All the elements were there for a picture-perfect homecoming at George Mason University yesterday.

The crisp autumn weather was tailor-made for an afternoon game against the College of William and Mary. The cheerleaders in their thigh-high skirts led the crowd in GMU chants. The pep band blared out fight music. The floats were creative and lively. The university president wore a green-and-gold striped tie. The homecoming king and queen beamed as they were crowned.

"We had all the traditional things," said homecoming Chairman Scott Vitiello.

All, that is, except for a football team. The guys running around the field yesterday were kicking a soccer ball.

Welcome to homecoming, George Mason-style.

Once a lifeless commuter school that emptied out on the weekends, George Mason is slowly but surely trying to build a dynamic student life and sense of campus identity. And, like everything else at the 18-year-old state school, when it came to starting a homecoming tradition from scratch, GMU simply had to use what it had.

In this case, that meant no football team. While George Mason has long-established programs in basketball, soccer, baseball and other sports, it has never been able to afford a football program.

So last year the school decided to hold homecoming anyway, focusing on men's and women's soccer instead.

"We're trying to establish a tradition at George Mason," said Vitiello, a 21-year-old junior from Reston. "We're trying to make homecoming the crown jewel of all activities for the next year."

By most accounts, it's becoming a success. This year's homecoming, the second one to be held, had twice as many floats, twice as many students voting for homecoming court and twice as many students, alumni and friends -- a total of 2,200 -- show up for yesterday's double-header soccer games.

"It's much better this year," said James Hazel, who received a doctorate from GMU in 1984 and now is president of its Alumni Association. "As the tradition builds, it's easier to get the alumni to participate."

"It's like most things at Mason," said university President George W. Johnson. "It gets a little better every year."

Still, the crowd did not fill the bleachers and was hardly overwhelming for a school whose enrollment has climbed to 19,500 and whose alumni base has now reached 30,000. As several students pointed out, the turnout was roughly equivalent to homecomings at local high schools held the night before.

"What kind of crowd is this for a homecoming game?" asked Dorian Paidas, 19, a sophomore from Miami. "I used to play sports. I sympathize with the soccer players . . . . I mean, you come out here and you get this kind of crowd -- it's sad."

Although the Patriots men's soccer team is ranked 14th in the nation, many at the game said European football did not compare to its American cousin.

"If you have football, you have tailgate parties before the game and then you party during the game and then after the game you party some more," said Scot Snyder, 21, a junior from Santa Cruz, Calif. "It's a lot more fun."

The lack of a football presence at GMU has long been a sore subject.

For years, one of the most popular bumper stickers on campus read, "George Mason Football: Undefeated." Just last week at a student forum on budget cuts at the university, one student suggested that fiscal problems could be solved simply by building a stadium, fielding a football team and collecting the ticket receipts.

Football aside, though, campus life has never been George Mason's strong suit, simply because of the nature of the school. Even with an ambitious dormitory-building program, more than three-quarters of the students still live off campus and many of them come simply for the classes and nothing else.

The core of the student body, particularly fraternity and sorority members, try to make up in spirit what they may lack in numbers. At the Friday night homecoming pep rally, for instance, turnout was sparse, but those who did show yelled as loudly as if they were at Michigan or Notre Dame.

Organizers and boosters counsel patience. Rome wasn't built in a day, they say, and Michigan probably didn't have huge turnouts when it started throwing homecomings either. Given time and nurturing, the tradition will blossom into the social event of the season, they maintain.

"It is a bigger deal this year," said homecoming king Archie Kao, 20, who is also student government president. "It's gaining momentum."

"As the years go on," agreed homecoming queen Christina Bartlow, 21, "it'll only get better."