As the Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils have learned, the recruitment of notable foreign athletes does not guarantee a successful hockey team.
Track and field is a different story and George Mason has become a major force nationally through its investments overseas. Those who have criticized the school's expenditures to lure academic superstars will be pleased to learn that the track investments constitute "peanuts," in the word of Athletic Director Jack Kvancz.
"Our recruiting for track is not in double figures," Kvancz said. Coach John Cook "has connections overseas and one begets two and two begets three. In many cases, it's just a matter of a couple of phone calls.
"We're certainly glad to have them. Most of the athletes come from cultures that prize education. And they are great citizens on campus. They study, they train and they don't embarrass us socially."
Cook, who left Edison High School in 1978 to guide the Patriots' infant track program, quickly saw that it would be difficult to fight the top U.S. track schools for American athletes.
"I always wanted to get the best athletes," Cook said. "If we couldn't get the best American athletes, then I wanted to get the best we could. I felt if I could get one good one from overseas, it would snowball. I got lucky. The first was Abdi Bile."
Bile, a Somalian, became the world outdoor champion at 1,500 meters in Rome in 1987. Although he missed the 1988 Olympics with a stress fracture, he proved a great ambassador for George Mason. He also returned to get his degree, which was awarded in December.
"To show what kind of guy he was, and what education means to him, he came into my office one day almost in tears, because his grade average was 2.48 or 2.49 and he had to have 2.5 to get into business school," Kvancz said. "It was the end of the world for him. Of course, he went on to do very well in business school."
Bile did so well in the track and field business that he recently moved to Switzerland for tax purposes.
George Mason's current superstar is Istvan Bagyula, a Hungarian pole vaulter who was seventh in the Seoul Olympics at age 19. Bagyula holds the indoor and outdoor NCAA titles and Sunday, despite a sore back, will try to defend his championship in the Mobil 1 invitational meet at George Mason's Recreation Sports Complex.
Bagyula will wear a weightlifter's belt for the first time to try to control the pain. The injury is a disappointment, because this winter for the first time he had been able to put in three months of solid training without a physical problem.
Bagyula has his personal coach, Endre Gagyi, with whom he started vaulting in Hungary at age 7. When Bagyula was 15, Gagyi left for Sweden, but they have been reunited and share an apartment owned by a Hungarian couple in Washington. Gagyi, besides his limited duties and pay as an assistant coach, is employed at the Patriot Center as a setup man.
Bagyula is unbeaten while competing in Canada, California and Tennessee this winter, boosting his personal record to 18 feet 8 3/4 in the Sunkist meet in Los Angeles.
Besides the Hungarian star, George Mason has four Jamaicans and three Ghanaians, two of whom are not currently eligible. There also are some excellent American athletes, including high jumper Tony Barton, the runner-up in both the indoor and outdoor NCAA meets last year.
"We have more kids on our team from Virginia than Virginia has," Cook said. "There's no reason to recruit kids from West Africa if I can recruit from T.C. Williams. But on our level, that won't cut it. We want to be one of the top 10 teams in the country."
Last year, the Patriots finished fourth in the indoor NCAA meet, then slipped to a seventh-place tie outdoors after a dropped baton spoiled the chances of the strong 4x400-meter relay team.
Despite the diverse cultural backgrounds of the athletes, there seem to be no internal problems. Cook has a Jamaican assistant, Dalton Ebanks, who helps to sort out any trouble spots before they develop.
"When we get on the track, there is good team spirit," said Patrick O'Connor, a Jamaican who was fifth in the NCAA 400 meters in June. "It is exciting to know what the other guys can do. It's very vibrant with so many different guys."
"The atmosphere here is the best I've ever seen," said Eric Akogyiram, a Ghanaian sprinter who is competing unattached while sitting out a transfer year from Brigham Young. "Everybody helps each other. If anybody needs help, he can get it."
"I get along good with them," Barton said of his foreign teammates. "My parents are from Guyana, so I have no prejudices anyway. But everybody gets together. It's close, like a little family."
Then there is Bagyula, truly a free spirit: "Track and field is not a team sport," he said. "You can't do anything about each other. The dependence is not like basketball. I don't understand why track and field has team competition. I don't agree, but this is the system, so I try to do my part."
Cook sometimes hears the criticism that he and other coaches are developing foreigners to beat U.S. athletes in Olympic Games. He discounts it, but admits that one area of complaint disturbs him.
"If I recruit Germans, Hungarians or Irish, there's no problem," Cook said. "But there have been disparaging remarks about recruiting Africans. I have an ax to grind with those people, because the Africans add in every way and it's good for our kids to be around them. But that's the way things are today."