Are you ready? Lopes charge into D-I eligibility
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the August 2017 issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Rick Vacek
Momentum is an overused sports cliché, but old mo’ couldn’t be more apropos these days at Grand Canyon University. It’s a feeling that’s unmistakable to everyone on the scene – even someone who just got here, such as the new women’s basketball coach, Nicole Powell.
“Momentum is a really good word to describe the feeling,” said Powell, who spent the last three years helping to build an Oregon program that reached the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight this spring. “There’s this fun sense of reaching our destiny. It’s fulfilling this path, this mission – we’re on the cusp of that.
“We’re moving. You better get on the bandwagon because we’re going. It’s not underdog – that’s not the right word – but there’s this sense of really pushing that door open. We’ve finally arrived.”
That much was evident when representatives from the Athletics and Marketing departments went to Orlando, Fla., in June for the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics convention. Long gone are the days when a GCU shirt would evoke a quizzical look implying, “Where is that, exactly? Is it near the Grand Canyon?” Now it turns the purple people into stars.
“It was amazing, walking through the lobby of the hotel and the convention center, how many people stopped us this year that know about Grand Canyon and have heard of what’s going on here – not just in athletics but in the growth of the University,” said Mike Vaught, GCU’s Vice President of Athletics.
That’s what happens when a university posts by far the most impressive record of the 36 schools that have made the transition to NCAA Division I since 2000.
For most of those athletic programs, the transition period usually was filled with defeats. The recruitment of student-athletes who can compete in Division I does not go hand in hand with telling them that they won’t be able to compete in the NCAA tournament in their sport for several years, if at all.
GCU didn’t just break the mold, it shattered it. It won 13 Western Athletic Conference championships during the four-year transition, and its men’s basketball team won 81 games, far more than any of those programs during the same time span. Only five other programs even had a winning overall record in men’s basketball, and the average won-lost mark was 40-76.
But the national attention GCU got was focused largely on what was happening off the court. President Brian Mueller wanted to build a student cheering section that would turn games into events, and the Havocs were born. They quickly have grown into a force of energy that Louisville coach Rick Pitino called “the toughest crowd I’ve ever faced.”
“The Havocs have built a national brand,” Vaught said. “Just like our national brand for GCU is growing, theirs has grown a lot in the last year. It’s an atmosphere that’s the best in the country. Go try to match it somewhere.”
Prospective student-athletes certainly have noticed. It’s not uncommon for a high school senior to declare, upon signing a GCU letter of intent, that the atmosphere on campus and especially at games was an important factor. The noise is not just noise.
“It’s a huge part of what we have here on campus,” men’s basketball coach Dan Majerle said. “The support that we have, the atmosphere at games, the facility … we show those videos all the time. It’s a big part of college basketball, to have that kind of atmosphere for every game.”
The players who have been playing in front of those fans the last few years have had 2017-18 burned in their brains the whole time. Several confessed that they have thought about it daily.
“Every year, it’s in the back of your mind, knowing that, OK, we can’t make it this year, but we’re trying to take steps to where we do have an opportunity to play in the tournament,” said men’s basketball star Joshua Braun, arguably the most recognizable student-athlete on campus. “That’s always been part of our motivation for what we’re doing.”
Braun will get his chance through a bit of irony: When knee injuries pushed back the start of his college career, they also proved to be a blessing by making him eligible for his one shot at the NCAA Tournament. And while that always has been his dream (“That would be the storybook ending to my time here at GCU”), he has used the extra time in an even more meaningful way – his studies.
Not only is Braun on track to get his MBA during this academic year; that’s only a small part of what he has accomplished. He has been voted to the Academic All-America First Team in each of the last two years – the first GCU student-athlete to receive that honor.
But that sort of achievement is just one example of the classroom victories that are as impressive as anything that has happened in the arena and on the field.
During the 2016-17 academic year, 240 GCU student-athletes made the All-WAC Academic Team, which meant they had at least a 3.2 GPA and had participated in at least half of their team’s events. Utah Valley, the runner-up, had 173 honorees. The cumulative GPA of GCU student-athletes was 3.47, up from 3.33 the year before.
Making the grade is just one facet of the program. Nationally, the number of college student-athletes who go on to play professionally was a tad more than 1 percent this year, according to figures released by the NCAA. GCU has programs in place to make sure that reality is addressed.
“We talk about a comprehensive or holistic approach to student-athlete support, not just focusing on academic achievement but also the personal development of our student-athletes,” said Jason Linders, Senior Associate Athletics Director for Student-Athlete Development. “Community engagement is a big part of our mission at the University. And then there’s career readiness.”
The department works with Counseling Services – including Dr. Deb Wade, an experienced psychologist – to support student-athletes’ mental health and well-being. The LOPES for Life program focuses on Leadership, Ownership, Purpose, Excellence and Service.
Athletics also works with GCU’s Career IMPACT Center, which brings potential employers onto campus for all students to build employer relations and provide opportunities, including networking, internships and potential employment.
And if a student-athlete wants to withdraw from a class, that needs to be discussed with the sport’s academic coordinator and the coach and then approved by both Linders and the compliance department. The goal is to stay on track toward obtaining a degree in no more than four years.
“They definitely hold the bar high for us, which is a great thing,” said Jake Repavich, a pitcher on the baseball team. “School comes before sports, no matter what sport you play.”
Repavich is so excited about the possibility of playing in the College World Series next season, he went to Omaha, Neb., to watch this year’s tournament. That came after his team won the WAC regular-season title for the second time during the transition period, a feat that was matched by the softball team – and the latter also broke the school record for victories in a season each of the last two years.
That success was achieved even though both teams played tough schedules that included perennial national powers. “I think the mood is just being confident, trusting our preparation and knowing that we can play against these teams,” said Sierra Smith, who earned All-WAC in softball this year.
The baseball and softball teams both will play next year in stadiums with newly constructed grandstands, and all students, faculty and staff on campus will benefit from the expansion of the Lopes Performance Center. The basketball teams are enjoying their first few months in their new practice facility, which also features the Jerry Colangelo Museum, scheduled to open in September.
First-rate facilities attract first-rate teams and events, and one-year-old GCU Stadium already has one for the marquee – the WAC women’s soccer tournament will be here in early November.
And when the Lopes venture away from Phoenix, the University’s alumni, online students, satellite employees and anyone else with a connection to GCU can attend one of the increasingly popular “Lopes on the Road” events.
Finally, players and fans alike can add postseason dreams to the regular-season fun.
“I’m really happy for the student-athletes, coaches and everyone at the University, who for four years couldn’t go to postseason play,” Vaught said. “They finally can. Everyone put in a lot of work to get to this point.”
And now they have momentum on their side. It’s just one mo’ reason to be excited.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.