Dan Majerle leads Grand Canyon University to startling success

Dan Majerle brings the thunder to Grand Canyon.

The birth of the most interesting program in college basketball didn’t come in the way you might think. It didn’t come in front of 18,000 screaming fans at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, Rupp Arena or any other college hoops cathedral. It didn’t come on some in-home recruiting visit with a once-in-a-generation prospect, nor did it come in the training room or a practice court.

Instead, it came with one simple call. A call from one Phoenix-area legend to another, a call that led one coach to a job that he never knew he always wanted. A call from Jerry Colangelo to Dan Majerle.

At the time Majerle was between gigs. His playing career — which included three NBA All-Star games and a Finals appearance with the Phoenix Suns in 1993 — had long since finished, and his time as an assistant coach with the same organization had come to an abrupt end. Majerle had been part of Alvin Gentry’s staff with the organization, and when Gentry was let go in the winter of 2013, Majerle assumed he’d at least get consideration for the gig.

That consideration never came.

With no outreach from the Suns, Majerle was unsure of what he wanted to do next… until he got a call that call from Colangelo. The man who had once taken a chance on Majerle as a first-round draft pick when doctors advised against it, was ready to take another chance on the man who was once known as "Thunder Dan."

No, the Suns gig hadn’t worked out, but Colangelo wanted to know: Would Majerle be interested in a different kind of coaching job altogether?

"He said ‘I’ve got the opportunity for you to sit down with President Mueller over at GCU and they’re thinking about, or they are going Division I," Majerle told FOX Sports. "And they’re looking for a basketball coach. Would you be interested in sitting down with me and President Mueller and talking about it?’ And I said ‘Yeah, I’d love to.’"

GCU as Majerle refers to it, is Grand Canyon University, and if you haven’t heard of it, well you’re not alone. And if you have heard of it, but didn’t know that GCU had a basketball program or that Majerle was the head coach, well congratulations: You actually have something in common with quite a few GCU alums.

That’s right, Grand Canyon is quite different than any other Division I school in the country, but when the whistle blows and the ball is tipped, they’re different in another way too: They barely ever lose. Despite this being just their third year in Division I basketball, and despite not being eligible for the NCAA tournament as part of its "transition" period from Division II, Grand Canyon’s record currently sits at 22-4, tied for second most wins in the country.

It’s all part of the master-plan for Majerle, whose stated goal is to turn Grand Canyon into the next Butler or Gonzaga, a perennial Top 25 college basketball program.

It’s also a small part of why Grand Canyon is the most interesting program in college basketball, not to mention, maybe the most interesting academic institution in higher education.

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To fully understand how far Grand Canyon University has come, you first have to understand where it began. And long before Majerle arrived as the school’s head basketball coach, there was the arrival of another former basketball coach, a man named Brian Mueller.

By the time Mueller arrived at Grand Canyon he had long ago hung up his whistle, and become a full-time academic administrator. By the time he arrived at Grand Canyon as the school’s President in 2008, he found a school struggling to keep its doors open.

"GCU had been a small, private Christian college for decades," Mueller said. "But by 2008 we were in major financial trouble."

Dan Majerle on the sidelines

At the time, the on-campus enrollment had dwindled to about 900 students, with another 5,000 online. Funds had to be raised, which is why the school made the rare decision to make Grand Canyon a for-profit school. Funds raised by outside investors were immediately reinvested into the school, and helped build out both the online curriculum and the physical campus itself.

And while Grand Canyon is already in the process of transitioning back to the non-profit model, there’s no doubt the decision paid dividends for the university. The school, which had 900 students on-campus in 2008 has exploded to 15,500 thanks to a decade-long, $1 billion construction boom on campus that began four years ago. That online program, which started with 5,000, has expanded to 60,000. If all goes to plan, there will be 30,000 students on campus within six years and roughly 80,000 online. And the best part is that the school is on stable footing financially as well. Despite that $1 billion construction initiative, tuition has not gone up in seven years according to Mueller.

With the literal growth of the campus, there was figurative growth as well, and by the end of the last decade, Mueller decided it was time to take Grand Canyon to the Division I level in athletics. He called up Colangelo — a friend, and the man who literally wrote the curriculum for Grand Canyon’s Sports Business program — who helped broker a few small, informal meetings in early 2012 with NCAA President Mark Emmert.  

And when Emmert came to Phoenix to discuss some other matters with Colangelo that spring, Colangelo couldn’t help but drive him by the Grand Canyon campus.

What Emmert saw amazed him: An expanding campus, with a new-wave look at how to educate its students.  

"This was a hybrid," Colangelo told FOX Sports. "This was not an online school, this was not a traditional school. This was a hybrid, which was a pretty neat formula where you build out your actual campus with the revenue from the online piece of it. And he made the statement ‘I think this is the new model going forward.’"

The seeds had been planted to join Division I that day, and within weeks the WAC officially invited Grand Canyon to join as a member. A few weeks after that Majerle was named the school’s head basketball coach.

The transition wasn’t quite effortless for Majerle, but from the beginning he did show a proclivity for coaching. Despite coaching a group of players who were mostly recruited to the DII level, Majerle went 15-15 in year one. Last year the team improved to 17-15.

In the same way that Majerle willed himself to a 14-year NBA career, he infused that same work ethic into his team.

Every day since I’ve gotten here I just drove these guys like they’re going to be a Top 25 program.

Dan Majerele

"Every day since I’ve gotten here I just drove these guys like they’re going to be a Top 25 program," Majerle said. "And if they didn’t like it, if they didn’t want to be a part of it, they were going to have to leave. There’s a way we do things around here every day, and that’s the way it’s going to be."

Ironically Majerle’s biggest challenge to becoming a head coach might not have actually been the "coaching" part at all, but instead recruiting. Put simply, it’s hard to sell a program that a lot of parents, coaches and players outside the Phoenix area have never heard of. It’s harder when that program — again, that many have never heard of — isn’t eligible for the tournament for four years.

"The hardest thing is the patience," Majerle said. "Not being able to go to the tournament for four years is extremely difficult. Kids in high school, all they want to talk about is ‘can we go to the tournament, can we go to the tournament’ and obviously we couldn’t.’ So we’re not able to recruit the high level players yet but that’s getting closer since we’re only a year-and-a-half away from getting to the NCAA tournament."

Instead, Majerle and his staff have had to build the program in a non-traditional way, filling it with four-year Division I transfers and high school players that were often overlooked, or under-recruited. There may be no better example than the team’s leading scorer, Joshua Braun, an Arizona native who received quite a bit of recruiting buzz, right up until he suffered two separate ACL tears in one calendar year during his high school career.

With few other opportunities, he took a chance on GCU. The school was local, and he knew they were moving to Division I.

He also knew about Majerle. Although maybe not quite as much as you’d think.  

"Growing up in Phoenix, of course you know who he is," Braun said.

Braun continued, showing his age in the follow-up.

We used to eat at his restaurants all the time when I was a kid.

Joshua Braun

"We used to eat at his restaurants all the time when I was a kid."

That’s where the story starts to get interesting: While Grand Canyon undoubtedly has a famous head coach, he isn’t necessarily best known among the players he actually recruits. At this point most of the players Grand Canyon recruits are too young to remember Majerle as a player at all, and those who do definitely don’t remember his glory years with the Suns, which came before they were born. Most know his name from his time as an assistant, or as the well-known restauranteur who owns six sports bars around Phoenix.

If anything, it’s the adults who know his name, and know it well. Which has led to some interesting run-ins on the road.

"To be honest, we can’t go anywhere, whether we’re recruiting, we’re playing, we’re in the airport, we’re in a restaurant, wherever we’re at, somebody is coming up to him asking for a photo or an autograph," assistant coach Chris Crevelone said. "And he always takes the photo. He always signs the autograph. He never says ‘No, I’m busy, no I can’t.’ I’ve almost become his designated photographer."

Make no mistake, despite his celebrity status, those same adults asking for pictures also realize the value in sending their kids to GCU to play for Majerle. After all, every kid who plays high school ball want to one day play professionally, so who better to learn from than a guy who spent 14 years in the NBA? Not to mention a guy who spent 14 years in the NBA and came from a background who wasn’t all that different than their own? After all, Majerle wasn’t some can’t-miss high school All-American, but instead an under-the-radar recruit who willed himself into an All-American caliber player at Central Michigan.

"I tell them that I went to a mid-major league and found a way to get to the league and play 14 years," Majerle said. "So if that’s truly your goal, I can show you how you can do it, mentally and physically, and how you need to prepare to go to the next level and what it takes."

Beyond that, Majerle’s background not only as a former NBA player, but an NBA assistant coach also helps. Remember that in addition to those 14 years as a player, he also spent five years as an assistant, helping the Suns transition from the "Seven Seconds or Less" era with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, to a more half-court focused game when Shaquille O’Neal arrived, straight through a rebuilding approach when all those big names left town.

It also means that from a purely X’s and O’s perspective, Majerle has basically seen it all. And when players arrive on campus, they’re basically receiving PhD level training in basketball strategy.  

"I’m a pro coach," he said. "I don’t run a motion offense. I run an offense for mismatches and quick-hitters and put guys in position where they can really succeed."

And really, when you’re talking about what makes Grand Canyon such a unique basketball program, Majerle’s background, combined with Colangelo’s presence are a great place to start. How many programs have what amounts to an NBA-caliber head coach roaming the sidelines, not to mention a Hall of Fame executive like Colangelo just a phone call away, and occasionally sitting courtside at games when he’s in town?

It’s totally unique to GCU. It also means that when players arrive on campus, they are essentially playing in a scaled down NBA organization.

"The Kentuckys, the Dukes, those are obviously great college programs who have been great for decades," Crevelone said. "They’re unbelievably historic, blue blood schools. But they all have college personnel around them. With us, our head coach is a former NBA assistant coach, (and we have) a former owner, former general manager sitting courtside. There’s a constant dialogue between the staff, the players, recruiting. Name me another college program designed like (that)."

The simple truth is that there isn’t one.

Those NBA ties run deep for Majerle and Colangelo, and help the program in ways no one could imagine.

"A lot of those NBA teams will practice here, hang out here," Crevelone said. "Last year the Cavs practiced here, LeBron was here. Alvin Gentry is a good friend of coach’s; they coached together when Coach (Majerle) was with the Suns. So Anthony Davis, the Pelicans were on-campus the other day. The Brooklyn Nets are coming here in a couple days. The Knicks are coming up here in a few weeks."

It’s a nice, and certainly unique story, but it’s also important to remember one other thing: Ultimately none of it would matter if the team didn’t produce on the floor, something it’s doing in spades this season.

After the first two years building, the Antelopes have broken out in 2016 with a 22-4 mark that includes wins at San Diego State, a place the Aztecs have lost 10 times in the last decade. Not only are those 22 wins tied for second most in all of college basketball (alongside programs like Kansas, Villanova and Maryland) but by far the best mark ever for a program transitioning to Division I. According to Majerle’s research, of the last 14 schools to transition to DI, none have had a winning record in year three, let alone sat 18 games above .500 the way the Antelopes are entering a game Thursday night against Missouri-Kansas City.  

"We’re ahead of schedule," Majerle admitted when asked about the state of the program.

Now it’s time for people to take notice.

Grand Canyon University Coach Dan Majerle celebrates after an upset of San Diego State.

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At last count, there are 351 Division-I college basketball programs scattered across the country, and with the exception of a few, all battling for recognition in a crowded sports landscape.

In that regard, Grand Canyon is no different than the rest of their Division I brethren.

But in a lot of ways, the Antelopes absolutely, unequivocally are different.

For example, there is the alumni base, which unlike a lot of schools isn’t centralized locally, but instead spread out all over the country, and all over the world really. It’s led to some funny encounters on the recruiting trail, where coaches wearing GCU gear have run into students of the school in unlikely places like Florida, North Carolina, and even during an overseas trip in Italy.

The ironic part is that many have never actually stepped foot on GCU’s campus.

Some don’t even know the school has a basketball program at all.

"People will say ‘I didn’t know we had a basketball team, or ‘I didn’t know Dan Majerle was the coach’" Crevelone said. "But now that I do I’m going to be watch,’ or ‘I’m going to follow it.’ There’s a lot more of that than you could ever imagine."

Thankfully those encounters are becoming more and more rare, as the word continues to grow about GCU hoops.

Over the last few years the student section, known as "The Havocs" have received plenty of internet acclaim, and while having alums and students all over the country can be a hindrance to the program’s growth in some ways, it can be helpful in others as well. For example, when the team played in Chicago last month, a group of 200 students and alums (all who lived locally) came out to support the team. As it turns out, there are benefits to having over 70,000 undergrads enrolled in your school.

Now for Grand Canyon, it’s time for the next step. With the foundation already built, it’s time to see if the Antelopes can fulfill Majerle and the school’s stated goal and become a consistent Top 20 program. Become the next Butler or Gonzaga.

Granted, it’s a proclamation that just about every mid-major school in the country has made at some point, but one that Grand Canyon seems uniquely equipped to accomplish.

The fan base is there and growing, and thanks to the success of the online program, the school doesn’t face the typical financial hardships that many other mid-major programs deal with either. Unlike a lot of other mid-majors, Grand Canyon doesn’t have to front load its schedule with "buy" games, and doesn’t need to spend the months of November and December traveling the country and serving as a whipping boy for Power Five programs.

Instead, it’s the exact opposite for GCU. Because of the money the school generates, it has been able to create a much more balanced schedule, and because of the ties of Majerle and Colangelo the school is actually able to lure some big name programs to Phoenix. Louisville and San Diego State have both agreed to true "home and home" deals with GCU, and each will play in Phoenix next season. In the world of big-time college basketball, the idea that either school would play a true road game against a WAC opponent is unheard of.

Then there is Majerle himself.  

Like any other coach at any other mid-major, as Majerle continues to have success, his profile name will continue to pop up in coaching searches. It already started in January, when UNLV fired Dave Rice and Majerle was named a potential candidate for the job.

But unlike virtually any other coach in the sport, Majerle doesn’t seem interested in climbing the coaching ranks from one job to another. For starters, Phoenix is home; he spent most of his formative years there, and even after he was traded from the Suns, Majerle lived in Arizona during his offseasons.

Also, while most other coaches are driven by the bigger paychecks that come with bigger jobs, it seems unlikely that money would motivate Majerle’s departure either. For one, Majerle made roughly $30 million as an NBA player, but remember, he also owns six highly successful restaurants in the greater Phoenix area. It also means that Majerle is probably the only Division I head basketball coach whose side business ventures make more money for him than his actual coaching salary does.

It’s also why Majerle is blunt when asked about the likelihood that he would leave GCU for another job. Unlike so many coaches before him, Majerle refuses to say that he’ll never leave the school. But he’s also quick to point out that other jobs don’t really interest him at this point either.

"When those (things) happen I’ll take it and listen," Majerle said. "But to be honest with you, I was brought here to do a job. I have tremendous loyalty to the people who brought me here, and as long as we’re progressing in the direction that they promised me we would, I have no designs of leaving Grand Canyon."

In the meantime, he will continue to push and get Grand Canyon to where he believes they’re capable of going.

"I talk about it all the time, I want to be a Top 25 program," Majerle said. "I want to play in the tournament. I want to make noise in the tournament. Shoot, I want to win the NCAA Tournament. If I don’t want to do that, I shouldn’t be here."

Given how far both Grand Canyon’s university and basketball program have come in such a short amount of time, it’s hard to doubt the long-term vision of Majerle or anyone else associated with the program.

And when the Antelopes do make their first NCAA tournament, it will add another chapter to the story of the most interesting team in college basketball.

Aaron Torres is a contributor for FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres or Facebook. E-mail him at ATorres00@gmail.com.