A team without a school? University of Antelope Valley playing out its season with no promise of future

The University of Antelope Valley is playing out the rest of its NAIA basketball seasons without a school. (Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports)
The University of Antelope Valley is playing out the rest of its NAIA basketball seasons without a school. (Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports)

Janae Turner recalls showing up to an open gym session at her school and finding late payment and eviction notices taped to the gymnasium door.

Lindsey Beck remembers having to practice at sunrise or after dark because her school refused to pay to run air conditioning during the midday heat.

At the time, the two University of Antelope Valley women’s basketball players misread those warning signs as quirks of playing for a tiny, low-budget California NAIA program with a converted motel for a campus. In retrospect, Turner and Beck now see those red flags for what they were: harbingers of a university on the verge of financial ruin.

With UAV’s men’s and women’s basketball teams both on the precipice of capturing conference titles and securing bids to the NAIA national tournament last month, a mass email hit players’ inboxes that left them feeling blindsided and bewildered. The university could no longer afford to pay rent or pay its employees and was losing its campus and athletic facilities.

Students who lived in the dorms had until the end of the week to move out. Sports teams were not allowed to finish their seasons. The university hoped to offer online classes but provided no assurances or specific plans.

Many of UAV’s women’s basketball players learned about the campus shutdown while getting ready for practice in the school’s training room. As she and her teammates ran sprints later that day, Turner admits she wondered, “What are we even doing this for if we’re not going to be able to play out the rest of our season?” Her focus kept drifting to whether she’d be able to finish her degree this year and if all her credits would transfer.

The timing was even worse for UAV men’s players, many of whom struggled to give their full attention that night to a road game against a middling league opponent. The way junior forward Arik Nicholas remembers it, “We should have smacked that team, but no one was focused on basketball. Our minds were all over the place, thinking about where we were going to live, where we were going to go to school and what about the rest of the season?”

It would have been very easy for UAV’s men’s and women’s basketball coaches to abandon their teams the same way the university’s Singaporean-based parent company did. Jordan Mast and Deon Price still have no assurances they’ll be paid to keep coaching, especially after the Bureau of Private Postsecondary Education ordered UAV to cease operation by last Friday as a result of the school’s financial problems.

What Mast, Price and their assistant coaches have done instead is “nothing less than heroic,” UAV sports information director Andre Harrell said. They’ve stayed, fought and fundraised to make sure two basketball teams without a school aren’t robbed of the opportunities that they have earned.

The sixth-seeded UAV men will make a six-hour drive to Glendale, Arizona, for a first-round NAIA tournament matchup with Huntington (Indiana) on Friday. The 13th-seeded UAV women will load up some rented SUVs and travel nearly twice that far for a first-round NAIA tournament matchup against host Southern Oregon.

Both teams aim to make their last dance together special because they won’t have a campus or a university to return to when they get home.

“Our goal is to win the national title,” Nicholas said. “If that happens, it’s going to be like a movie.”

A makeshift campus riddled with problems

Drive up Sierra Highway toward the northern edge of Los Angeles County, and you won’t find any staples of a typical college town. Self-storage facilities and RV parks whizz by, as do pawn shops, liquor stores and seedy budget motels.

Retired firefighter and paramedic Marco Johnson and his wife Sandra chose a property along this forlorn stretch of road when seeking a new main campus for the for-profit college they co-founded. Antelope Valley Medical College had grown from offering CPR and first aid training when it opened in 1997 to receiving approval to grant Associates and Bachelors degrees 12 years later.

Rather than shelling out unfathomable sums of money to build a campus from the ground up, the Johnsons in 2009 purchased an aging 144-room motel along Sierra Highway and quickly started working to repurpose it. They filled in the pool to create a courtyard, turned meeting rooms into classrooms and transformed guest rooms into a dormitory.

When asked why they created the University of Antelope Valley, the Johnsons have always insisted it wasn’t about making a buck or even about rehabbing a long-neglected property. The larger mission, they have said, was to provide career training to stimulate the local economy and meet the needs of the fast-growing cities of Palmdale and Lancaster.

“You give where you live,” Marco Johnson, a 1983 graduate of Antelope Valley High, explained to Yahoo Sports.

Johnson starred at running back for Antelope Valley High and as a punt return specialist at the University of Hawaii, so it’s no surprise that sports became a huge component of the college that he and his wife built. By 2015, UAV had launched nine teams, including softball, baseball and men’s and women’s basketball. According to data the university reported that year to the federal government, nearly 30% of its undergrad enrollment consisted of athletes.

The UAV men's basketball team plays in the opening two rounds of NAIA nationals on Friday and Saturday. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
The UAV men's basketball team plays in the opening two rounds of NAIA nationals on Friday and Saturday. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

It didn’t take long for UAV coaches to realize that recruiting to the school required a creative approach. Some stopped encouraging prospective athletes to visit campus once they realized the sight of the converted motel and grim surroundings were often turnoffs to teenagers and their parents.

“There have been numerous stories of a 6-10 guy that was ready to come here until he saw campus,” Harrell told Yahoo Sports. “Then he’d drive straight to the airport and go back home. The campus is literally a Motel 6 before Motel 6 existed. It’s not a hotel. It’s a motel. That’s what it is.”

Students who live on campus are typically on a first-name basis with the school’s handyman or local plumbers. Everyone has a tale of misery, from roach infestations, to moldy shower liners, to recurring plumbing or electrical problems.

“Whatever room I move into, I always have to call the plumber and tell him the bathroom is flooding,” said Nicholas, a Belize native who has lived on campus for four years. “Then I move to another room, and I have to tell him the bathroom is not working again.”

It’s a testament to UAV’s coaches that its men’s and women’s basketball programs annually contend for conference titles and NAIA tournament bids despite those recruiting disadvantages.

Mast, a former Gonzaga walk-on, became passionate about coaching after an elbow to his eye socket ended his playing career as a college sophomore. Price, a former dual-sport star at nearby Sylmar High, came to UAV the year after guiding his daughter’s Antelope Valley High team within one victory of a state championship in 2016.

A little over two years ago, Marco Johnson quietly began spreading word that UAV coaches might not have to recruit to an undesirable campus or location for too much longer. The Johnsons were on the verge of selling the university to a foreign education technology conglomerate with grandiose plans and deep-pocketed investors.

Harrell vividly remembers Johnson’s enthusiasm when describing how the sale could alter UAV’s trajectory. Genius Group, Johnson told Harrell, intended to pump millions of dollars into growing UAV’s campus and upgrading its facilities. Johnson even floated the possibility that UAV’s athletic department could attempt to transition to NCAA Division II.

“I was like, ‘Oh hell yeah!’” Harrell recalled.

The July 2022 press release that Genius Group sent out trumpeting its purchase did little to deflate Harrell’s expectations. It echoed much of what Johnson had told him and promised that, “as part of Genius Group,” UAV could now “achieve its mission at a global scale.”

Harrell cringes when he describes what he told UAV athletes around the time of the sale.

“You might not be here when the new campus and facilities hit, but you had something to do with them,” Harrell remembers saying. “When you come back to this university years from now, you’re going to be able to tell people, ‘We were slaving in this run-down motel but look at us now!’”

UAV's financial collapse

For a few fleeting months, Lindsey Beck remembers feeling optimistic about UAV’s ownership change. The new regime right away implemented a series of much-needed changes designed to re-energize campus life.

Over the next couple months, Beck says, the stream of improvements slowed to a trickle before drying up altogether. To Beck, “It was as if they suddenly found out all the problems we needed fixed and realized the financial situation they were in.”

New university president Tracy Lynn West’s first cost-cutting move was wildly unpopular across the athletic department and beyond. Multiple coaches and administrators confirm West slashed the scholarship money that UAV could offer students from 47% of full tuition to 30%. That’s at least a few thousand dollars per student at a school where tuition and books cost about $17,000 per year and the annual total with housing and food approaches $30,000.

“All us coaches were saying, ‘Hey, without this money, it’s going to be hard,’” Mast recalled. “Our school lacks a traditional campus. We don’t really have a dining hall. Money is one of the things that we could do to entice students and keep it relatively affordable.

“When they cut that cost, we told them it’s greatly going to hurt enrollment. Next thing we know all our revenue is down because the number of students was down almost in half.”

The extent of UAV’s issues were laid bare on Aug. 22, 2023, when the school received a letter from its accreditor placing it on probation for “serious issues of noncompliance.” Among the problems highlighted by the WASC Senior College and University Commission were operating expenses that had exceeded total revenue for at least two straight years, unfilled senior leadership positions and declining enrollment and graduation rates.

“UAV has reported optimistic near-term enrollment projections,” the accreditor’s letter stated, “but has provided no evidence that these projections are reasonable or that UAV can overcome the steady decline in enrollment it has been experiencing since 2018.”

While UAV had two years to regain compliance without losing accreditation, the cash-strapped school’s money issues only worsened.

Genius Group saw its American stock price crater by roughly 90%, trading at around 31 cents per share in recent weeks. Students complained that they weren’t receiving refund checks when their federal financial aid exceeded their tuition fees. Employees quit in droves after receiving checks for only 25% of their gross pay with the remaining 75% being offered in Genius Group stock.

The 13th-seeded UAV women's basketball team will travel to Southern Oregon for a first-round NAIA tournament matchup. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
The 13th-seeded UAV women's basketball team will travel to Southern Oregon for a first-round NAIA tournament matchup. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

By February, the Johnsons had initiated eviction litigation against UAV and Genius Group. The couple alleges that since October the Genius Group had failed to pay rent money that it owed. Marco and Sandra Johnson retained ownership of the property where UAV’s campus and athletic facilities stand after the sale to Genius Group, enabling them to lease it back to the Singapore-based corporation.

When mediation failed to produce a satisfactory compromise for both sides, Genius Group claimed it had no legal alternative but to begin steps to vacate campus by the end of February. Genius Group was exploring online-only courses for students until the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education intervened on Feb. 29 with its emergency decision ordering UAV to cease operation after March 8.

In a scathing statement shared with Yahoo Sports last Friday, the Johnsons accused Genius Group of “destroying a well-respected, prosperous, and successful academic institution” by allowing it to fall into “deplorable condition.” UAV’s parent company responded with a statement of its own the following day, insisting “the closure could have been avoided entirely if we had not had the active opposition of the previous owners, Marco and Sandra Johnson.”

“There are over 400 issues of disrepair on campus — including serious damage and decay of the roofing, structure, plumbing and electrics of the buildings,” Genius Group’s statement read. Genius Group asked the Johnsons to make the needed repairs in recent months, arguing it’s their responsibility as landlords. The Johnsons say the contract between the two parties “assigned full responsibility to the new administration for maintenance and upkeep” of the campus and athletic facilities.

The verbal sparring continued with both sides blaming the other for the chaos and upheaval that UAV students have endured. The aggressiveness of the Johnsons, Genius Group said, “forced UAV to leave the campus now and not at the end of the semester.” Marco and Sandra Johnson countered that they wanted to enforce their property rights but were “prepared to let the students finish the current semester in April and remain in their dorms.”

The timing of the eviction and the order to cease operations has put many UAV students in a difficult spot, none moreso, perhaps, than a basketball player from Belize who was one class from earning his business management degree.

The end of the road?

The day after learning that UAV was losing its campus, Arik Nicholas remembers sending email after email in search of answers.

Where could he live if the dorms were no longer an option? Would he be able to finish the final course he needed to graduate? If UAV shut down and he was no longer in school or playing basketball, was he at risk of being deported?

Nicholas has since received permission from the Johnsons to return to his former dorm room for the rest of the semester, but he still isn’t certain whether he’ll have to transfer to finish his final class. He likens it to a marathon where he “can literally see the finish line but can’t run across it.”

Stories like that are what motivated Mast and his fellow coaches to do whatever they could to help. Mast spent long hours reaching out to every higher-up he could contact to try to better understand what had gone wrong, what was being done about it and what the plan was moving forward. Too often, Mast said, those calls and emails went unanswered.

On Feb. 22, at the lone meeting the coaches had with the university’s interim president, Mast and his colleagues asked if they had any options to try to salvage the rest of their seasons for their players. Interim president Tim Campagna reiterated that the university was out of money but gave the coaches permission to try to fundraise on their own.

That same day, Mast began an Instagram post with the words, “Man I never thought I would have to do a post like this but here it goes.” He explained the situation that the UAV men’s and women’s basketball programs faced and asked for donations to allow both teams to compete in the postseason.

“I’m not too proud to beg on behalf of our team,” Mast said. “I owe it to them to do everything in my power to try and raise funds necessary to let them finish their season the way they deserve.”

Mast and Price shared the GoFundMe page with everyone they could think of — family, friends, reporters and coaching colleagues. To their amazement, they raised more than $40,000 in a few days, enough to send both teams to last week’s conference tournament at UC Merced and to the opening two rounds of NAIA nationals on Friday and Saturday.

The NAIA has been sympathetic to UAV’s plight, allowing the Pioneers to compete despite the unusual circumstances. When asked to explain why both the men’s and women’s teams are eligible even after UAV formally announced the university has closed, the NAIA pointed to the efforts being made to teach out the seniors so they can graduate.

“While Antelope Valley is currently in the process of closing, school administrators confirmed to the NAIA that the university will continue to operate in a limited capacity,” the NAIA told Yahoo Sports in a statement. The NAIA also confirmed that UAV remains properly insured and will travel with a coach and athletic trainer.

To the UAV men’s and women’s teams, advancing as far as possible is about more than just competing for a championship. These players have grown unusually close because of the adversity they’ve faced, but with the university closing and players and coaches scattering, this may be the last chance they have to all be together.

“We all know we might not see our teammates again after this,” Nicholas said, “so we’re just trying to enjoy the time we have.”

Winning, of course, would create some new problems. Mast might have to fundraise once more if either team advances. The final 16 teams in the men’s bracket go to Kansas City and the final 16 teams in the women’s bracket head to Sioux City, Iowa.

“If they keep winning, we’ll make it happen,” Mast said. “That’s what we promised them. You guys focus on winning basketball games. We’ll take care of the rest.”