GMU Has Shot at Elite Status

By Susan Kinzie and Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 26, 2006

After yet another stunning NCAA tournament win, George Mason University President Alan Merten waded through all the hugging and green-painted fans and grabbed his admissions director. "You're going to be a busy boy," he told him. "You're going to be a busy boy."

Years ago, the story goes, Georgetown University showed how it could be done: Win basketball games and watch national recognition, student applications and alumni donations jump. Duke has done it. And who had ever heard of Gonzaga 10 years ago?

Some call athletics the front porch of a university, drawing all kinds of people in, connecting with them in ways the chemistry or economics departments never could. And so each time the Patriots win a game -- this afternoon at Verizon Center they play for a trip to the Final Four -- it's another chance for the school's reputation to advance as well.

"Mason is going to be one of those schools that has a following now," said Alex Bucaj, a 27-year-old transfer student who said he'd never heard of the school while growing up in New York.

Some say that the benefits of a winning team have been exaggerated and that such schools as Duke and Georgetown were already ascendant. Some wish success in academics would bring as much publicity. But it can only help George Mason to take advantage of all that enthusiasm. Because it's a state school, the biggest impact of the national frenzy is more likely to be on donors than potential applicants.

It couldn't have come at a better time for the Fairfax-based university, which has changed dramatically in its short history but has had trouble shaking off its commuter-school image and getting the recognition that such schools as Georgetown and the University of Virginia receive.

"You don't get opportunities this rich this often," Travis Reindl of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities said yesterday, after George Mason's Friday night upset of Wichita State. "I'm sure their alumni and development people are working today."

News releases will be fired off for the next six weeks, highlighting strides the university has made and bragging about such features as its cancer researchers and biodefense laboratory.

George Mason, now the biggest school in Virginia, is in one of the fastest-growing and wealthiest parts of the country and has a strong emphasis on research, two Nobel prize winners on the faculty and students from more than 100 countries.

Merten said that every alumnus has been contacted and that there were dozens of game-watching parties Friday across the region and even two in California. Maybe that won't sound like a lot to Georgetown fans, but for George Mason, which doesn't sell out its arena and started a major private fundraising campaign only a few years ago, it's a coup.

"School spirit and identity were lacking, but this is changing it," freshman Brian Miller said yesterday on the Fairfax campus, where the George Mason statue had been decked out with pompoms and a green superhero cape.

"People will finally be proud," added his friend Greg Hoyt, 19, of Fairfax Station.


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