Before Grand Canyon can become the Gonzaga of the Southwest, it must first beat somebody whose nickname isn’t Great Danes (Albany) or the Lopers (Kearney State).
Technically, it used to be Kearney State, pronounced Carney. Now it’s Nebraska-Kearney. But in the winter of 1978, GCU (the ‘Lopes) beat Kearney State, the Lopers, for the NAIA national championship.
Now GCU plays Duke and Louisville and Arizona and lost in the climb are those who helped make the Lopes a title-seeking small-college basketball power: Santa Rita High guard Jim Pyers, Pima College center Horacio Llamas and two-time NAIA championship coach Ben Lindsey.
Things change in college hoops. Sometimes with no explanation or purpose.
On Wednesday night, for example, the Wildcats ignored athletic director Greg Byrne’s weekly online refrain of “wear the colors.” The Wildcats wore neither red nor blue. They wore copper (and white) which is OK if you are the Cienega High Bobcats, but a bit bewildering if the second line of your school’s fight song is “Bear Down, red and blue.”
UA walk-on guard Tyler Trillo even wore Nikes with splashy copper swooshes.
What is this, Arizona State? In the second half Wednesday, the Wildcats played a lot like ASU.
Anyway, Arizona struggled to beat GCU’s ambitious basketball program, winning 64-54, but not before drifting in second half against the Lopes’ purposeful defense. It was far more of a battle at McKale than against, say, ASU, which has lost its last five Tucson games by 38, 24, 23 17, 15 and 11 points.
If nothing else, it proved that Grand Canyon hasn’t bitten off more than it can chew.
Many of the old familiar faces from the McKale Center shadows were missing Wednesday. It was unofficially “Give Your Tickets To a Friend Night,” made possible when ESPNU added Arizona to a dreary four-game Wednesday night package that included, in order, St. Joe’s-Princeton; Southern-Baylor; Arkansas-Pine Bluff-Oklahoma State and, as a late-night capper, GCU-Arizona.
It was the first 9 p.m., start to a McKale Center game in 21 years.
Former UA athletic director Jim Livengood once told me “we will never play a game after 8:30 again,” but in college sports, “never” has a shelf-life that corresponds to the next ESPN right’s fee.
Mighty Kentucky is playing five 9 p.m. ESPN conference games this season. One of the year’s most anticipated games, Duke at Virginia on Feb. 15, is a 9 p.m., start for ESPN. It is a trend ticket-wielding fans can’t possibly enjoy.
One can almost hear ESPN programmers putting together a master schedule last spring.
“What’ll we do for a Wednesday in mid-December? We’ve got the final spot for quadruple-header somewhere out West. Let’s do something imaginative.”
“How about Dan Majerle and his new program at Grand Canyon? He’ll draw more eyes than another Oregon State-Lamar game. Arizona is loading up on cream puffs this year.”
“But Arizona will balk at a 9 o’clock tip.”
“Need I remind you that we paid for those late-night windows that help fund Larry Scott’s $3.5 million salary.”
“Arizona-GCU it is.”
The last time Grand Canyon made a basketball ripple in this state, in this town, was 1982. It was like something out of a movie.
The Wildcats requested that coach Fred Snowden leave the premises and conducted a coaching search that ended with Kansas State’s Jack Hartman. It was a bit of a coup for Arizona to get a coach of Hartman’s credentials.
Hartman accepted the job but, after a night’s sleep, changed his mind. Arizona’s backup plan was to hire Grand Canyon coach Ben Lindsey. It was complicated. Lindsey had also applied for the coaching vacancy at Fort Hays State. He told Fort Hays officials that he would be the school’s new coach as long as Arizona didn’t hire him.
Fat chance, right?
A day later Lindsey was at McKale Center with his quote-of-the-season: “If you can drive a Chevy at GCU, there’s no reason you can’t drive a Cadillac at Arizona.”
Arizona went 4-24. It fired Lindsey. He sued. The school ultimately paid about $400,000 for Lindsey to go away.
A few days after Lindsey left town in his GCU Chevrolet, Arizona hired Lute Olson.
It took 33 years for someone with a GCU basketball pedigree to return to the sideline at McKale Center. The Antelopes have improved. Marjerle and GCU could soon gain control of the WAC and do to that league what the Zags do to the WCC.
Five years ago, Lindsey showed up at the Arizona Board of Regents meeting in Phoenix and during a “call to the audience,” said that his coaching performance at GCU, which included two NAIA championships, was “the biggest sports story to ever take place in the state of Arizona.”
Well, not quite. But if GCU’s climb up the basketball ladder continues at this pace, the Lopes and Wildcats could establish a rivalry that would make Tucsonans hang onto those late-night tickets.