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When Jerome Garrison got his first recruiting call from Grand Canyon, he didn't know where the school was.
That's not a good sign for a Phoenix-based university trying to recruit a player from its home city, but who could blame Garrison? Grand Canyon, an NCAA Division II school, wasn't exactly on the radar of basketball players dreaming of playing in college.
"Nobody knew about Grand Canyon," he said. "Nobody knew anything going on at Grand Canyon."
But he decided to take a visit anyway. He had gotten into the recruiting process late, and, at the very least, Grand Canyon could give him the chance to play college basketball with a scholarship. His mom encouraged him to keep an open mind. When he got to campus he saw the palm-lined sidewalks, the state-of-the-art buildings and the vision for the future pitched by school President and CEO Brian Mueller. He was sold.
As a junior this season, Garrison played 94% of his team's minutes -- in the top 10 nationally at the time his season concluded. He's the star of a team that hardly resembles the one his friends told him he was "stupid, in a sense" to commit to out of high school.
Now a Division I school, Grand Canyon finished third in the Western Athletic Conference in its inaugural season in the NCAA's top division.
Garrison now plays in front of the WAC's best crowds, and he's coached by Phoenix legend Dan Majerle, who played for the NBA Suns and left his job as a Suns assistant to be head coach of the Antelopes.
"It's constantly something going on (at) that school, so I guess you can't sit around and get comfortable," he said, "because they're going to be making improvements all the time."
A Bold Move
In 2003, Grand Canyon found itself $20 million in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. A private school without a large donor base from its alumni, the university had few options if it wanted to stay in existence. So the administration made a bold move: transform the not-for-profit institution into a for-profit company.
Grand Canyon wasn't the first for-profit university, but for-profit schools are still largely outnumbered by traditional not-for-profits. However, the new model worked wonders for the university. GCU made a commitment to building an online student base, and in 2008 it went public, though it does not pay dividends to investors. Between the beginning of 2009 and the end of 2013, GCU's after-tax income was $267.5 million, according to numbers provided by university spokesman Bob Romantic. During that same time frame, the school had $401.8 million in capital expenditures, including classrooms, residence halls, GCU Arena, the student union and more. It plans to spend $295million over the next two years and $400 million over the next four.
Athletics became a centerpiece for the school's second lease on life.
"We did, and unashamedly so, we utilized the athletics as an enrollment tool during those crucial times when a lot of people thought the ground campus was going to go away," athletics director Keith Baker said.
According to Baker, at one time roughly 30% of the 1,100-member on-campus student body was athletes. Now, thanks to the exposure partially created by athletics, enrollment on campus is more than 8,000. Baker would like 10,000 on-campus students by the fall of 2014 and 12,000 by 2015. This is in part because of GCU's low tuition rates: Mueller said the average student pays $7,800 for tuition and $6,500 for room and board.
"What gives us an advantage from a financial standpoint is the hybrid model -- the fact that we have the 8,500 students on our campus, which will grow to 25,000, and the 50,000 online students, which will grow at 6 or 7% a year," he said. "It's that hybrid model, which is so efficient, that is giving us the dollars to invest (in academics and athletics)."
Because of its model, GCU can afford to put money into its sports teams to make them competitive with their peers in facilities and recruiting. As a result, the 'Lopes outshined many of their Division II peers. In November 2012, GCU announced that it would be joining the WAC in Division I, becoming the first for-profit school in that division.
The Pac-12 Conference and Arizona State took exception. Neither could be reached for comment for this story, but last summer both asked the NCAA to reconsider Grand Canyon's admission to college athletics' highest-profile division, citing value differences between for-profit and not-for-profit institutions. Arizona State has refused to schedule games with GCU, and the Pac-12 threatened to follow suit, though it has not done so.
"Several of the Pac-12 institutions, having agreed to play us during the current academic year, went ahead and did that but did so with the idea that ... we'll play this year, but we don't know what will happen in the near future," Baker said.
The WAC never had an issue with GCU's tax status, and Commissioner Jeff Hurd said the school met all of the necessary requirements to join the conference at the start of the 2013-14 academic year.
"I think the whole idea of a for-profit is overblown," he said. "The differences between Grand Canyon and any other public university or private university simply are Grand Canyon is a publicly traded institution.
"The term is for-profit, obviously, but there's not an institution in the country that isn't trying to generate a profit."
The First Season
Majerle left the Suns organization after head coach Alvin Gentry was fired for "not having any plans whatsoever." Soon after, he received a call from Mueller, who had reached out through former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, namesake of Grand Canyon's Colangelo School of Sports Business.
"They were going from Division II to Division I, they were planning to make a change at the coaching level and wanted to know if I'd interview and sit down and talk about it," Majerle said, "and of course I jumped at it."
Despite being picked last by the media and second-to-last by the coaches in the preseason WAC polls, GCU finished third in the conference with a 10-6 record. (Grand Canyon was 15-14 overall.)
Because the Antelopes are transitioning to Division I, they will be ineligible for the NCAA tournament until the 2017-18 season and therefore cannot participate in this season's WAC tournament, which begins Wednesday in Las Vegas.
"The times we played Division I (teams) with the teams we'd had in the past, we would compete but we'd rarely win," Garrison said.
"Once we started playing the competition more often and seeing the different atmospheres we were playing in, realizing how to play at that level and what it takes, we just got comfortable."
Said Majerle: "At the beginning of the year, I don't think anybody thought we'd be good enough to play in those tournaments.
"To be centered to do that and to be able to do it in our first year is amazing. It just shows the potential we have and how hard we work and the future of this program."