Patriots' gains are a big plus for school, too

Unlikely NCAA success provides an image boost at George Mason

Ncaa Tournament

March 21, 2006|By JEFF BARKER | JEFF BARKER,SUN REPORTER

Fairfax, Va. -- George Mason president Alan G. Merten doesn't like it when the Northern Virginia university gets called a "commuter school." That's no longer a fair tag, he says.

The men's basketball team, whose starters all happen to be from Maryland, gets equally feisty when it's suggested that it can't compete with teams from the nation's power conferences.

That fallacy was laid to rest when the 11th-seeded Patriots advanced to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 by knocking off heavyweights Michigan State and North Carolina. The team not only earned respect for itself, but also provided a forum for an ambitious but little-known university to remake its image.

That's what happens when underdogs advance in the tournament: They get money and, just as useful, a stage to tell the nation who they are or aren't.

That's important to college presidents and students alike. As they ate lunch yesterday in the Johnson Center student building, undergraduates mused about how their school was still a secret to many.

Signs were hung around the modern campus reading "Kryptonite Rules" - a reference to the comic book-inspired ingredient that Patriots coach Jim Larranaga says his team uses to defeat super and better-known opponents.

"Outside of Fairfax, George Mason is just known for messing up people's [NCAA] brackets," said freshman Robert Cush of New Haven, Conn.

Athletic director Tom O'Connor knows all about that anonymity. In Jacksonville, Fla., helping the NCAA administer opening-round games, he said he spent $100 in cab fare racing from tavern to tavern until he found one showing George Mason-Michigan State on television.

He said people asked him, "What do you want to watch that for?"

George Mason (25-7), which will play Wichita State at Verizon Center in Washington on Friday night, needs a few more super efforts to make the Final Four. But the school, which has grown from 4,000 students at its 1972 founding to more than 29,000 on three campuses today, already has earned some spoils.

First, the money. Each game George Mason advances in the tournament nets $1 million from the NCAA to be divided among the 12 Colonial Athletic Association schools and paid out over the next six years, according to the CAA.

That may not amount to much in the richer Atlantic Coast Conference or the Big Ten. But it can begin to add up in a so-called "mid-major" conference that has already secured $4 million this postseason, with George Mason's guaranteed three games and a first-round appearance by UNC Wilmington.

In George Mason's case, the victories mean more than money. They mean new opportunities to market the school to students beyond its Virginia base. "Frankly, it helps you recruit faculty, too, because everyone wants to be around a winner," Merten says.

Attorney Michael Whitlock, class of '96, agrees that the wins are likely to have a lingering effect.

"It's a coming out for the school, not only athletically, but also academically," Whitlock says. "It's a very young school. Some of the other schools get looked at first. But there's a lot going on at GMU and I think that this will bring attention to other things affiliated with the university."

Like its basketball team, the school has grand designs. It is planning new dormitories and recreational facilities to keep students around campus more on evenings and weekends. A growing number of students - about a quarter - live on campus.

"This university is only 30 years old," says Merten, who has been president for 10 years and whose sports teams compete for Washington-area attention with Georgetown, Maryland, George Washington and other schools. "We're the young upstart. What do they call our basketball team, pesky? We're pesky."

The "upstart" image took shape after CBS broadcasters Billy Packer and Jim Nantz questioned the tournament selection committee for accepting so many mid-major teams.

In the regular season, George Mason lost twice to Hofstra - which didn't make the field of 65 - and got blown out by Creighton at home. Point guard Tony Skinn, from Takoma Park, was suspended during the CAA tournament for punching a Hofstra player in the groin and had to sit out the NCAA opener.

"We had to win that game for Tony," said senior forward-center Jai Lewis of Aberdeen. "We didn't want him to have played his last game."

Skinn said he sent an e-mail apologizing to Hofstra's Loren Stokes for the punch. "I didn't think I'd be playing another game for George Mason, much less playing in the Sweet 16," Skinn said yesterday.

"It's been a long two weeks, man. It's a healing process after what I did," Skinn said. "It's all like a dream."

George Mason has an allotment of 1,200 tickets for the Wichita State game, and O'Connor, who also has ties to the Baltimore area as a former athletic director at Loyola, said he has 3,000 ticket requests.

"I've been having more fun than should be allowed," Merten said.

He said his friend Brian Lamb, the president of the C-SPAN public-affairs cable channel, called and told him how George Mason's academic achievements were now being recognized because of the NCAA basketball spotlight.

The university president said he wondered whether it was fair - or even made sense - that George Mason should now be recognized because of a few basketball games.

"Does it make sense? Who cares?" Merten said.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Christian Ewell contributed to this article.

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