Grand Canyon University women’s basketball coach Trent May no longer has to work in the shadow of the wildly-successful men’s coach, Dan Majerle.
Somebody else will now face that challenge. The west Phoenix school just announced that May will not be returning next season after guiding the program through the frustrating transition from D-II to full D-I status.
As GCU navigated the transition to Division I, May had four years to prove that he could sustain the same success his teams enjoyed playing against D-II competition. May was hired in 2006 as the women’s associate head coach, moving up to his current job the next year. In six years as head coach of the Division II program his teams won five Pacific West Conference titles and became a national contender.
His teams made five NCAA Tournament appearances and even got all the way to the Sweet Sixteen one year. Four times he was named PacWest Coach of the Year.
He went 23-9 his final year of D-II play. But then came the big step to Division I competition as GCU began the challenging transition process to the next level.
The 2013-14 squad went 21-9, his fourth straight 20-win season, and finished the season in third place in the Western Athletic Conference.
After that season, the school offered him a contract extension that would have taken him through the 2017-18 season. But for the next three years his teams struggled to stay above .500, and ended this season with a losing record at 15-12 overall, 7-7 in the conference. He posted a 65-50 record during the transition period.
In all fairness, recruiting good talent is difficult during the transition phase since those teams are not eligible to play in the conference tournament or NCAA Tournament until they get through the four years. And good recruits want to have a shot at playing during March Madness.
May has had to build the program using different methods than coaches at established D-I schools. He has had to fill his roster with four-year D-I transfers and high school players who were under the radar and missed by the bigger schools, or those with some talent but had to be developed to be able to play at the college level.
Majerle had to work under the same conditions, but has been more successful. He broke even his first year at 15-15, improved slightly to 17-15 the next year, and then exploded in the third year to finish 27-7. Statistics show that, of the last 13 programs transitioning to D-I, none posted a winning season by the third year.
This season Majerle hit the 20-win mark again, using a seven-game winning streak to close out a 22-9 season. The 2016-17 team also made a national statement with games against Duke and Louisville, putting a real scare into the Cardinals by staying with them the entire game and coming within nine points in the final score.
The men’s program also filled the 7,000-seat GCU Arena for every game and generated unbridled enthusiasm and excitement among the student base. But that was helped along by the larger-than-life persona of its head coach.
Majerle brought a high-profile celebrity presence with him when he took over the reins of the program following a four-year stint as a Phoenix Suns assistant coach. During his 14-year career in the NBA, “Thunder Dan” was one of the most popular Suns players in the history of the franchise.
May came to the GCU program without the name recognition, NBA pedigree, or celebrity status. And that’s why he probably saw the writing on the wall soon after the Majerle phenomenon hit campus in March of 2013. Competing for the fans’ attention and student-body attendance against the “Show Time” excitement the boys’ program was offering was beyond difficult.
And that’s why it will be interesting to see who the administration brings in to replace May. Based on other hires in recent years, the school will likely look for a coach with a high profile in the game, and maybe even prominence in the local community.
Not long before Majerle was hired, the school brought on Andy Stankiewicz to run the baseball program. Stankiewicz played seven years in Major League baseball and then became the minor league field coordinator for the Seattle Mariners. He also built a local presence during the two years he was on staff at Arizona State.
More recently, Schellas Hyndman was added to the list of high-profile coaches when he took over the men’s soccer program two years ago. Hyndman built near-legendary status in the college game, never posting a losing season in his 24 years as head coach at Southern Methodist University. At SMU he took that program to 22 NCAA Tournament appearances and the College Cup game twice, won nine regular-season conference championships, and was named Coach of the Year eight times. His hire put GCU soccer on the national map.
And now it’s time to assess the needs of the women’s basketball program. Assistant coach Milee Karre has been given the role of interim head coach while a national search begins.
This could be a great opportunity for an energetic coach with lots of enthusiasm. Majerle has already set up a festival-like environment for men’s hoops at the small Christian college, which has a loyal and large student cheering section recognized as one of the loudest in the country.
By putting an exciting team on the floor, the next women’s coach could piggy-back onto the momentum of that runaway train.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)