Amid Controversy, Dan Majerle is Quietly Building a Winner in PhoenixPosted by Greg Mitchell on May 8th, 2014
The news that Royce Woolridge had decided to spend his final year of eligibility at Grand Canyon University may be a bigger deal than you think. The Phoenix-area native is returning home to play for Dan Majerle at the first for-profit university to call Division I home. Yes, Thunder Dan Majerle. In its inaugural Division I season in the reconfigured WAC, the former Phoenix Suns star and assistant coach guided the Antelopes to a surprising 15-15 (10-6 WAC) record, good for third in the conference (after being picked to finish last in the preseason). The Antelopes will lose four rotation players to graduation, including their top two scorers, but adding Woolridge is another small step forward for what one day turn out to be a major story in college basketball.
The former Washington State and Kansas guard is a high major player (7.4 PPG, 2.3 APG), and an even more important get for Majerle because he was a two-time high school All-Arizona selection at Phoenix Sunnyslope. The Antelopes’ top returning player, Jerome Garrison (37.8 MPG, 16.5 PPG, 20.5 PER), was also a Phoenix prep standout. Having these two local products to generate good will with area high school coaches and players could be a boon for future recruiting. It’s not as if Majerle lacks for local notoriety; current high schoolers may not remember NBA Jam or Thunder Dan’s playing days, but his list of All-Star appearances and NBA coaching chops should be attention-grabbers. Still, when Garrison was initially recruited by Grand Canyon, he’d never heard of the school that is located in his own backyard. “Nobody knew about Grand Canyon,” Garrison told USA Today. “Nobody knew anything going on at Grand Canyon. All you heard about was [Arizona State] and [Arizona] here.” Having players like he and Woolridge in the fold could allow Majerle to capitalize on what he already brings to the table.
The cachet Majerle carries with him makes Grand Canyon a dangerous player in a wide-open WAC. The only program that has been a consistent winner in the league is New Mexico State, and Marvin Menzies coincidentally signed a two-year contract extension earlier this week. He had been rumored to be next in line at Tulsa had Frank Haith decided to stay at Missouri, and should he eventually leave, the Aggies could be tossed into a rebuilding cycle. Utah Valley State had a great first year in the conference by finishing first in the regular season (13-3), and Missouri-Kansas City has former Louisville assistant Kareem Richardson in charge and an administration supposedly committed to the program. Both schools have promise, but are far from sure things over the long term. Grand Canyon is far from a sure thing as well, but in addition to the name-brand of Majerle, the Antelopes averaged 4,614 fans per game last season in a building that seats 5,000. The support in the Phoenix community also includes former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo.
What makes Grand Canyon’s potential ascent all the more interesting is the simmering discontent ready to reach a boiling point if the Antelopes reach the national scene. The for-profit model of the school makes it an obvious outsider at the NCAA table, and it raises ethical questions more appropriately addressed by provosts and chancellors than college basketball fans and writers. Is the basketball program just another marketing tool used to drive up stock prices? Or, is it the fruit of an online-heavy education success story in a world of crippling student debt at traditional colleges? The Pac-12, and Arizona State in particular, have taken very public stances against Grand Canyon and the idea of for-profit schools joining the NCAA. The Sun Devils have refused to play the Antelopes, with school president Michael Crow mincing no words in his explanation. Last year he told SI.com, “If someone asked me, should we play the Pepsi-Cola Company in basketball? The answer is no. We shouldn’t be playing for-profit corporations.”
The Antelopes are not eligible for the NCAA tournament until 2017-18, so whether the Pac-12 schools relent and decide to schedule the Antelopes is irrelevant in some sense. Majerle doesn’t need to stockpile high-major games to ratchet up his team’s SOS and RPI. All he needs to do is build a solid team that can go on a winning streak in mid-March to win the WAC Tournament. Not playing the local big boys won’t help recruiting, but few other coaches can boast such a strong connection to the area or the NBA experience that Majerle can — certainly not Arizona’s Sean Miller or ASU’s Herb Sendek. The outcry over Grand Canyon’s entry into the NCAA has died down for now; but if Majerle continues to build a burgeoning program in the desert with good talent and a motivated fan base, it promises to come back stronger than ever.