Majerle taking long-range approach with Grand Canyon

Dan Majerle is in his first year as Grand Canyon's head coach after five seasons as an assistant coach with the Suns.       

When taking your game into the ambitious atmosphere of the "next level," some balanced lifting is unavoidable.

But that’s usually an individual, bodyweight-caliber maneuver.

Dan Majerle is taking on quite a bit more. In his first year as a head coach, the former Suns star is attempting to help boost an entire program from Division II to Division I in the NCAA clubhouse.

Spotters may be required.

Through 17 games, Majerle — in his first season as head coach at Grand Canyon University — has coaxed a modest 7 wins from the Antelopes.

"They’re D-2 players making the jump to a D-1 program," Majerle said of his first edition. "Our guys are working extremely hard, they compete every night and they’re getting better."

While the Antelopes keep punching in that higher weight class, Majerle — a local legend as a player and predictably popular as a Suns assistant coach — is taking an approach he’s quite familiar with.

And that approach is attack the task from long range.

"My biggest focus is to establish a culture and identity moving forward into Division I with the goal of consistently being in the NCAA Tournament," Majerle said. "This year is going to be tough because it’s a transition."

The prescribed culture is one of dedication to the university and basketball program, accessorized by a comprehensive focus on hard work. Based on GCU’s expanding infrastructure, if those variables are established, the future will be pretty exciting.

"The potential here is unbelievable," said Majerle, whose interest in the GCU project dovetailed with former Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo’s involvement in the university’s efforts. "It’s a growing university. Within three years, we’re projected to have 15,000 students on campus, and the campus is beautiful. When recruits come here and see our facilities, they’re blown away."

The show piece is a 5,000-seat arena that’s been sold out for Thunder Dan’s inaugural season and will have 2,000 seats added by next season as the new Western Athletic Conference member moves through its Division I probationary period.

None of the basketball-related ambition will be realized, however, without an upgrade in on-floor talent. Majerle, who’s making the adjustment from working with skilled professionals to college players, is attempting to use his experience and popularity to make that happen.

"It does help," Majerle said when asked if his status as a former NBA player provides a boost in access. "When I talk to them (players and  parents), they know I’ve played, they know I know what it takes if they have aspirations to play at the next level, whether they have the opportunity to play overseas or maybe even the NBA.

"I went to a smaller school (Central Michigan), too, and I know what it takes to get better."

But while name recognition, a spiffy arena and progressive approach are opening doors, Majerle also understands that entering as a low-major school requires additional finesse.

"Recruiting is the big difference in coaching here compared to the NBA," said Majerle, whose coaching experience had been limited to working as a Suns assistant under Alvin Gentry. "Evaluating talent is everything. You have to be able to project what they may be three or four years from now and if they’ll react positively to how they’re going to be coached.

"I’m getting used to it. I’m getting better at it. I enjoy meeting different kids."

Majerle has landed five recruits for next season, including former Peoria High star Dewayne Russell, a transfer from Northern Arizona. Russell averaged 14.4 points as an NAU freshman, scoring 20 or more points six times. The ‘Lopes’ haul also includes 6-foot-11 Boubacar Toure (Senegal and Phase One Academy in Phoenix), 6-6 Australian shooting guard Gerard Martin and 6-9 forward Kerwin Smith from Wilson High in Dallas.

Those young players and others the coaching staff have targeted have to be equipped with more than Division I-level talent.

"They have to be committed to the university, to the basketball program," he said. "They have to be prepared to work harder than they’ve ever worked. You gotta love to play basketball. You have to be all-in for Grand Canyon University."

This brings us to the closely monitored, all-in portion of Majerle’s involvement with GCU. Although basketball watchdogs assume his past interest in the Suns’ head-coaching job reveals the goal of an eventual return to the NBA, he’s on a different path now.

"I’ve committed myself to the university," Majerle said. "Brian Mueller, our president, and Jerry Colangelo — who’s involved with the university — brought me in to help make this a high, mid-major program.

 "I came here to do a job, and I’m committed to being here for a long time. I love being here."

With that commitment established, more talent on the way and strong university support, all that’s left to do is, well, coach.

"A new coach is always asked what type of coach you’re going to be," Majerle said. "You don’t really know that until you actually coach. A lot of the sets we run are from the NBA, because that’s what I know.

"You have to realize they (college players) don’t know everything. You have to constantly teach. The biggest adjustment for me early was that I assumed they knew everything."

Majerle, who lists two coaches he played for — Pat Riley in Miami and Cotton Fitzsimmons with the Suns — as the most influential in his evolution as a coach, said he’s taken a little bit of knowledge from everybody.

"And I try to coach a lot like the way I played," Majerle said, referencing a hard-nosed approach at both ends of the floor. "I bring a lot of that to my coaching style; I hope my personality takes over.

"You have to coach from your gut."

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