College Basketball

As Main Mascot, Gunston Looks Like a Goner

Friday, June 2, 2006

After George Mason's Final Four run, Coach Jim Larranaga received a contract extension. So did Athletic Director Tom O'Connor . Boosters were treated to a black-tie dinner. Three senior starters earned invitations to an NBA pre-draft camp. Forward Jai Lewis was signed to a football contract by the New York Giants.

Everyone, it seems, was a winner. Well, everyone besides Gunston .

The school's fuzzy green mascot, who became a national media star this spring, could be out of a job by next basketball season. The athletic department is planning to convene a mascot focus group by the end of this month, which will propose about a half-dozen possible replacements. A new mascot likely will be chosen by the end of the summer and unveiled sometime during the fall semester.

Gunston will continue to represent the school, mostly at youth functions -- "he's not being offed," Associate Athletic Director for Marketing Andy Ruge said reassuringly -- but will no longer be the Patriots' primary mascot.

"We need to develop a mascot with a strong image, more of an immediate connection with George Mason, something our community would be proud to have," Ruge said. "It would be nice if a freshman could see him and go, 'Hey, that's our mascot' instead of going 'What's that?' "

The school already has been through a variety of mascots over the past several decades, including "The Mason Maniak" "The Green Mask" and a gorilla. A white male mascot of a Patriot was retired because he did not fully represent one of the most diverse campuses in the country, and Ruge said he "would be shocked" if the new mascot were a white male.

As for Gunston, his job has been on the line for some time. A study two years ago found that 40 percent of students didn't know who he was, and that a majority of students who could identify Gunston wished he'd be replaced. A survey of fans last season found Gunston's approval rating at Vice President Cheney levels, with an average score of 2 on a scale of 1 to 5.

While speaking to a 60-student marketing class last semester, Ruge was asked why the school would consider replacing its mascot after the recent burst of positive publicity.

"I said 'Let's just stop; how many people like Gunston?' " Ruge said. "And no one raised their hand. I said 'That's why.' He's not creating excitement if he's not loved and embraced."

-- Dan Steinberg

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