (yes, after just one year) in time for this school year, which should help in the fundraising efforts because the men’s basketball team is now playing to packed houses and the additional 2,000 seats will quickly translate to bigger gates. (GCU does not have a football team)
But there’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done once Vaught gets settled in the job.
“The world of college athletics going forward is going to be a very complicated thing, with possible conference re-configurations and how they’re going to respond to that,” Mueller pointed out at Vaught’s formal introduction. “It was important to have someone who knows the landscape and has a network.”
Vaught has big plans: “Our vision of the athletic department is to be top 25 (nationally) in everything we do. We’ll put a plan in place to get there and take the steps necessary to achieve that, whether that’s how we cut the grass, or have student-athletes winning championships.”
At Southern Methodist, a school that received the NCAA ‘death penalty’ for rules violations in 1987, he created a 72-point checklist of things to fix, and then said he checked them all off before leaving. “In every area of the athletic department, we did a total maekover.”
Vaught says he has a 100-day plan for GCU that starts with beginning to build new relationships in the community and in the WAC.
Sitting at the top of that relationship-building list will have to be a meeting with ASU President Michael Crow who has been perhaps the most vocal opponent to the idea of GCU being allowed to move into Division I since it is a for-profit school and, as such, has advantages the non-profit institutions don’t enjoy.
Oh well, like they say…Go Big or Go Home. It might be worth a try.
(Photo: GCU Athletics / Darryl Webb)