At Team's Send-Off, GMU Is United in Pride

george mason university fans
George Mason fans cheer on the team as it boards a bus for Dulles Airport and a charter flight to Indianapolis. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006

As he watched his basketball team climb onto the bus outside the Patriot Center yesterday afternoon for its trip to the NCAA national semifinals in Indianapolis, George Mason University President Alan G. Merten couldn't help but sound expansive as he sketched the future.

More seats for the arena, maybe a practice facility. But most of all, he said, "Go everywhere" and tell people that the Patriots' story is the story of his school: a scrappy entrepreneurial institution that makes the most of its opportunities.

"This university is pesky. I'm pesky," Merten said.

Most of the sentiment on the Fairfax campus yesterday focused not on the future but on the task at hand: beating the University of Florida on Saturday evening.

Several thousand students jammed the atrium of the George W. Johnson Center at midday for a send-off rally featuring Coach Jim Larranaga and a green and yellow Final Four cake big enough for its own Zip code.

For most of the student body, it was a last chance to cheer the team in person. Only 1,200 of the 3,750 tickets allotted the school by the NCAA, priced at $170 each, were earmarked for students. The rest went to season-ticket holders, staff members, players, coaches and their families.

From the stage, beneath a giant video screen where a tape of Sunday's win over the University of Connecticut has been running this week as continuously as an Adam Sandler movie on cable TV, Larranaga said: "I have one question. Why aren't y'all in class?"

Dressed in a gray and white jogging suit, the coach drew roars of approval with what are becoming signature bits, such as his barely recognizable rendition of the "Mission: Impossible" theme and the re-creation of his locker room talk before the Connecticut game, in which he said the team's conference, the CAA (Colonial Athletic Association), would for one day be "the Connecticut Assassins Association."

Most important, he said, was what has happened on campus over the last few weeks.

"We are all members of a very large family called George Mason University," Larranaga said.

Many in the audience expressed similar feelings. Sook Wang, 23, a communications and journalism major from Seoul, said she paid little attention to the basketball team until this spring. Yesterday, perched on a chair to get a better view of the rally from the atrium's second level, she said that had changed. She'll be at the Saturday evening watch party that will be held at the Johnson Center.

"I think it's brought together Mason students," she said.

"The school needed it and deserved it," said Peggy Stull, a 1975 graduate now pursuing a master's degree in educational psychology. "The whole philosophy that you can make it happen is the philosophy of the university."

Even with the team's departure, the campus will remain in the limelight. ABC's "Good Morning America" is scheduled to broadcast from George Mason tomorrow. Maya Witten, 22, a biology major who commutes from her home in Springfield, said she was planning to get up at 5 a.m. to arrive in time to cheer for the school on network television.

"It's once in a lifetime," she said.

And no run-up to a big game would be complete without the ritual "friendly wager" of local products between elected officials who represent the competing schools. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) announced yesterday that he will put up a collection of Mars candies (the candymaker is based in McLean) against a case of Gatorade from Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.).

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