GCU speeds ahead with coaching, Nike contracts
Story by Michael Ferraresi
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
When Grand Canyon University men’s basketball coach Dan Majerle received an impromptu invitation to meet with President/CEO Brian Mueller, he was admittedly a little apprehensive.
“Initially, I thought I was in trouble because I was going to the principal’s office,” Majerle joked Wednesday. “But he put me at ease right away and said he was really happy with the passion and commitment he sees and the direction that the program is going, and he decided to reward me, which is unbelievable. That was unexpected and greatly appreciated.”
On a banner day for GCU athletics, Majerle and baseball coach Andy Stankiewicz each received new four-year contracts that make them the highest-paid coaches in the Western Athletic Conference in their sports, and among the upper level of coaches at mid-major universities in the country.
The University also announced Wednesday a five-year contract with apparel and footwear giant Nike, which will outfit all 22 Division I sports at GCU — a move largely driven by national sports icon and GCU consultant Jerry Colangelo, the former owner of the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks whose name is affixed to the University’s College of Business. The Nike deal adds a globally recognized “swoosh” to the University’s purple-clad teams of student athletes.
Both Majerle and Stankiewicz have built winners at GCU in such a short time by teaching the same fundamentals, hard work and heart they demonstrated as professional athletes. University leaders felt it was important to keep that attitude in place in their two key programs.
“When you mention either one of their names in the sports market, they’re recognizable,” said Mike Vaught, vice president of athletics at GCU. “Their character and integrity comes with them, and that really helps our programs.”
Majerle was booed by fans when the Suns selected him in the first round of the 1988 NBA Draft out of Central Michigan University, but he went on to become an all-star and one of the most popular players in franchise history. Stankiewicz played his final Major League Baseball season with the inaugural 1998 Diamondbacks, capping a seven-year MLB career. Both had coached at the highest level in their sports before joining GCU.
“Those are the kinds of people that we need here because nothing is handed to us, it’s not given to us — we’ve got to earn it,” Mueller said at Wednesday’s packed press conference. “This is going to move just as fast as the University is moving because of the kinds of people that we have here, and we’re willing to work as a team to get it done.”
Rapid success for brand-name coaches
Majerle, an admitted lifelong Nike guy, led his team to a 17-win season in which the Lopes finished second in the WAC and earned a signature win over New Mexico at GCU Arena in his second season.
Colangelo helped bring Majerle to GCU in 2013, when he was tabbed as the coach that would guide the Lopes into their D-I challenge. Majerle was a Suns assistant coach for nearly five years, but had never been a head coach, nor had he ever coached in college.
After finishing third in the WAC in the 2013-14 season, the Lopes last year played powerhouses Kentucky and Indiana on the road as they prepared for a future with heightened competition. Next season, they will face Louisville, San Diego State and Colangelo’s alma mater, Illinois.
Both Majerle and Stankiewicz were signed through the 2017-18 season. Their old contracts were torn up and replaced with deals that run through 2019, one year after GCU’s four-year transitional D-I period ends and the Lopes become eligible for NCAA postseason play.
“I’m working hard, and it didn’t matter if this happened or not, I was going to continue to work hard,” Majerle said at Wednesday’s press conference after thanking a litany of GCU coaches, administrators and staff for contributing to his team’s success.
“For (University leaders) to show that kind of resolve and to tell me they believe in me like that, it just makes you feel great, because I know how much I believe in this place.”
Stankiewicz’s team captured the WAC title earlier this month after winning two of three games in each of its final three series. He said a lot of his friends in baseball thought he was crazy to leave a coaching position in the Seattle Mariners’ system to accept the job at GCU, which was a Division II program when he signed in 2012. But he “caught the vision” of GCU leaders, and by his second season, the Lopes made their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division II Baseball Championships.
Fast forward to this past season when the Antelopes finished 32-22 and notched wins against D-I powers Tennessee, UNLV, Cal Poly, Texas Tech, Kansas and Missouri Valley Conference champ Bradley. The team also improved on its second-place WAC finish the previous year by beating defending WAC champ Sacramento State on its home field in two thrilling final games, though GCU was forced to sit on the sideline during the conference tournament due to its ineligibility.
When Stankiewicz first stepped onto campus, GCU Arena was still a work in progress and much of the campus had yet to be built out. But even after coaching and scouting for the New York Yankees and being an assistant coach at Arizona State, he remembered sensing that what he could create in the far more intimate environment at GCU would build a winning attitude for future generations.
“Our coaching staff knows that, our players know that, and they realize that what’s going on here is very special,” Stankiewicz said.
“I’m excited about it,” he said about the new contract and future of the program. “In 2018, that’s when we’re postseason eligible, and in 2018 we’re going to make some noise.”
Colangelo’s fingerprints on Nike deal
The Nike contract was characterized as similar financially to deals the company has made with more established D-I schools in the former Big East Conference.
“I think it’s huge because when you talk about world brands, they don’t get much bigger than Nike,” said Colangelo, who helped make the deal possible by leveraging his relationships with the company from his time in the NBA and as chairman of USA Basketball.
“Sure, there’s competition in the apparel business and the shoe business, but by far the big guy in that whole space is Nike,” he said.
Eric Lautenbach, Nike’s senior director of college basketball sports marketing, said the company outfits the football teams at Alabama and Florida and the basketball teams at Duke and Kentucky, for example, but also has a history of investing in up-and-coming programs like GCU’s.
The 27-year Nike veteran said if men’s basketball programs from smaller universities like Butler, which has played in two national championships in the past five years, and Gonzaga, which has made 18 NCAA Tournament appearances since 1995, can find sustained success, so can GCU.
“Anything Jerry Colangelo has suggested to me has netted out to be a great idea,” Lautenbach said, noting their relationship is among the most cherished things he’s developed in his career at Nike. The company had a relationship with GCU through its men’s basketball program for several years, but when Colangelo began explaining the vision for the University, Lautenbach and others at Nike recognized the long-term potential.
“The recipe has been developed for great success, certainly with Mike Vaught’s leadership and the coaches they have,” Lautenbach said. “Our track record is we’re going to work with great partners and to be a great partner for them.”
Stankiewicz said there’s something about the “swoosh” and the quality of the Nike brand that appeals to baseball recruits.
“It goes a long way, bringing a young man into a clubhouse where we set up a locker with the jersey, the Dri-FIT gear, the spikes, the turf (shoes) … it’s very helpful,” he said.
Majerle said his “closet from head to toe” is all Nike, and that he’s preferred the brand since wearing his first pair of shoes at the NBA’s Portsmouth Invitational Camp in 1988. It was there that the relatively unknown player wowed pro coaches and earned a spot at the U.S. Olympic trials.
GCU men’s basketball team has worn Nike in the past two seasons and players likely would stage a “big uproar” if the University signed up with another apparel company, Majerle joked.
“To know that the best shoe company in the world believes in our product only makes our product that much stronger,” he said.
Reach Michael Ferraresi at 602-639-7030 or firstname.lastname@example.org.