Built for this: Jerry Colangelo's influence on GCU

Editor's note: This story is reprinted from the November issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.

By Rick Vacek
GCU Magazine

He thought he would become a teacher and a coach, but something inside told him to take some business classes in college. Three years later, Jerry Colangelo was starting a career in the business of professional sports.

Let’s see now … how did that work out?

Jerry Colangelo stands next to a display in the museum GCU built in his honor. It opened in September, and admittance is free. (Photo by Travis Neely)

But arguably the most famous person in the history of Arizona — and certainly the most industrious — also might be the best educator. So here he is today, connected at the hip to Grand Canyon University, once again turning serendipity into success, once again having the time of his life. At last, the teacher is in the classroom.

“I love being on the campus,” he said. “I love being around young people. That helps keep you young.

“This came along at the right time in my life. I think it’s been a win-win.”

The victories, as they have for Colangelo during his tenure as the head of USA Basketball and owner of the Phoenix Suns, Arizona Diamondbacks and numerous other sports franchises, have come at his typical brick-by-brick pace. He’s a teacher, but he’s also a builder.

GCU opened the Colangelo School of Sports Business in 2012. The school quickly has developed a cutting-edge curriculum focused on preparing students for meaningful jobs in the industry.

Less than a year later, he was instrumental in the University’s decision to hire one of his favorite former players from the Phoenix Suns, Dan Majerle, as men’s basketball coach. The Lopes have gone 81-46 in Majerle’s first four seasons.

In 2014, the entire business college was renamed in his honor. It’s no accident that the student-centric and Conscious Capitalism ideals of the Colangelo College of Business marry perfectly with its namesake’s beliefs and practices.

University officials were so buoyed by his impact, they built the Jerry Colangelo Museum, standing sentry at the main entrance to campus, waving in more people to be educated by his ideals and achievements when it opened in September.

Surrounded by friends and GCU basketball players at the gala in his honor, Colangelo holds his framed copy of a full-page advertisement in The Arizona Republic that the University placed to thank him for all that he has done.

Dr. Randy Gibb, the CCOB dean, had grown accustomed to the rather amazing experience of having such a famous man suddenly sitting in his office, his arrival unannounced. But now Gibb got to work with Colangelo — or Mr. Colangelo, as he and other faculty members always refer to him — for a year and a half as they picked out artifacts for the museum.

“You know what’s neat?” Gibb said. “With him and now the museum with his name and the fact that he’s on campus all the time, it gives us this role model, this true servant leader, somebody to really look up to, to be proud of, and I think business students on this campus are proud to be in the Colangelo College of Business.”

Even if they came all the way from Lancaster, Pa., as did Andrew Finley, a junior majoring in marketing.

“It was huge,” Finley said. “Anybody who knows about sports knows about Jerry Colangelo just because he has built so many franchises and has helped with so many things. In a lot of ways, he seemed almost like family to me in his work ethic and his lifestyle.”

It’s all part of the teaching process. Colangelo has never taken that lightly, no matter whether he is running a sports franchise or mentoring a business school.

“Many young people have said to me on campus, ‘I’m here because of you. I’m here because you really influenced me coming to school here because I know your background. I’ve read your books,’ that kind of thing,” he said.

“To me, there’s a responsibility that I feel. That’s why I’m so interested in what we do in the College of Business, because that’s all-encompassing. Just as we want to be a top-25 basketball program, we want to be one of the top business schools in the country.” One of Colangelo’s favorite sayings is “Life is relational,” so it should come as no surprise that CCOB has constructed a culture of collaboration palpable to faculty and students alike. Call it biz-synergy. There’s a lot to learn from it — which is the way things always have been with Jerry Colangelo.

Sweet surprises

Life is indeed a box of chocolates, as Forrest Gump’s mother famously told him, but so is a Colangelo speech. Yes, he has recurring themes, based on the principles of his strong Christian faith, but you never know exactly what you’re going to get.

“Most of everything I do is ad lib,” he said. “I just try to speak from the heart all the time.”

Colangelo frequently speaks to business classes. "Most everything I do is ad lib," he said. "I just try to speak from the heart all the time."

It’s uncanny. Even people who have heard him speak dozens of times still pick up a little nugget amid his bedrock beliefs: faith, family, friends, community — displayed prominently and purposefully on the east side of his new museum.

“I’ve heard him speak pretty much every time he’s been on campus and delivered a presentation, and it’s always been something new and insightful,” said Dr. Brian Smith, Director of the Sports Business school and Assistant Dean of CCOB.

“When he first got involved with our program and started speaking, some of his close friends told me, ‘Jerry is the ultimate 35,000-foot guy. He sees things at a higher altitude — big picture and vision going forward.’ There’s no doubt that’s very true. He’s very observant. There always are insights and wisdoms that you learn every time.”

That’s particularly valuable for students. Even though it’s not uncommon for Colangelo to speak to a CCOB class, students still find it remarkable that a man of his stature is willing to take the time to interact with them. “You don’t get this anywhere else,” said Dr. Mark Clifford, who teaches a golf operations and management class. But he goes far beyond a quick give-the-elevator-speech-and-exit session. He stays apprised of enrollment and programs. He’s at all of the CCOB advisory board meetings. He listens to student presentations and offers feedback. He even was sitting in the back of the class when Honors College students did a presentation on servant leadership. There’s a reason for that.

“Mr. Colangelo cares about what’s taking place. He cares,” said Dr. Rick Roth, a Sports Business instructor. “It’s so enjoyable because he then answers questions from the kids. He’s very transparent in the decisions that he makes, and he always comes back to those core principles.”

Colangelo gives thanks for what he calls “a wonderful platform to help young people” at GCU. He keeps finding himself in these situations, a man God is using to spread His word, and Colangelo wants to be a faithful messenger. “The wins, the losses, the successes, the failures — I want to be an encourager to people,” he said. “Here’s what I did. That doesn’t mean that’s the right way for you, but there are some basic things that I believe will help you along your journey.”

He knows which chocolates are best.

Constant collaboration

The CCOB building is an incubator of inclusiveness, an entryway into entrepreneurship. To borrow an old sports axiom, if you ain’t collaboratin’ (with the faculty in CCOB), you ain’t tryin’.

“They’re so approachable,” said Catherine Xiong, a senior majoring in finance and economics.

Dr. Randy Gibb, Dean of the Colangelo College of Business, introduces Colangelo on the day the college was renamed.

“The level of support that is happening, I don’t think it can be touched anywhere in the United States,” said Braeden Scheer, a junior majoring in entrepreneurial studies.

Scheer was one of several students who received regular counsel from the CCOB faculty as they formulated a startup, Storage Together, that won the Canyon Challenge entrepreneurial competition as well as an international event in Spain.

The members of the team tell stories of faculty members being accessible at all hours, even at home, and doing whatever they can to help student-conceived businesses — and students — thrive.

“These people could get paid hundreds of dollars an hour for consulting, but they’re teachers — you just go to them and get free advice all the time,” said Jedidiah Woods, a senior majoring in business administration. “These personal relationships that I’ve made with these professors have been invaluable.

“When I see freshmen coming in, I tell them, ‘This business degree will become priceless if you seek out all the opportunities that are here.’” Most prominent in the entrepreneurial hub are three faculty members who have done it all in the business world — Tim Kelley, Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Economics, and instructors Paul Waterman and Jon Ruybalid. Leading the way is Gibb, who gained considerable operational experience during his 26 years in the Air Force. “You can walk into Randy’s office, you can walk into Paul Waterman’s office, you can walk into Tim Kelley’s office and talk to them about what’s going on in your business,” said Josh McGuire, a senior majoring in finance and economics. “I think that’s what has helped Storage Together get to where it is now.”

Everything in CCOB, with its emphasis on both co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, is geared toward real-world experiences that will put students in position to get internships and jobs. It starts — but doesn’t end — in the classroom.

“I think we have two things going for us,” Gibb said. “One, our teachers teach — they’re not doing random research. Two, the amount of time and effort and passion that our faculty have for service in doing things with the students outside of class is incredible.”

The Jerry Colangelo Museum.

The list of CCOB clubs includes IDEA (Innovation, Development & Entrepreneurship Association), Sports Business, Canyon Business, Marketing, Finance and Project Management. There also is the Accounting Society and DECA, an international association of students and teachers.

Students even can get involved in TEDx GCU, the only student-run TED event in the world, and the New Business Development Center, which helps neighborhood startups get their footing.

Want to talk involvement? Xiong is president of IDEA. Finley is interim president of Sports Business. McGuire is the Project Management Club treasurer. Scheer was involved in four startups and 14 projects at the start of the academic year. Woods ran the first TEDx at GCU.

And there are places to go to get even more collaboration. CCOB students can interact with their College of Science, Engineering and Technology peers in the Lopes Lab, which has a 3-D printer.

Newly opened this fall was the Lazarus Lab, so named because it is in the space that formerly housed GCU’s cadaver lab. The Lazarus Lab brings ideas to life by giving entrepreneurs — both students and GCU graduates — a place to strategize. It should be no surprise that Kelley, Waterman and Ruybalid drop in frequently.

“They’ve dedicated that space to be an ecosystem for all entrepreneurs on campus, regardless of whether you’re a business student or not,” Scheer said. “We’ve seen, just in the small time that the Lazarus Lab has been open, that it’s going to be the catalyst for the Colangelo College of Business becoming the next flagship business school in the United States.”

Besides Storage Together, the list of CCOB-generated major startups in just the last two-plus years includes Great Pros (the 2015 Canyon Challenge winner under a different name) and Lectric Longboards (see Page 16). All that collaboration means still more biz-synergy, and all that starts with Jerry Colangelo.

The museum, and more on the way

A 400-person gala in September, featuring an all-star roster of business executives and sports stars, was a celebration of the opening of the museum, but it also was a barometer of the Colangelo Effect on GCU. Not surprisingly, the museum isn’t just filled with mementos of Colangelo’s career. It’s just as much a classroom filled with his wisdom. It’s also not the last major CCOB project. On the horizon is a new classroom building on the east side of campus that will house the college. After collaborating with Colangelo on every detail of the museum, now Gibb gets to plan an entire building, right down to the shrubbery in front.

“He really wants to make a prominent statement and have our footprint and landmark — ‘Here’s where the Colangelo College of Business is, a prominent location on campus with business students flocking in and out,’” Gibb said. “We’re excited about the curb appeal, the landscaping, the approach, a nice lobby, the relocated Colangelo Library. It’s going to have its own Lazarus Lab.”

Even at 77, Colangelo doesn’t miss a thing.

“They call me a visionary,” he said. “I enjoy building. I love to see things accomplished. When people have said to me, ‘Well, you can’t do that,’ my response has always been, ‘I can, I will and I’ll show you how.’ In other words, I always was willing to take risks — calculated risks — to try to accomplish something that is good.”

Oh yes, he’s done that at GCU. As Gibb put it, “He’s all in on business as a force for good, as a force for free markets and higher purpose for prosperity. He loves the concept of running your business in a Christian manner and truly loving and caring for your employees.”

It truly is a win-win. But the students are the biggest winners of all. 

● What people say they've learned from Jerry Colangelo


2,200: Square footage of the museum

55: Hours of operation each week

40: Minutes in a Colangelo video conversation

10: Championship rings on display

6: Trophies on display

5: Gold medals on display

$0: Admission cost to the museum

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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Bible Verse

Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins. (James 4:17)

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