GW’s Patrick Nero sets out to win hearts and minds

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Patrick Nero is on the move. Meetings with donors and students here. Appearances at alumni gatherings there. The George Washington athletic director’s day is packed, with little free time at his disposal.

The former America East commissioner already is making an imprint at his new job, which he formally started last month after his mid-April hire. One of his major tasks: finding a niche in the Washington marketplace.

It’s a process Nero is quite familiar with after career stops at Marquette, Miami and Providence. All are city schools, and all but Providence sits in a market with a substantial pro influence.

“You have to constantly remind people you exist,” Nero said this week in his Foggy Bottom office.

He’s trying. Nero’s first major move, which came less than a week after his hire, was to fire men’s basketball coach Karl Hobbs. Mike Lonergan, a D.C.-area native who spent the last six seasons at Vermont, soon after became Nero’s signature hire.

But there’s more to revitalizing the Colonials’ showcase program than simply swapping coaches. Nero and Lonergan are participating in a litany of events — from speaking to groups at Nationals Park and Capitol Hill to branching out to out-of-town alums at baseball games in New York and Boston to conducting a recent fan forum .

Yet increased visibility, such as Nero’s ongoing negotiations with Comcast SportsNet and Mid-Atlantic Sports Network to land a six- to eight-game TV package this season, is not the only prong the athletic director must invest resources in to make the Colonials appealing.

There’s also the obvious competitive facet for a team four years removed from its most recent NCAA tournament berth. George Washington went 17-14 a year ago but defeated only three teams that finished with winning records.

The Colonials ranked in the top 150 (out of nearly 350) nationally in nonconference schedule strength just once in the past six years. That’s likely to change this year, with California, Kansas State, Syracuse, UAB and Virginia Commonwealth set to face GW. The deal with Kansas State is a 2-for-1, and the Wildcats are expected to play at the Smith Center in 2012-13.

The Colonials ranked last in the Atlantic 10 last season in home attendance, averaging 1,788 for 16 games. Only three of the other 13 schools in the conference did not double GW’s average.

“The thing you learn is you have to be relevant, and you do have to play that attractive schedule because people have so many different options and choices,” Nero said. “Your atmosphere in the building is critical; your opponent, your own particular team, your style of play and you have to work harder to get attention.”

Nero acknowledged not every improvement will occur immediately, for men’s basketball or any of the Colonials’ other 21 sports, though his longterm aims are clear.

“I want to see us in all of our sports — not just basketball, but all of our sports — competing within the conference we play in, which for most teams is the Atlantic 10,” Nero said. “And so for me, you’re competing if year in and year out you’re in that top third.

Nero was hired in the midst of work by a strategic planning committee to assess the athletic department’s future. GW’s seen progress on some projects, such as the recent installation of new artificial surface at the school’s Mount Vernon complex and the expected approval of a renovation of Barcroft Park in Arlington for the Colonials’ baseball program.

Other issues, though, will ensure Nero stays in motion at his new job for quite a while.

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