With Its Success, GMU Faces A Balancing Act

The surprising George Mason squad has been practicing for tomorrow's Final Four showdown in Indianapolis as plans are underway for a $12 million to $15 million renovation of the team's facility in Fairfax, an upgrade Athletic Director Tom O'Connor says was scheduled long before the Patriots made the NCAA tournament.
The surprising George Mason squad has been practicing for tomorrow's Final Four showdown in Indianapolis as plans are underway for a $12 million to $15 million renovation of the team's facility in Fairfax, an upgrade Athletic Director Tom O'Connor says was scheduled long before the Patriots made the NCAA tournament. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006

Whether George Mason pulls off its fifth consecutive victory or succumbs to the favored Florida Gators in tomorrow's NCAA basketball tournament semifinals, the Patriots will return to Fairfax having achieved something every college athletic department dreams of: brand identity.

By advancing to the Final Four, the 11th-seeded Patriots have turned George Mason into a household name -- at least in the millions of U.S. households that are expected to tune in to the tournament's final weekend. The Patriots also have gone a long way, analysts predict, toward helping the program recruit talented high-school prospects, energize its fan base and place more of its regular season games on TV.

All represent critical steps toward sloughing off the dreaded tag of being a "mid-major" basketball team and inching closer to becoming big-time. But the journey, although played out to deafening cheers the last three weeks, isn't without its peril.

The challenge, as the Patriots take the next steps toward big-time athletics, will be maintaining the balance that has earned the university its reputation as a rising academic institution. How will it respond to the clamor for more success without compromising its academic values and overextending itself for a fan base that may prove fickle?

"This is a great, feel-good story for the university," said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida. "The only concern would be, does this put so much pressure on the school that they get into a trap, as other schools have, of feeling the pressure to keep it up and therefore sometimes cut corners and engage in the unethical practices that other schools have been accused of."

Adds Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education, "The goal for the institution is to translate this momentum as a rising academic institution without turning itself into Jock City."

George Mason provost Peter Stearns, the university's chief academic officer, is well aware of the potential pitfalls.

"We're delighted with the success of our basketball team, but we frankly don't want to be known primarily for basketball," Stearns said this week. "We'll accept the flash in the pan; we think it's good fun. But that's not what we want to be known for, and I think our athletic department would agree."

Stearns's greater hope is that George Mason use its time in the national spotlight to sell the university's broader story -- one of a diverse student body, esteemed faculty, top-50 law school and vibrant research base. Coach Jim Larranaga is doing his part, hitting many of Stearns's bullet-points in postgame interviews.

That's precisely what authors of a case study on Gonzaga's feel-good run through the 1999 NCAA tournament recommended in their essay, "Cinderella Fellas," published in fall 2002. They calculated that Gonzaga generated newspaper stories and TV coverage worth $37.8 million in advancing to the fourth round that year. But the key to leveraging that exposure, they wrote, was for university officials to "shape the content of the message" by speaking in positive, upbeat terms about Gonzaga's assets.

Today, Gonzaga is no longer an NCAA Cinderella but a consistent tournament contender. The Bulldogs now play in a sparkling new $25 million arena and don't trigger shockwaves by reaching the round of 16.

Reached this week, Gonzaga business professor Carl S. Bozman, a co-author of the 2002 paper, said the only cautionary postscript he would add is that similar NCAA Cinderella schools would be well served by carefully managing the enrollment growth that likely will follow their basketball success.


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