- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

While the George Mason men’s basketball team prepares to meet Florida this weekend in the Final Four, school officials are facing a tough job of their own: turning the university’s newfound fame into something lasting.

The team’s unexpected NCAA tournament run could pay off big for the school, in the form of increased applications, more alumni donations and greater visibility for its programs. In essence, it’s great advertising for a school that has struggled to gain national attention in the shadow of more than a half-dozen other top colleges in the region.

“There’s a lot to be said about this university and this department,” George Mason athletic director Tom O’Connor said. “This helps us tell it on a bigger stage. And if this means more support for our programs, that’s terrific.”

So far, school officials are saying all the right things. During a CBS interview after Sunday’s victory over Connecticut, coach Jim Larranaga talked not only about the team’s success but the academics and diversity of the school and its professors and research.

“He said, from a public relations perspective, all of the things you would script if you had a chance to script it — and they didn’t have a chance to script it,” said Joe Lunardi, assistant vice president for university relations at Saint Joseph’s University, a small Jesuit school in Philadelphia.

Lunardi knows a thing or two about leveraging Cinderella for the greater good of the university, as he did two years ago when the Hawks had an undefeated regular season and earned a No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Since then, Saint Joseph’s has received more undergraduate applications than ever before, reports its highest alumni donation rate in history and has its best-ever ranking among area universities by U.S. News and World Report.

“It can be transformative for [George Mason],” Lunardi said. “It’s a different message [than Saint Joseph’s] but the same methodology in that you have to tell things about your institution that people don’t know.”

After George Mason advanced to the Sweet 16, the school issued a press release outlining the school’s $65.9million annual research budget and its $100million campus construction plan, along with more than a dozen other facts and figures.

But the George Mason basketball team generally ranks fourth in fan interest in the area, behind Maryland, Georgetown and George Washington. Few of its games are televised, and the 10,000-seat Patriot Center rarely attracts more than 4,000 fans. Furthermore, its academics are often overshadowed, fairly or not, by area colleges and others in its own state, including the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.

“We’re always trying to upgrade ourselves to be one of the top-tier schools in the region,” spokesman Daniel Walsch said. “Hopefully, this will allow people to learn more about Mason and our many academic and research strengths.”

Opinions differ about whether successful sports teams equal more money and improved academic performance. But consider: George Mason will earn at least $328,000 in the next six years from the NCAA for its success in this year’s tournament, with the same amount going to each of the other Colonial Athletic Association schools. And it’s clear that a sudden thrusting into the national spotlight can pay off big time for a school, at least in the short term.

Gonzaga University, a small Jesuit college in Spokane, Wash., is perhaps the most famous example of out-of-the-blue, mid-major success. The school was a virtual unknown before its basketball team made a surprising run to the regional finals in 1999.

After that season, the school negotiated for all of its games to be televised locally. The excitement also sparked efforts to build a new on-campus arena that opened last season. Now the team is considered a national power, earning a top-10 ranking and its eighth straight NCAA tournament berth this season.

What’s more, undergraduate applications to Gonzaga jumped from 1,841 in 1999 to 2,741 in 2001 and now to more than 4,000 a year. Inquiries by prospective students have more than doubled, and alumni donations have risen from $134 million to more than $16.5million since 1999. Meanwhile, the average incoming grade point average has risen from 3.54 to 3.62 since 1999.

Also, Gonzaga can be more selective when hiring faculty members because of the recognition.

“It’s no longer, ‘OK, spell it now,’” said Kenneth Anderson, a business professor and NCAA faculty athletics representative at Gonzaga. “We have greater name recognition when it comes to hiring faculty. We have more interest now from faculty candidates and it’s a lot easier.”

George Mason officials said they believe Gonzaga’s success can be duplicated in Fairfax. But first they must negotiate these first few days of national attention and determine how to leverage the spotlight as effectively as possible.

“One of our challenges is what to do with this success,” Walsch said. “We’re having conversations about that now and about giving it as long a shelf life as possible.”

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