What to know about the basketball rise of Alabama rival Grand Canyon, federal charges
What to know about the basketball rise of Alabama rival Grand Canyon, federal charges

After beating Charleston by 13 on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, No. 4 seed Alabama will face a No. 12 seed Grand Canyon team that has pulled off one of the most entertaining March upsets yet.

The game is scheduled for 6:10 PM CT and will be played at the Spokane Arena in Spokane, Washington.

But the Grand Canyon is fairly new on the scene. His raucous student section caught the attention of the college basketball world. So what exactly is the Grand Canyon? It was a sharp and sudden ascent to the highest level of college basketball.

But it’s a controversial story, full of recent government investigations, fines and violations.

The story of an online school born into a Division I program

According to the university’s website, Grand Canyon University began as Grand Canyon College in 1949 as a Baptist school. The school was originally in Prescott, Arizona before moving to Phoenix. It first received accreditation in 1968.

But the school changed dramatically at the turn of the millennium.

Grand Canyon’s website says financial difficulties have prompted a group of investors to take control of the school and turn it into a for-profit institution with a focus on online classes.

The student body grew, and between 2005-2010, the school spent more than $200 million renovating the Phoenix campus and expanding to attract more students to a physical campus.

This included a 7,000-seat basketball arena.

Athletically, GCU was originally an NAIA school before moving to Division II and in 2013, with the new facilities it had built, announced it was beginning the process of transitioning to a Division I program.

In 2017, GCU announced that it had been granted permission to join Division I after a four-year probationary period.

The GCU basketball team went 81-46 during that four-year transition period.

Academic and financial controversies

But GCU’s record is not clean. Not exactly a Cinderella story.

Grand Canyon joined D1 as the only for-profit school in that classification.

In 2008, GCU was sued by the federal government. The school allegedly violated Department of Education protocol for paying enrollment counselors based on how many students attended the school while the school also received federal aid.

No school receives more federal financial aid than GCU, with federal records showing it received more than $1 billion in the 2020-21 school year. The next closest is the state of Arizona at $839 million.

That case was settled and GCU paid out more than $5 million.

The school applied for non-profit status back in 2018, but is still considered a non-profit school by the Ministry of Education.

ESPN reported that part of that desire to become a nonprofit was to avoid a $9.2 million estate tax.

In 2023, GCU was fined $37.7 million for “deceiving” students about the cost of certain degrees.

USA Today reports that “fewer than 2 percent of students who graduated from GCU’s dissertation-requiring doctoral programs paid the amount the university announced as the total price, federal regulators said.”

USA Today also reported that it was the largest “fine of its kind” given by the Department of Education.

GCU has denied the allegations.

The Basketball Rise of the Grand Canyon

So what happened since Grand Canyon joined Division I for good?

In seven seasons now as a fully-fledged D1 program, Grand Canyon basketball is 149-74.

Head coach Dan Margele was fired after the 2019-20 season. Marjele led GCU every year through the transition to Division I basketball and the first three seasons after attaining official status. He was fired after his first and only losing season. He will continue to sue Grand Canyon over the handling of his termination and the wages he believes he is owed.

Grand Canyon hired former Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew. Drew was fired by Vanderbilt following the 2018-19 season, when he went 0-18 in SEC play.

Since coming to Grand Canyon, he has been among the winningest coaches in America. Drew is 94-31 so far in his first four seasons in Arizona. He brought Grand Canyon to the NCAA Tournament three times in those four years – the school’s first NCAA Tournament bids.

And with Friday’s win over No. 5 Saint Mary’s, Drew earned Grand Canyon its first NCAA Tournament win. Alabama is next.

Matt Cohen covers sports for AL.com. You can follow him on X on @Matt_Cohen_ or email him at [email protected]

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