No. 1 in D-II: GCU’s Ascension as Top Athletic Program Was Fast, Furious
By Bob Romantic
GCU News Bureau
R.C. LaHaye can barely remember the losses.
There were a lot of them, and they came by such scores as 59-0, 53-3 and 55-0.
But that was five years ago, which in athletic years at GCU is like a lifetime.
Consider the following: In 2007-08, LaHaye’s wrestling program was 0-24-1 in its inaugural season, and followed that up with a 1-16-1 record the following year.
In those two years, the Antelopes’ athletic program ranked 146th and 173rd, respectively, among NCAA Division II schools in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup standings — a measure of across-the-board success in athletics.
Fast forward to 2011-12.
The GCU wrestling team crowned two individual champions at the Division II national tournament and finished third as a team.
And the school, with a national championship from its men’s indoor track and field team and top-10 finishes from seven other teams, won the Learfield Cup as the top Division II athletic program in the country.
“Five years seems like such a long time ago, but it really wasn’t,” LaHaye said. “Looking back at where we were and where we are now, it’s been an incredible journey.”
How exactly did GCU get that good in athletics, that fast? Let’s count the ways.
Commitment from the top
You can’t talk about GCU’s rise in athletic prominence without pointing toward President and CEO Brian Mueller.
How Far We’ve Come GCU’s rankings in the
Learfield Sports Directors’
Cup standings since 2009:
2012 — 1st
2011 — 8th
2010 — 76th
2009 — 173rd
Mueller, a former basketball coach, is passionate about athletics. He understands what a successful sports program can do to raise the profile of an institution.
When he arrived at Grand Canyon in 2008 and inquired about the level of commitment for athletics, he learned that most programs offered only two or three scholarships, had only one coach and had little support for things such as athletic training and facilities. In fact, the emphasis for athletics was more about boosting enrollment numbers and keeping the ground campus viable during a difficult transition period than it was about winning championships.
That changed quickly.
“Brian’s comment at the time was, ‘If we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it well,’” said GCU’s director of athletics, Keith Baker. “He said, ‘We’re going to raise the expectations, but we’re also going to provide the resources for you to succeed.’ … That’s really what changed the face of what we do athletically.”
Today, all 21 NCAA programs at GCU operate with the maximum number of scholarships available in Division II, have paid assistant coaches, and are supported by a full athletic training staff led by Geordie Hackett and a strength and conditioning staff led by Chuck Howard.
“Brian has given us everything we need to be successful, and we haven’t looked back,” said Petar Draksin, head coach for men’s soccer.
For Mueller, it’s a commitment that goes beyond athletics.
“We want excellence in academics, performance and faith. Music, theatre, dance and athletics are in the category of performance,” Mueller said. “They’re a way to communicate to the public who we are, and a way to build excitement about what we’re doing.”
GCU Arena, which opened in the fall of 2011, is the crown jewel of the University’s $313 million facelift. The Arena gives the Antelope basketball teams a state-of-the-art facility, provides a powerful recruiting tool and enables the University to host concerts, conventions and graduation ceremonies.
But the addition of the Student Recreation Center — and the Performance Athletic Center inside — also has had a big impact.
Within the Rec Center are practice courts for basketball, a wrestling room, locker rooms and a first-class weight room.
“Adding a Performance Athletic Center, and having Chuck Howard and his staff … there’s that mentality that we’re going to invest this resource in making you, as an athlete, better prepared from a physical standpoint,” Baker said. “I think that was a huge piece — and a much-overlooked piece — of how we got to where we are today.”
Scholarship opportunities and first-rate facilities also have opened more doors for GCU coaches to recruit international athletes.
Soccer, an international sport, has long had a foreign flavor at GCU. But swimming, tennis and golf teams in particular have added Division-I caliber athletes from abroad in recent years.
“We can bring in (international students) who are hoping to use this as a vehicle to a better life, to escape poverty or a bad home or sometimes civil strife,” said Stevie Gill, head coach for women’s soccer, who is Canadian. “My attitude is to go and get the best kids; I don’t care if we’re Division 15. … As long as they’re a good kid, a good player and they’re here for the right reasons, I don’t care where they’re from.”
It helps that eligibility requirements for international athletes are not as strict in Division II as they are in Division I. And many of those athletes are not as concerned about the distinction between the two.
“It’s always a challenge to get Division I kids to a D-II school,” said Steve Schaffer, men’s and women’s swimming coach. “But as we become more successful, kids can see that they will get good coaching at this level, will compete at a high level and they’ll get an opportunity to compete in NCAA championships — which they may never see at a D-I school.”
The next step for GCU is to show that the shiny new Learfield Cup trophy — which had been won for eight successive years by Grand Valley State University (Mich.) — is not a one-year wonder. Beyond that, the University hopes to make the jump to Division I athletics in the near future.
“Athletics are part of building the brand of the institution,” Mueller said. “Step 1 was to become very good at the Division II level by giving scholarships, building facilities and hiring the right coaches. That has put us in position to take the next step, to compete at the Division I level. If we can participate and win at that level, it will bring even greater value to a (GCU) degree.”