Grand Canyon University is beginning to look like a way station for former professional basketball players. A third was just added when women’s head coach Nicole Powell added Nikki Blue (pictured above) to her coaching staff.
The trend began in 2013 when Dan Majerle replaced Russ Pennell and was given the job of guiding the men’s program at the small Christian college in west Phoenix through the four-year transition period that would elevate the D-II program to full accreditation in Division I. Majerle played 14 years in the NBA, eight of those in a Phoenix Suns uniform, and then served another five years as an assistant coach for the Suns.
Powell was just hired in April to take the reins of the women’s program from Trent May, who had enjoyed huge success during six years as a D-II program, but struggled once the school began working through the transition to the next level.
A former standout at Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, the 35-year-old Powell played her college career at Stanford before starting an 11-year journey through the WNBA. She was selected third overall in the 2004 draft and played for five different teams, winning a WNBA Championship with the Sacramento Monarchs in 2005, and retired in 2014 as a member of the Seattle Storm.
Now, as she assembles her first coaching staff in her first job as a college head coach, she turned to another former professional player to help her build a foundation for success at GCU. Blue spent five seasons in the WNBA, four with the Washington Mystics and one with the New York Liberty, before getting into coaching. During her one season in New York, she and Powell were teammates.
Blue played her college career at UCLA where she was a Pac-10 first-team selection all four years. After leaving the pro game, she began coaching as an assistant for six years at UNLV and then spent her last three years as the top assistant at CSU Bakersfield. She will work on developing the guard play at GCU.
Powell also added Taylor High to her inaugural staff. High spent the past four seasons at Texas Women’s University, helping that D-II school to its first-ever NCAA tournament bid in 2016. Prior to that, he worked on the staffs at Pratt Community College and Dodge City CC, both in Kansas.
While he hasn’t coached at this level, it’s safe to say he knows what it will take to compete in Division I. High spent four years as head manager for the University of Kansas men’s basketball program, working under one of the best coaches in the game, Bill Self, for a program that is among the elite in the nation.
Rounding out Powell’s bench next season will be Brad Langston, who was on staff at Hawaii last season and will contribute to the GCU program by working with player development, scouting, and both offensive and defensive strategies
Powell and her new staff members have their work cut out for themselves. GCU has struggled to stay above .500 the last three years and finished last season 15-12 overall and 7-7 in the Western Athletic Conference.
But beyond that, there is the inevitable comparison to what Majerle has accomplished in four years with the men’s program. During that time, the men’s team has had three top-three finishes in the WAC and posted back-to-back 20+ wins the last two years.
And Majerle’s addition to the program created a buzz on campus that has only increased each year. That excitement can be seen in the way fans pack into the 7,200-seat GCU Arena for home games. The average attendance has increased each year and peaked out at 6,817 over 18 home games during the 2016-17 season, which closely compares to the crowds ASU draws at Wells Fargo Arena. That’s an average attendance capacity of 97.39 per cent – better than many established D-I programs are able to draw.
Powell doesn’t have the drawing power of the Majerle name. She will have to depend on putting an exciting women’s product on the floor.
Oh yeah, she’ll also need to begin winning games again. Lots of them.