Overnight Success, Instant Changes at George Mason

After winning the first two NCAA tournament games in school history, Lamar Butler, above, and his George Mason teammates circulated around a campus in which their celebrity had suddenly ascended to a different level.
After winning the first two NCAA tournament games in school history, Lamar Butler, above, and his George Mason teammates circulated around a campus in which their celebrity had suddenly ascended to a different level. (Preston Keres - The Washington Post)
By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

George Mason communications instructor Rodger Smith began his Radio Production class yesterday morning with a sly question: "Anything big happen this weekend?"

Like everyone else on the school's Fairfax campus, Smith already knew the answer. The Patriots' basketball team -- including Lamar Butler, one of Smith's students -- won the first two NCAA tournament games in school history, knocking off Final Four regulars Michigan State and North Carolina to advance to next weekend's round of 16 at Verizon Center. And as students returned from spring break yesterday, 14 basketball players circulated around a campus in which their celebrity had suddenly ascended to a different level.

"Even the biggest fan here didn't see this coming," junior Beau Cribbs said. "You knew who they were, but they're rock stars now."

For confirmation, ask Butler, a senior guard who finally went to sleep around 2:30 yesterday morning and sat down in the front row of Smith's class six and a half hours later. His first day back on campus was interrupted by dozens and dozens of hugs and handshakes, text messages and phone calls, autographs and interviews. An institution that was once derided as a commuter school has rallied behind its basketball team in the past week, and students predicted this season, which continues with a game against Wichita State on Friday night, will leave a permanent mark on their school's reputation.

"It's like we actually go to a real school now," freshman Alex Innes said. "That's what everybody's saying."

Butler's smiling face has been one of the symbols of this arrival, sprinkled across the national media since George Mason's upset win on Sunday afternoon, and he began to enjoy the fruits of that publicity yesterday morning. After his first class, Butler was stopped by senior Megan Ibbotson, a member of the school's "Patriot Platoon" student fan club, who asked Butler to sign her Youth Advocacy and Empowerment class notebook and then began snapping pictures of him with her camera phone.

"You're awesome, dude, totally," she said. "Your picture is all over, everywhere. I saw you on ESPN this morning. This basketball team has awesomely, single-handedly changed everything about this university."

Before Butler escaped Innovation Hall, he was introduced to a campus tour group, which broke into applause and began taking more photos. Current students congratulated him, wished him good luck, and told him that George Mason had screwed up their NCAA tournament brackets but that they didn't care. He signed photographs and mini basketballs and junior Shakoya Hicks's George Mason T-shirt.

"Put your number big on the back of my shirt," Hicks requested.

"My phone number?" Butler said.

The adulation had, in fact, started the previous night, when the Patriots' charter flight landed at Dulles International Airport. They were led by a police escort back to the on-campus Patriot Center, where students began arriving shortly before 10 p.m. for a hastily scheduled pep rally. "Let's Go Mason!" the growing mob screamed. "Sweet Sixteen!" they screamed. "Hey, they're serving us pizza!" they screamed.

Two charter buses carrying players and coaches and cheerleaders and the pep band arrived an hour later, and the arena's loading dock was overrun with television cameras, luggage and band instruments. Gunston, the school's ambiguous green mascot, began to throw on his costume.

"Out of control," junior guard Gabe Norwood said, shaking his head as he surveyed the chaos. "Out of control."

Coach Jim Larranaga, who has not stopped smiling for a day-and-a-half, entered the arena while pumping his fist, and around 800 students and fans howled. Players jumped into the stands and were pounded and hugged. Others recorded the scene with cameras. Larranaga, who had compared his team to Kryptonite during a pregame pep talk Sunday, delivered a speech that was meant to culminate with the playing of the Purple Ribbon All-Stars hip-hop song, "I'm on It [Kryptonite]." Instead, 3 Doors Down's rock song "Kryptonite" erupted over the sound system, and the Patriots dissolved in laughter.

"Hey, we're new at this whole thing," a school employee said.

Which is why yesterday was such an exhilarating day on campus. Students walked around in bright yellow T-shirts reading "We Believe." Psychology professor and season ticket holder Lou Buffardi stood in the student center with a George Mason logo temporarily tattooed on his forehead; "Pinch me," he said, "this can't be true." The campus bookstore typically receives five or six online orders per day; yesterday, there were 130 orders by the time General Manager Jack Smith arrived, and another 50 had been placed by noon. Smith placed a rush order for 500 "Sweet 16" T-shirts; a waiting list was quickly created, with Butler himself requesting a dozen shirts.

"We had people coming in the second we opened, buying anything they can get their hands on that's green and gold," Smith said. "We had to call in extra people. We called people and said, 'Get in here' -- everybody that we have on staff, whoever could come in here and work."

Several players and coaches reported a massive increase in their number of long-lost friends. Forward Jai Lewis had 32 voice mail messages and 15 text messages after the win over North Carolina, and his phone began ringing again at 7 a.m. yesterday. Assistant coach James Johnson arrived at work to find his voice-mail box full. Another assistant, Chris Caputo, had 128 messages Sunday night. The athletic office received more than 100 interview requests yesterday. A local rock station asked to interview Gunston.

Butler and several teammates held court for well more than an hour in the student center before he walked to Patriot Center, pausing en route to chat with George Mason President Alan G. Merten, who was doing a local television interview while a USA Today reporter and photographer waited nearby.

Butler had been amazed at the media coverage in Dayton. "You couldn't even see who was talking to you, the cameras were blinding you, questions coming from everywhere," he said.

But by late yesterday afternoon he was a veteran. He talked to cameras from local NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox affiliates. He talked to PBS's "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."

"I've never been on that channel before," Butler said, "never been on 'Sesame Street.' "

Earlier in the day he had stopped in a coffee shop and asked, "What do you have that's got caffeine in it?" Now, he leaned against his locker and closed his eyes.

"It's just a frenzy, man," he said. "The life of an athlete in the NCAA tournament."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company