Molly Miller hire completes GCU basketball transformation

It’s now a clean sweep at Grand Canyon University. There will be a completely different look when the 2020-21 basketball season gets underway.

After the small Christian college in west Phoenix dismissed its men’s head coach last month, it announced earlier this week the hiring of a new women’s head coach.

Dan Majerle was replaced by Bryce Drew following Majerle’s only losing record in seven seasons running the men’s program, and Molly Miller will replace Nicole Powell, who departed the GCU women’s program after just three seasons to become the next head coach at UC Riverside.

In at least one sense, the move by the women’s program is a return to the past. Miller is a Division II coach and it wasn’t that long ago that the GCU women’s program had a D-II coach. And a good one, at that.

Trent May stepped into the head-coaching job in 2007, when the school was still playing in Division II. During six years, his teams won five Pacific West Conference titles and became a national contender, making five Division II NCAA Tournament appearances, going all the way to the Sweet Sixteen one year. In his final year of D-II play, 2012-13, his team went 23-9.

The next year, the program began a four-year transition to Division I. He went 21-9 the first year, his fourth consecutive 20-win season, and he was given a contract extension.

But the honeymoon didn’t last long. For the next three seasons, his teams struggled to stay above .500. After the 2016-17 season wrapped with a 15-12 record, May was out and Powell was hired to take over the program as it began its first season as a full D-I member.

Powell had a lofty local reputation that began with a high school career at Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, where she is still regarded as one of the best female prep athletes to come out of Arizona. She was a standout at Stanford University, and then spent 11 years playing in the WNBA.

She spent three seasons as an assistant coach at Oregon, but had no head-coaching experience. She had two winning seasons at GCU, but each barely above .500, and her overall record was 38-46.

Now, GCU has decided to return to the D-II model. Miller’s credentials at the D-II level were evidently too impressive to pass up — and maybe worth taking another chance on a coach’s success transferring up to the next level.

The 34-year-old Missouri native has a resume that screams success. A two-time Division II Coach of the Year at Drury University (Springfield), Miller leads all active college basketball coaches in winning percentage.

She has lost just 17 games during a six-year run at Drury, her alma mater, and only one over the past two seasons (67-1). Her 180-17 record translates to a .914 winning percentage, better than any active D-I or D-II men’s or women’s basketball coach with at least five years of experience.

That success relies on a combination of baseline-to-baseline pressure defense that created an average 31 turnovers per game last season, and an up-tempo motion offense that averaged 90 points a game. The result was an undefeated season (32-0) and a D-II Final Four appearance. Drury beat its opponents by an average 28 points a game the last two seasons.

The Panthers were nationally-ranked No. 1 in D-II in every weekly poll throughout the regular season.

GCU is widely recognized for having one of the best student cheering sections in the nation, the Havocs. Their over-the-top enthusiasm and support has meant a sell-out for just about every men’s game for the seven years that Majerle ran the program.

Now, maybe the brand of entertaining basketball that Miller will bring to the women’s games will result in the same kind of support the men have enjoyed.

But that will depend on whether Miller’s system will succeed at the D-I level.

It will still take winning to put fannies in the seats.