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After decades together, Jay Marsh is saying goodbye, and George Mason is saying thanks

Jay Marsh is retiring from George Mason after an entire career spent at the school. (Will Newton for The Washington Post)
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Jay Marsh doesn’t want anyone to make a big deal out of Saturday afternoon at EagleBank Arena. He wants to show up — as he has done on game days at George Mason for 45 years — and make sure the players, coaches and officials have everything they need to play a basketball game.

But Saturday is a big deal at George Mason. As Marsh points out, it will be senior day when the Patriots play La Salle in the finale of this bizarre regular season.

“That’s where the focus should be,” he said this week, sitting in the empty Patriots Club inside the arena he has been responsible for since it opened in 1985. “It’s their day. Not mine.”

The people who have worked alongside Marsh for decades would disagree. Saturday will be Marsh’s last game as senior associate athletic director for facilities and events.

“That’s just a title [former athletic director] Tom O’Connor gave me,” Marsh said laughing. “It didn’t change what I do.”

Marsh, 77, has done everything at George Mason, dating from his enrollment as a student in 1970 after he had served in the Army and had been a route salesman in downtown Washington for RC Cola.

“The job went away when my route got burned down in the riots in ’68,” he said. “That’s when Carolyn and I started talking about me going back to school.”

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Carolyn Harris and Jay Marsh met at a country dance in Virginia while he was finishing his Army stint. They were married in September 1967. She has worked at George Mason longer than he has, starting in December 1975 as a sports information assistant, and has been the executive assistant to all eight George Mason basketball coaches since, from John Linn to Dave Paulsen. Jay played two seasons for Linn and, after graduating, became a volunteer assistant and then a full-time assistant before going to work in the business office.

The Marshes made a joint decision that this academic year would be their last. On June 30, they will spend their last day on campus as employees — ending a combined 90 years working at the school.

“He was the assistant AD in charge of everything,” Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes said. Barnes worked at George Mason for six years, five as an assistant to Joe Harrington, the last as the head coach.

“I’ve worked a lot of places, and I have never — and I mean never — met anyone as devoted to one school as Jay and Carolyn,” Barnes said. “There just wasn’t anything Jay wouldn’t do to make things work.”

Twenty-one years ago, Jay and Carolyn decided to build a log home on a farm south of Fredericksburg that had belonged to her family since 1815. The thought of leaving the school because of the two-hour drive never crossed their minds. George Mason was their other home.

Marsh wasn’t just highly thought of at George Mason. The Colonial Athletic Association held its first conference tournament in 1986 — at George Mason. Things ran so smoothly that Commissioner Tom Yeager asked Marsh to run the tournament, regardless of location. He did so, as a volunteer, until Mason left the league in 2013.

Marsh grew up in Culver City, outside Los Angeles. His dad was a junior high school principal, his mom a teacher. For a while she taught the child actors at the various studios, including a stint with the Mouseketeers.

“I always wanted to meet Annette [Funicello],” Marsh said, echoing the thoughts of most teenage boys during that time. He paused and blushed. “I probably shouldn’t say that.”

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Marsh was a fan of John Wooden before UCLA became the most dominant program in college basketball history. When Mason played at UCLA years ago, Marsh got to meet Wooden. The autographed photo montage of Wooden and great UCLA players is still in his office.

The other photo that hangs there prominently is of Marsh cutting his snippet of the net after George Mason stunned Connecticut in the region final to advance to the 2006 Final Four.

“What a moment, what a memory,” he said, shaking his head. “I mean to go to the Final Four is a dream; to go to a Final Four at George Mason is beyond belief.”

Marsh remembers the athletic department staff gathering that evening back on campus after the on-court celebration ended.

“There must have been 8,000 people out here to greet the buses,” he said. “But we had to get to work to prepare for the trip to Indianapolis. We were in the meeting when my phone rang. It was [Rick] Barnes. I picked up and he said, ‘How ‘bout them Patriots!’ That was a very cool moment since Rick was here when we were building the program and had become a good friend.”

How close was Barnes to Marsh? When he returned to Fairfax County after two years at other schools to become Mason’s head coach, he insisted that the Marshes move nearby in case his family had an emergency when he was out of town.

Marsh’s other vivid memory is the 1985 women’s soccer Final Four that George Mason hosted. The Patriots stunned three-time defending champion North Carolina in the championship game, the only time in a 13-year stretch that UNC did not win the NCAA title.

At the request of Jack Kvancz, then the athletic director, Marsh took over the Patriot Club in 1988 and ran it for seven years.

“I wasn’t bad at it,” he said. “I might even have been pretty good. But it wasn’t where I wanted to be. I wanted to work all the time with the athletes; I wanted to help them in any way I could. I couldn’t really do that working as a fundraiser.”

He stayed connected with the athletes throughout. In 1989, when Mason won its first CAA championship, the team attended a victory party put on by the league after the game. Yeager remembers the players all chanting, “Jay, Jay, Jay,” until Marsh reluctantly joined them on the podium.

“That’s how much he meant to all of them,” Yeager said. “I wanted him running our tournament because I knew all our coaches trusted him completely. They knew whatever they needed, he would get it done. He was an absolute pro in everything he did.”

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Not all of Marsh’s memories are fond. After two women’s lacrosse players were badly injured in a car accident in Durham, N.C., he got on the first flight he could and spent 10 days at Duke hospital with the family of the girl who was more seriously injured.

Other memories can be laughed at now: the day James Madison, led by Lefty Driesell, was in the building ready to play to a sold-out house.

“A few minutes before tip, we lost all power,” Marsh said, laughing. “Jack [Kvancz] came to me and said, ‘FIX IT!’ I said, ‘You got it boss.’ Twenty-five minutes later, the power came on.”

When Patriot Center opened in 1985, the second home game was against Georgetown because Kvancz and Georgetown AD Frank Rienzo were friends and Rienzo talked John Thompson into playing the game. There was one caveat: The tickets had to be split 50-50 between the schools. But there were bleachers at only one end of the floor, where the Mason students sat, so Marsh came up with a solution.

“I went out and rented bleachers,” he said. “Everything went fine.”

Everyone who has ever worked with Marsh agrees on one thing: No matter the situation, he doesn’t sweat.

Saturday though, will be a little different.

“I know it will be emotional,” he said. “Walking out after the game will be emotional. Once the game is over, I’m sure I’ll think about all this place has meant to me.”

And everyone else will think about just how much he has meant to the place.

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