PHOENIX — Last Saturday the balls were rolled out.
What soon followed was the sound of basketballs bouncing off the gym floor, shots swishing through nylon nets and the echo of sneakers squeaking throughout the arena.
In that moment the Dan Majerle era officially began at Grand Canyon University.
Majerle is the new head coach at Grand Canyon, the first head coaching job for the Traverse City native and former NBA all-star.
Majerle was hired for Grand Canyon’s men’s basketball head coaching vacancy in March. In the seven months since then Majerle’s life has been a whirlwind of travel for recruiting and a 10-day team trip to Europe. Now that practice for the season has begun, Majerle can put his focus solely on getting his team prepared for its first season of Division I basketball.
“It’s exciting,” said Majerle, who is one of Traverse City Central’s all-time greats, then went on to a stellar career for Central Michigan, followed by a 14-year NBA career that was spent predominantly with the Phoenix Suns, but also included stints with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers. “Grand Canyon’s been one of the best Division II programs in the country for quite a while and they’ve had a lot of success. The ability for me to be on board and transition into Division I is going to be a great experience and it’s a lot of fun, but it comes with a lot of expectations. The group that we have here, the university, the president, with (sports executive) Jerry Colangelo being involved, they’re expecting great things. It’s nice to have those expectations, but it brings a lot of pressure too. I’m going to have to develop this program pretty quickly, which is not an easy thing to do when you’re jumping from Division II to Division I, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Grand Canyon’s decision to move into the realm of Division I basketball is part of its burgeoning effort to increase the profile of the rapidly-growing Phoenix school.
“I hadn’t really thought about being a college coach, but then with the way the university is going we’ve got over 8,000 students on campus right now, brand new facilities as far as the arena and the practice facilities. In three years they expect to have over 15,000 or 16,000 students on campus. So everything about it was positive, and with our president, Brian Mueller, he’s an ex-basketball coach. He kind of wants our basketball program to drive sports at the university,” said Majerle.
The job with Grand Canyon is Majerle’s first as a head coach, but not his first in coaching. For the past 5 1/2 years he’s been an assistant with the Suns. After a possible opportunity to become a head coach there fell through — the team hired Jeff Hornacek — the chance to take over at Grand Canyon came about.
“When Grand Canyon opened up and they called me and wanted to know if I would be interested in coaching there, my focus changed real quick,” said Majerle.
The job was a natural fit for Majerle, who has established strong roots in the Phoenix area, as the owner of five restaurants and with his family also living there.
“I think it’s just a perfect fit,” Majerle said. “I get to stay in Phoenix. It’s literally 15 minutes from my home and I get to build a program right here in downtown Phoenix, where I live, and be a head coach. I think it’s a great opportunity.”
The challenges Majerle faces won’t be easy. The jump from Division II to Division I figures to be a big step and could take some time to make the adjustment.
“I brought seven players back from last year’s Division II team that are good players, they play hard, but they’ve been playing Division II,” said Majerle. “I guess my goal this year is to be competitive, to set a culture for our team and our organization of where we want to be and how we’re going to play, establish an identity and just keep going from there.”
The Antelopes have joined the Western Athletic Conference and have a four-year probationary period while they make the transition to Division I, where they won’t be eligible for the NCAA Tournament. That factor alone has made it tough to recruit players for the time being.
“The only negative we’ve run into as far as recruiting is...there’s a four-year period where you can’t play in the NCAA Tournament. Kids obviously see March Madness and the tournament and their whole goal is to play in the tournament. I have to go into a house and say we can’t play in it for four years. But we have so many other things to sell. We’re a top five city in America in terms of population, we’re an NBA town, there’s so many thing to do, the weather here is perfect. It’s an organization that’s growing. The university is growing, you can get a great education, it’s a beautiful campus. All that helps when we get kids on the campus and they see everything we’ve got.”
It also helps when you’ve got a former NBA player leading your program, having come from a smaller school himself.
“It’s the kind of sell that if you want to come and play basketball here, and you have aspirations of playing professionally, whether it’s the NBA or Europe, there’s no better place to come than Grand Canyon,” said Majerle. “The head coach has done it, he knows what it takes. You have contact with Mr. Colangelo (the Director of USA Basketball), who’s coached and owned a team, been a general manager. We have a lot to sell here.”
Majerle and his program will be very visible on a national and area stage over the next two seasons. His team plays at New Mexico — which figures to be a top 10 team in the nation — this year. Next year the Lobos will come to Phoenix to play. Grand Canyon also is scheduled to play at Rupp Arena against Kentucky next season. The Antelopes also are making the trip to Majerle’s alma mater, Central Michigan, next year.
If anyone wonders what kind of coach Majerle will be, they just need to know Majerle’s style as a player, with influences from all the great coaches who guided Majerle during his playing days.
“I played under some great coaches, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Pat Riley, John Thompson, Paul Westphal. They all had different styles. I’ve probably taken a little bit from all of those,” said Majerle. “I’ve just tried to coach the way I played. I have a lot of passion for the game. I demand a lot from my players, but we have a lot of fun doing it.”