The past week has been pleasingly hectic for Jack Kvancz, George Mason University's athletic director.
The men's soccer team was in the NCAA tournament. The Patriots hosted and won the NCAA women's soccer championship. And tonight at 8 o'clock, the first intercollegiate basketball game in the university's $16.9 million, 10,000-seat Patriot Center will be held, with George Mason playing Maryland.
It wasn't too long ago that George Mason University had barely made a dent in Fairfax County. Now, the university, building a reputation in the field of high technology and on the athletic fields, has appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and in NCAA championships in seven varied men's and women's sports, not to mention producing three Olympians in 1984.
"We've come a long way very quickly," said Kvancz, who oversees a still expanding program with a budget of more than $1.8 million, and that does not include a scholarship bill of more than $400,000.
From almost the day Kvancz became athletic director three years ago, he and Donald Mash, university vice president for administration, spent a lot of time discussing athletic priorities for Kvancz's department. "We had to have priorities," Kvancz said. "We couldn't be a man for all seasons anymore."
They decided on a three-tiered approach used by many universities. They would emphasize both men's and women's soccer, basketball and track and field -- a sport for each season -- and aim to be competitive nationally. They would aim to be competitive regionally in baseball, and they would try to be competitive locally in all the other sports. As a result, all but 10 full scholarships are allocated either to basketball, soccer or track and field.
George Johnson, the university president who has overseen most of the campus growth, decided early that football was too risky a venture to use as a foundation for athletics, especially the costs that could endanger the administration's control of the athletic department.
"We don't have rah-rah boosters sitting in the background," Mash said. "We're trying to do athletics in a way that makes sense in the academic enterprise. Having been able to see others' mistakes, we think we have a chance to do it right."
Can athletics be kept in perspective now that the university is crossing the threshold from a cozy little on-campus gym to a professionally managed arena? Much of the college athletic community will be watching George Mason to see.
"We're still an integral part of the university . . . and although that's frustrating to me sometimes, that's the way I'd rather have it," Kvancz said. "We all struggle to be the be-all and the end-all. We've gotten to the point we're part of the university. The university's making this happen. We're not bigger than life."
Kvancz seemingly overscheduled his basketball team for the Patriot Center, with Maryland tonight, Georgetown next week and West Virginia in early December. Asked the significance of being competitive with a team of Georgetown's stature, Coach Joe Harrington said, "Beating Georgetown would be like the U.S. hockey team beating Russia in the Olympics."
But Harrington understands the box-office value of those teams, and Kvancz, who has lived in the George Mason neighborhood since long before he became Mason's athletic director, says, "I don't think people will come out to see us play Little Sisters of the Poor."
The basketball budget is $120,000, including $75,000 for operating and $45,000 for recruiting. It does not include salaries. Although $120,000 may seem puny by some big-time basketball programs' lights, Kvancz is quick to note that travel costs are lower because of the proximity of the eight schools in the Colonial Athletic Association and being in a prime recruiting area. Kvancz said his program's No. 1 need is not money, but identity.
At few schools with such a broad-based athletic program as George Mason's is the athletic director a former basketball coach. Not only is Kvancz a former coach, but so is Alan Srebnick, the athletic department fund-raiser who took in slightly more than $250,000 last year.
Being a state-supported university, George Mason cannot use tax money for athletics. The athletic budget and the bonds for the arena are funded through student fees; scholarships are supported by donations and $200,000 in student fees. Of the $612 annual student activities fee for a full-time student, $114 is earmarked for intercollegiate athletics, $14 for athletic scholarships and approximately $100 to pay debt service on the Patriot Center, according to Andrew Soll, a university official.
Season ticket sales have lagged at the Patriot Center, reaching slightly more than half of the 2,500-ticket base Kvancz wanted. Depending on the gate sale, tonight's Maryland game may not draw more than 6,000. The more tickets sold, the quicker Kvancz reaches his total scholarship goal and the less students have to pay in fees in the coming years.
It was a close game against a superior team, and the officials in the big civic arena in Birmingham had made a call in the final minute that Joe Harrington didn't like. There is a timeout. In the old days, during his first five seasons as a head coach, Harrington likely would have ranted and raved at the officials.
But, on this night against Alabama-Birmingham last season, Harrington reacted with relative calm. Kvancz remembers sitting in the stands and watching, "He gets the team together. The timeout ends. We're ready. Our kids play great defense, and their kid can't even got a shot off." George Mason wins by a point.
Kvancz is a former basketball player and Catholic University coach, and rumors -- quite unfounded, according to Kvancz -- persist that he wants to return to coaching. At least a couple of Harrington's friends say Harrington is paranoid about Kvancz replacing him. Harrington has only a two-year contract.
Of Harrington, Kvancz says, "I've seen a big change in him, but every now and then he falls back . . . Sometimes officials were more important than coaching your team. He's gotten away from that. He's come a long way."
Harrington is sure he is a better coach than he was even going into last season.
"I understand basketball a little bit better," he said. "I understand myself a little bit better. I understand where we are in the whole scheme of things. I think coming from the University of Maryland, and only having been out of there a year when I came here, I was impatient about things. I think I've come to understand there are some things around here that I can't change right away, and I've got a little better patience than I had there."
It's obvious Harrington is being watched closely this year.
"A coach could be replaced more easily for the way he represents the university than his won-lost record," Mash said.
Yet, with the new arena, replacing Mason's old 2,800-seat high school-style gym, there are high expectations.
I think everything's in place for us to go the NCAA right now," Kvancz said. "I don't mean to put pressure on Joe, but I expect to go to a postseason tournament. We have a good coach. We try to do it the right way in terms of recruiting. We have enough of a budget to get it done the right way, and we have a beautiful building. I think things will take care of themselves."
"With a David Robinson (Navy's 6-foot-11 center) at GMU, we're easily top 20," Harrington said. "I don't think that's boastful at all."
With a salary in the $45,000-$50,000 range, a shoe contract with Nike and a partnership in a thriving summer basketball camp, Harrington has a total income package probably around $70,000-$80,000.
"It's a good young job," he said. "It's a job a person can look at in two ways. You can grow and stay here, which I could very well do, or I could be successful and move. I've never said this publicly. After last season, I was called by the ADs at Old Dominion and VCU (Virginia Commonwealth) and I interviewed there. I didn't go to either place, obviously. But now that I'm here, I'm glad I didn't go. This is a beautiful school, and it's rewarding in more ways than just financially. It's got lots of room for growth."
Tom Kiley, a math professor and chairman of the faculty senate's academic policy committee, has been a Patriots basketball fan since George Mason was playing its first games in 1969 in a nearby high school gym. Three years ago, concerned about priorities becoming misplaced, he made sure he got himself elected to the athletic council, an advisory committee that includes faculty, students and administrators.
"I have an Ivy League background, and I prefer that approach," he said one day recently, sitting in his office in a trailer behind the library. "But that's my own personal preference . . . My concern was whatever way we went, we didn't sacrifice our standards and we be scrupulous in terms of a student's eligibility and that we make a good faith effort to make sure they get a good education."
Recently, Kiley's term expired and he did not seek election. He decided his watchdog role was unnecessary.
"I no longer feel the need to be on the athletic council because I think that the people primarily in charge here, in particular . . . Kvancz . . . and Mash . . . are concerned that we run a clean program," KIley said. "That's partly because of their integrity and partly because they have a person like me looking over their shoulder."
Earlier this academic year, Kvancz broached the subject of approaching the faculty senate in an effort to modify the university's somewhat rigorous eligibility and probation rules. At George Mason, a student receiving one grade of D in any two of four successive semesters loses his eligibility. Guard Andy Bolden lost his eligibility twice in this manner, even though his cumulative grade-point average was well over 2.0. He is no longer playing basketball, but is expected to earn his degree this year.
Kvancz broached the subject no further than Mash, his immediate superior.
"That's the system the university uses," Kvancz said. "Those are the rules we have to play by. I started to open my mouth and I found out there was no point in doing that."
Although there was a reaction on campus over the firing last year of Beverly King, the academic coordinator who has said the university was placing athletics above academics, there seems to be a good system of checks and balances academically.