- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

Greg Deegan remembers the early years.

Now an FBI agent, Deegan played basketball at George Mason from 1978 to 1982 — light years from where the program is today: the Final Four, the talk of the sports world, a story that has jumped to the news pages.

“To tell you the truth, it probably changed as much between my freshman and senior years as it changed from my senior year to now,” Deegan said. “Even before this, I took great pride in playing for George Mason. It was leaps and bounds above where we were.”

Where they were was nowhere to speak of. George Mason has traveled an arduous journey to credibility, starting long before coach Jim Larranaga was charming the country with the Patriots’ current tournament run.

It had been George Mason University — as opposed to College — for just six years when Deegan arrived, a commuter school in the still-burgeoning D.C. suburb of Fairfax. The institution had existed only since 1957, as a part of the University of Virginia system. The basketball program was small-time, competing on the NAIA and NCAA Division II levels since its inception in 1966 before making the move to Division I in 1979.

GMU attained Division I status under John Linn, although the process was only a matter of paperwork. The coach taught physical education, loved the Cleveland Browns and was best known as a renowned trap and skeet shooter. Linn came to Fairfax in 1970, succeeding Raymond “Hap” Spuhler, who coached for three seasons after replacing Arnold Siegfried, who was the coach for the program’s first year.

Facilities were crude, even for the times. The team played in the tiny P.E. gym and was barred from the main locker room area until the soccer team left.

“It wasn’t until coach [Joe] Harrington and coach [Rick] Barnes arrived that things changed,” Deegan said.

An aggressive go-getter, Harrington was a former Maryland player and assistant, a close friend of his old teammate, Terps coach Gary Williams. He spent one year as coach at Hofstra before returning to the D.C. area to replace Linn in 1980. About 500 students lived on campus, with no dining hall.

Harrington made Barnes, a young assistant at Davidson College with big ambitions, his first hire.

“When Joe first called me and told me about George Mason, I had never heard of it,” said Barnes, now the coach at Texas. “I had to look it up and see where it was. But I was young. I was naive.”

Together, Harrington and Barnes would “revolutionize basketball at George Mason,” Deegan said.

Harrington’s mandate was to lift the program to higher ground.

“The school had no identity,” said Harrington, who later coached at Long Beach State and Colorado. He now sells real estate in northern Virginia. Back then, “We were selling dreams.”

Harrington had to convince the physical education department to allow him to build a separate locker room for his team, inside the existing one. The players still had to share the same showers with the other students, but it was a big deal nevertheless.

“You’d have thought it was Christmas when the players walked in there for the first time,” he said.

The basketball office was a trailer so small that Harrington and Barnes frequently collided, and they shared a telephone — which was an upgrade.

“When I first walked into what was the basketball office, it was more like a closet in the front of a classroom,” Barnes said.

Barnes and another assistant, former GMU player and current assistant athletic director Jay Marsh, later appropriated a conference room and turned it into an office.

“I kept telling Joe, ‘We have to fix this, we have to fix that. We can’t let recruits see this,’” Barnes said.

Harrington didn’t have to be convinced.

“I’m sure we offended some people,” he said. “We were very aggressive in getting the locker room set up and getting office space. But it had to be done. When you bring prospects in, they’ve got to know you’re serious about having a good program.”

Recruiting was something Harrington and Barnes could directly control. Both were young guys on the make — glib, naturally gifted pitchmen who could, in fact, sell dreams. In the days before the NCAA restricted contact with high school players, they also were relentless road warriors.

“We wore people out,” Harrington said.

Barnes remembers how many times he saw Carlos Yates play in high school — 66. Yates played for George Mason from 1981 to 1985 and finished as the school’s career scoring leader. He later was killed on a D.C. street reportedly because he was going to turn state’s evidence in a drug trial. Barnes gave the eulogy at his funeral.

With Yates, Andy Bolden, Ricky Wilson, Rob Rose and others, the program gained its footing, becoming a charter member of the Colonial Athletic Association in 1985. And basketball had a friend in president George Johnson, who was busy expanding and improving every aspect of the university, including sports.

“I think the one person, more than anybody, responsible for where George Mason is today is former president Johnson,” Harrington said. “He understood that athletics are an important part of the university and fought hard to raise money for the Patriot Center. All the facilities. The baseball stadium, the soccer field, the Fitness Center. The whole thing.”

Larranaga said Patriot Center, a first-class arena completed in 1985 that seats 10,000, was a big reason he left Bowling Green for George Mason. Another was the administration’s commitment to basketball. The recruiting budget was three times that of Bowling Green’s, he said, and assistants were paid twice as much.

The locker room? “Great,” he said.

Another key figure in George Mason’s push toward prominence was former Catholic University coach and athletic director Jack Kvancz, who came to George Mason as athletic director in 1982 and stayed until 1994, when he took the same job at George Washington.

“Jack really stabilized everything,” Barnes said. “He helped me incredibly in getting through the tough times.”

Behind Johnson’s impetus, George Mason emerged as a university and took the basketball team right along with it. Harrington was a hot coaching commodity. He took his 112-85 record to Long Beach State in 1987 and tossed the keys to Barnes, who had returned after leaving for assistants jobs at Alabama and Ohio State (under Williams).

The Patriots went 20-10 under Barnes in 1987-88, his only season as coach. He was making about $60,000 a year. When Providence of the prestigious Big East dangled a package worth $250,000, Barnes could not refuse.

“No question, George Mason was my dream job when I came back there,” he said. “I never went there thinking it was a stepping-stone job. But it’s always been my dream to coach at the highest level.”

After Providence, Barnes went to Clemson and then Texas. The Longhorns were a No. 2 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament but lost in the regional finals to Louisiana State. With his team eliminated, Barnes isn’t hiding his rooting interest.

“People have no idea the pride I’m feeling right now,” he said.

Kvancz hired former California assistant Ernie Nestor to replace Barnes, and George Mason made its first NCAA tournament under Nestor in 1989. But it was mostly with players recruited by Harrington and Barnes. Richmond was king of the CAA and other programs were improving. Nestor had one more winning season, but after three losing ones, he was fired.

“It was tough at that time to get players and be successful,” said Nestor, the coach at Elon in North Carolina and the 2006 Southern Conference coach of the year. “We might have played too strong a schedule outside the league, but the league felt getting two teams in the tournament was a very viable goal. … To sustain at that level is not quite as easy in these leagues as in other leagues.”

Paul Westhead found that out. Hired by Kvancz to replace Nestor, Westhead was a big name who had won an NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers and later transformed the program at Loyola-Marymount, if only briefly, with a unique, wide-open, run-and-gun style. The Patriots scored a lot of points, but usually fewer than their opponents. The school fired Westhead after four seasons.

“The obstacles were that George Mason didn’t really have a history of a very good tradition in basketball,” said Westhead, the first-year coach of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. “The clear comparison recruits often make is George Mason vs. the ACC, and you would lose that comparison in a heartbeat. … We worked hard, but it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy to recruit.”

By then, George Mason was a vastly different place from when Harrington and Barnes grabbed basketball by the throat, but it still was not what it is now.

“Times have changed,” Kvancz said. “Now it’s a place to go. Before it was just a place to get in. Now it’s a No. 1 choice. … You’ve got to have a lot of things come together and have the right coach.”

Larranaga, hired by a new AD Tom O’Connor in 1997, clearly was the right coach when he took over the program. Larranaga inherited a program that had grown in stature in two decades as well as a 26-year-old Army veteran recruited by Westhead — George Evans, who became a three-time CAA player of the year and led the Patriots to two NCAA tournaments.

The table was set for new heights.

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