In the peaceful suburbs of north Phoenix, a southern California transplant has quietly been building a national powerhouse college basketball program at the NAIA level at Arizona Christian University.
Jeff Rutter, a long-time assistant coach at Azusa Pacific and star player for Concordia University in Irvine, CA, made the move to Phoenix less than 5 years ago with his wife Kristen and never looked back. Taking over a new NAIA program in the desert at former Southwestern College, he has kept ACU in the top 25 in the nation for five consecutive years while also serving as athletic director for a growing University.
“To be honest, I had no idea how good Jeff Rutter was going to be,” said Len Munsil, who after becoming President of then-Southwestern College in the fall of 2010 immediately set about building an elite Christian liberal arts university, for which athletics would be an important element. “I knew I liked him, I knew he understood and believed in the vision of what ACU could be, but I had no idea how good he would be at recruiting and coaching basketball, let alone how well he would build our athletic program. He has been a key part of ACU’s resurgence and growth.”
This week Rutter is likely to surpass 100 career coaching wins, less than midway through his fifth season. Arizona has seven 4-year college basketball programs, and Rutter’s winning percentage of .726 (98-37) ranks him just a shade behind the University of Arizona’s Sean Miller (.743) and well ahead of Arizona’s five other college basketball coaches. [See chart below.]
Arizona Christian University plays at the NAIA level, which is unfamiliar to all but the most die-hard college basketball fans, so there is little understanding of the high level of competition involved. In his second year at ACU, in the fall of 2013, Coach Rutter took the Firestorm up the mountain to Flagstaff and defeated NCAA D1 Northern Arizona University 92-85. Just a few weeks later, that same NAU squad (minus DeWayne Russell, who quit the Lumberjacks after the loss to ACU) defeated Dan Majerle’s Grand Canyon University 63-61.
“It was hard to get NCAA Division 1 schools to play us for a little while after that,” Rutter said with a smile.
Last year, Arizona Christian University led a strong BYU squad early in the 2nd half in Provo, UT before the Cougars pulled away for an exhibition win. Next year, ACU will begin what it hopes will be an annual exhibition contest in Tempe against the Sun Devils of Arizona State University.
“With two new NAIA programs starting in Arizona last season (Mesa Benedictine and Embry-Riddle University-Prescott) – and with the great NAIA tradition in the past at Grand Canyon – I’m hoping we will see a resurgence of interest and excitement in small college basketball,” Rutter said. “It’s great entertainment, great atmosphere, and highly talented athletes, many of whom go on to play professionally.”
Grand Canyon University won two NAIA national championships, the last under former NBA star and Coach Paul Westphal. Ironically, Westphal began his coaching career at what is now Arizona Christian University, and is now permanently involved in ACU athletics as the face of ACU’s Booster Club – the Westphal Athletic Fund. In the last few years, Westphal has made the trip to Kansas City to watch the ACU Firestorm compete in the national tournament that his Grand Canyon squad won in 1988.
“I love small college basketball,” Westphal said. “Coaching at Southwestern Conservative Baptist Bible College – now ACU – was one of the greatest experiences of my life. That led me to Grand Canyon and then on to the NBA. I’m thrilled to watch what Jeff Rutter has done at ACU and am looking forward to seeing a number of games this year.”
Rutter took over a program that was just 27-54 in its first three years in the NAIA, having made the jump from the tiny National Christian College Athletic Association. In his first year, he won 20 games and took ACU to the Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC) championship game, where it lost in overtime on national television. His next three teams won 23, 25, and 23 games and all advanced to the national tourney in Kansas City, two of them advancing to the Sweet Sixteen.
As Athletic Director, Rutter has presided over ACU’s growth to 17 NAIA teams, while maintaining ACU’s historic Christian commitment among its athletes and providing academic support such that ACU student-athletes rank in the top 5 percent average GPA in the nation.
The GSAC, featuring ACU and 8 colleges from California including national No. 1 Biola University, is widely considered the strongest NAIA basketball conference, with 5 of its 9 members currently receiving votes in the national poll.
ACU has begun this season 7-1, and is currently ranked No. 25 in the nation. This year’s Firestorm feature Arizona high school talent like junior Andy Sessions (Mountain View HS), sophomore Carter Wilson (Queen Creek HS), and freshmen Lawrence Combs (Mountain Pointe HS) and Jake Reuter (Seton Catholic HS), along with NCAA D1 transfers Patson Siame, a 6-11 forward from Florida Gulf Coast University, and 6-foot point guard Shy McClelland, from Mesa Community College and the University of South Dakota. ACU also features first-team GSAC performer last season and leading scorer Chris Sterling, a 6-5 forward from Bakersfield who is averaging nearly 18 points per game in his ACU career.
ACU has three games in four days this week – two tournament games at Chandler-Gilbert Community College (8 p.m. Dec. 19 vs. Southwestern Christian (KS), and 5 p.m. Dec. 21 vs. Montana Tech) and a home game at 3 p.m. Dec. 22 against the University of Calgary.
“I’m thankful for what God has done at ACU and excited to see how our program will continue to develop along with the University,” Rutter said. “ACU is a unique place, where the Christian educational mission comes first.”
“But we play some pretty good basketball too!”
|Sean Miller||13th||Xavier/U of A||NCAA D1||318-110||.743|
|Jeff Rutter||5th||Arizona Christian Univ.||NAIA D1||98-37||.726|
|Bobby Hurley||4th||Buffalo/ASU||NCAA D1||63-42||.600|
|Dan Majerle||4th||Grand Canyon Univ.||NCAA D1||65-62||.512|
|Steve Schafer||2nd||Mesa Benedictine||NAIA D2||20-22||.476|
|Jack Murphy||4th||NAU||NCAA D1||52-62||.456|
|Eric Fundalewicz||2nd||Embry-Riddle Prescott||NAIA D2||6-27||.182|