It sits there on Patriot Circle, most of the concrete poured, many of the steel girders in place. Slowly, George Mason University's 10,000-seat arena is taking shape. The basketball program is in a similar situation: There is a strong foundation and many of the essential elements are in place.

Six years after entering Division I and four years after Joe Harrington took over as coach, the Patriots won 21 games last season. And Saturday night, George Mason, now 4-4, upset Alabama-Birmingham, a national power, for the championship of the UAB Classic in Birmingham. Harrington described it as "our greatest victory ever."

"We've come from a long way back," Harrington said recently. "It's hard to say something negative about the program when I got it. We weren't really a Division I team at that time, and we were playing a Division I schedule."

Nor was George Mason considered the regional university that it is today. George Johnson, the university president the past seven years, charted a course for academics and athletics to improve concurrently. "Six years ago, you couldn't see us from Reston," Johnson said.

"We consciously decided that building an athletic program would be a part of building the university, and basketball was central to our program because it is the flagship sport," said Don Mash, vice president for student affairs. "We had an identity crisis in our own region.

"People would ask, 'Who is George Mason?' Others would ask, 'What is George Mason?' It wasn't unusual for people to confuse us with a branch of Northern Virginia Community College. In terms of raising our profile, it's a tried and tested way."

Johnson said he considered establishing a football team, but reconsidered quickly. "Football," he said, "is a great sport for gaining an identity, but it's got too many problems for a new school.

"Some of this may sound a little pious. But I really believe in athletics as part of the undergraduate experience. Pursuing excellence in some sport is really something for students to learn. Athletics should be kept in the mainstream of the university and not diverge."

Harrington was Mason's first full-time coach. Athletic Director Jack Kvancz, a former Division I basketball coach, and Johnson included a clause in Harrington's latest two-year revolving contract that said he would be fired if he knowingly violated NCAA rules.

"Losing seasons would not be a disaster as long as they show the qualities we want to see," Johnson said.

Johnson said George Mason's goals in basketball include staying in the ECAC South Conference and still being a solid program in 10 years.

"How high do we want to climb?" Johnson said. "I'm more interested in sustaining ourselves than being a sudden flash. I have a suspicion of schools that come out of nowhere, make a meteoric appearance and then disappear."

So far, the only exposure George Mason has received from basketball, in particular, and athletics, in general (having already received national respectability in soccer and track and field), is positive.

"It's worked, and it's probably been quicker than anybody would have thought," Kvancz said. "Now the problem is to sustain it. We've gotten there. Now, we're going from a 2,800-seat gym to a 10,000-seat arena."

Johnson said that Harrington, who played and coached at Maryland, and top assistant Rick Barnes "have brought basketball along the right path . . . Each year to date there has been improvement in the way the team looks and performs. If I could have written it on a pad, that's what I would have wanted."

George Mason is scheduled to begin playing in the new arena next season. "People here at Mason have to be patient," Harrington said. "It takes time to fill a big arena. It's easier to improve to the point we are now than the next five years . . . "Once we get things going, people expect more and more and more. People will look at the program a little more seriously. And that's good, because local players will take even a better look at George Mason than they would in the past."

The basketball budget is just a shade under $300,000, including operating costs ($110,000), salaries ($90,000) and scholarships ($98,000). Of the $110,000 in operating funds, Harrington is allotted $40,000 for recruiting.

He seldom recruits more than 200 miles from campus, although Rob Rose, one of the Patriots' three top players, is from Rochester, N.Y. Harrington got lucky there because of a local connection with Rose's high school coach.

The problem for Harrington -- and for most other coaches at George Mason's level in the 277-team Division I -- is that there aren't enough good big men to go around.

The other day, Harrington had just concluded practice when an aide told him he had an overseas call, from Holland. "Maybe it's a 6-9 kid who can play," Harrington said, excitedly, rushing upstairs to take the call.

But it was only a coach asking for a recommendation for former Patriots center Andre Gaddy, who has played overseas and whom Harrington refers to as "our one pro player."

Rose is only 6 feet 5, and the other two top players are 6-5 Carlos Yates and 6-3 Ricky Wilson. The athletes are usually quick and strong (partly because of Harrington's stress on a weight program). Thus, without quality inside players, it is not surprising that George Mason plays a crowd-pleasing style of pressing and fast-breaking basketball.

"With a big man, it puts us way up there, like GW with Mike Brown," Harrington said. "We're not void of big men like people think we are. At the level we're at right now, there aren't a lot of them around, and they don't seem to come to George Mason."

The Patriots have an athletic support program unmatched by any area school that does not play football. "The people have been positive about our program," Harrington said. "They don't hold us back. You never get all of what you want, but we get most of what we want. If you want to be good, you've got to have the right people backing you."

Harrington also has all the fringe benefits coaches at bigger schools have -- a shoe contract, a television show, a radio show, courtesy cars and a summer camp -- only he doesn't reap the same profits. Harrington's salary is believed to be about $40,000, and his total package under $60,000.

In addition to the athletic department's $1.5 million budget this year, the staff also has been actively involved in fund raising, promotions, advertising and concessions, to supplement minimal revenues from ticket sales (even though season-ticket sales in basketball have increased almost 50 percent since last season, according to Jay Marsh, assistant athletic director).

These activities help pay for a $400,000 annual scholarship bill for all athletes, men and women. Last year, with the extra revenue, the athletic department turned a $5,000 profit, according to Kvancz.

Alan Srebnick, director of the Patriots Club, was an assistant basketball coach at Division I schools Iona and American before becoming Mason's athletic fund-raiser four years ago. "When I came here," Srebnick said, "I worked in a trailer and walked through puddles to get to the gym."

The Patriots Club has more than 600 members and raised $180,000 last season, including $135,000 in cash and $45,000 in what Srebnick calls "gifts in kind," a trade-off of services for club membership.

"Four years ago, we couldn't get a foot in the door," Srebnick said. "But the whole department has spent time educating and cultivating people to the university and to the athletic department; what we're doing, why we're doing it. It's like the commercial, 'Try it. You'll like it' . . . We've developed a solid foundation."

It has paid off; less than 5 percent of the contributions has come from alumni.

Mason is in what Kvancz calls the "betwixt and between" stage of development for its basketball team. The $16.7 million arena is being built with low-interest revenue bonds issued by the state. It is being built with indoor soccer and concerts in mind, among other entertainment. It will be run by professional management, a first for college arenas.

Kvancz would like to bring a couple of name teams into the arena annually to supplement a league schedule that is solid, if not spectacular. But scheduling home games is a problem. So far, there is no opponent set for the dedication game in November.

"We're not bad, but how good are we?" Kvancz said. "You get to the situation -- if we beat you, is it all right to tell people you got beat by George Mason?"

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