Fanning the flames of GCU purple pride

By day, Gail Francis, Dr. Sandy Bledsoe and Dr. Kathryn Kitzmiller (from left) don lab coats and goggles as science professors; by night, they're the uber-spirited Purple Profs. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Basketball's frenzied following extends beyond the Havocs

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published in the November issue of GCU Magazine.

The national picture of a Grand Canyon University men’s basketball scene is painted with zany, zealous students charged with enough energy to light GCU Arena.

But The Biggest Party in College Basketball’s power sources are not restricted to the courtside student sections of Havocs. Passionate support for the Lopes comes from costumed professors, a dancing grandma, grown-up Havocs and an online devotee giving her heart to the Lopes.

Purple Profs cheer sassy, classy

The trio melds into the party pandemonium at GCU men’s basketball home games, matching themes as devoted Havocs do.

They are Pooh, Tigger and Piglet on Disney Night, walking Christmas trees for Merry Lit-mas, don purple grass skirts and leis on Beach Night and sometimes reveal their true identities in white lab coats and safety goggles with purple wigs.

The Purple Profs (from left) Gail Francis, Dr. Sandy Bledsoe and Dr. Kathryn Kitzmiller hold up a birthday banner for Thunder during a GCU men’s basketball game on Feb. 15, 2023. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

“That’s you?” students ask Kathryn Kitzmiller when her class introduction slides include a photograph of herself in game-night costumes with fellow GCU science professors Gail Francis and Sandy Bledsoe – a trio known as the Purple Profs.

Their friendship formed in their department nine years ago and grew to group vacations and occasional basketball games six years ago before they bought season tickets in 2018.

Along the way, a canceled Las Vegas trip left Kitzmiller with an unused costume until a Disney theme night was on the basketball calendar.

“I don’t care what you do, but this girl is Cruella de Vil,” Kitzmiller told Francis.

“I’ll be your dalmatian,” Francis said.

The Purple Profs are always ready with the perfect costume.

And the spirited essence of the Purple Profs was born.

“Whatever the themes are, we’re pretty much ready,” said Kitzmiller, who taught chemistry to current player Gabe McGlothan. “If we aren’t ready, we go to the nearest Party City and get ready.”

Years ago, the Purple Profs traveled to the Havocs section and wound up like celebrities amid student paparazzi. As Havocs learn about them at games and on Instagram (@purpleprofs), some try to take a class with each of them.

In turn, the Havocs help the Purple Profs. When they came to campus neon-less for last season’s Electrolope game, the Purple Profs were brightly outfitted by the Havocs.

“It’s really neat to see the students be so united, whether it’s the pep band, Cheer, Dance, players or Havocs,” Kitzmiller said. “As the team has gotten better and better, everyone loves to watch a winner. You feel like a big part of the family.

“Whenever we have a long day or early classes the next day, we always say, ‘If we’re really tired, we’ll leave at halftime.’ That has never happened.”

Grandma Lopes matches Havocs energy

Shirley Jackovich’s doting days as a grandmother are mostly in the past with three grandchildren becoming adults in Illinois, but the Phoenix resident keeps thousands of grandkids at GCU.

Shirley Jackovich is affectionately known as Grandma Lopes. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

With unrelenting energy to dance, sing and shake purple pompoms in Section 212’s top row, Jackovich has become “Grandma Lopes” to Havocs and GCU fans.

When stomach cancer took away much of what she and her late husband, Joe, could do eight years ago, the Jackovichs began attending games at his alma mater, and he encouraged the former shy girl to freely enjoy herself in GCU Arena.

The in-arena and television broadcast cameras found that spirit in heart-shaped glasses, metallic beads and the purple shirt she puts on when she wakes up. Away from GCU Arena, students recognize her while attending North Phoenix Baptist Church.

“Joe introduced me to everybody and, all of a sudden, I’m Grandma Lopes,” said Jackovich, 72. “I like the music and all the kids and the way everybody greets everybody. It reminded me of my high school. I wave to everybody and say, ‘Hellooooo.’”

Once Havocs, always Havocs

The epitome of The Biggest Party in College Basketball lies in GCU Arena’s Havocs and Thundering Heard Pep Band sections. So once Bri and Ryan Sanborn graduated and moved their support to the upper deck, the experience was a harsher shift than real-world adulting.

“There were fans that were definitely interested but probably not as aggressively interested as we were,” Bri said of their first season as GCU graduate fans in 2018-19. “And it was hard to see friends who hadn’t graduated and know that season is so sweet. It’s like ‘The Office’ quote: ‘I wish there was a way to know you were in the good ol’ days before you actually left them.’”

Alums Ryan and Bri Sanborn, with their dog Natty, are second-row season ticketholders for men’s basketball. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

But like many graduates of GCU’s recent boom years, the Sanborns transformed into season ticketholders to extend that Lopes basketball passion of their college years.

Bri, a Christian studies 2017 graduate, and Ryan, a communications 2018 graduate, stay connected regardless, with his campus job as Agave Apartments resident director while she works in ministry.

But GCU games feel like their closest tie to their college years, although the married couple of four years sits together more now than then, when Ryan played saxophone in the band as Bri immersed into the center-section spirit with his friends.

They no longer have to camp out for the best seats. The Sanborns upgraded to second-row season tickets behind the Lopes bench.

“That was a bloodline,” Bri said. “It was such an easy way for all of us to stay connected. Once we graduated and got married, we all dispersed in the Valley but knew we’d come back for home games. If there were away games, we’d join up at friends’ houses to watch. As we grew up, it was a place that could still be a safe space for us and feel like home.”

That support extended to meeting up with out-of-state college friends in Las Vegas at the WAC Tournament, including when GCU won for the second time in three seasons last year.

“It’s cool to see how it’s grown from when we were students,” Bri said. “For a while, we were just the crazy kids randomly popping up tents. Now it’s just part of the culture. The uniting force that going to basketball games can have among college kids is really cool.”

Support from afar is Crystal clear

GCU’s most faithful and fervent fan may be a woman who has attended two Lopes games and lives in Houston.

Crystal Mullen is Lopetastic, a term she coined with her dedicated devotion via social media applause and all-season viewership, including listening to GCU radio while watching road broadcasts.

The lure of the Lopes and hoopla of the Havocs intrigued Mullen while she was earning a GCU online master’s degree in health care administration, but she only took a small sample to stay focused on her job and a 4.0 GPA.

Once she completed her graduate degree in 2017, Mullen bit off as much as she could chew, and her appetite for GCU basketball remains ravenous.

Crystal Mullen is a "Lopetastic" fan from Houston.

“It’s not because I love basketball,” said Mullen, 58. “I like basketball. I love the theatre and the craziness that comes with the sport, and that it doesn’t stop. Energy attracts energy. It’s out of the box. … It’s that type of energy that I’m like, ‘What are you guys going to do next? And how can I see it and be a part of it?’”

Mullen’s passion lies with men’s basketball, but her support extended to attending two women’s basketball games and three soccer games in addition to two men’s basketball games. Six games were near her home in Houston, and she came to a 2018 men’s basketball win against Delaware State after being in GCU Arena twice for commencements – hers and a friend’s.

Usually, Mullen watches games from home – at the ready with social media handles and emojis to post frequently.

“In a best-case scenario, I take the next day off,” Mullen said. “Because if we win, I have to stay up all night long. I can’t go to sleep until I read the article and get the highlights video. So I’m exhausted the next day. If we lose, I’m beyond irritated and can’t sleep.”

Mullen most relishes the 2021 and 2023 WAC Tournament championships and a game she did not finish watching live.

On opening night last season, the Lopes trailed by 17 points at halftime and Mullen called it a night. She woke up to news of an epic GCU comeback win.

“I binged it at least twice a day because it only stays on ESPN+ for 30 days,” Mullen said.

She prays for GCU players in her women’s Bible study group and never strays to negativity in her fandom, which will return her to GCU Arena someday.

“I would love to be right up there with Granny Lopes, cheering my lungs out,” Mullen said.

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