- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

He materialized at the Patriot Center like some fuzzy green ghost that swooped down from the rafters.

Gunston, the maligned mascot of the George Mason Patriots, remained alive and well.

The Midnight Madness basketball celebration at the Fairfax school last week represented a triumphant comeback. Administrators this spring marked Gunston for extinction, hoping to replace him with a mascot more befitting a basketball team that had just appeared in the Final Four.

Gunston, after a furious debate, received a stay of execution in September. So for now, he remains the school’s most recognizable — and yet unidentifiable — symbol. The green ball of fur wearing a piratelike hat is well-known among Patriots and hoops fans, who all seem to ask the same baffled question: What the heck is that?

Regardless of the uncertainty, on this night at the Patriot Center, Gunston is showered with affection.

A young woman in the front row shouts, “I love you, Gunston.” Some members of the crowd give him a warm ovation. Others are merely confused.

“I thought Gunston was gone,” Gabe Norwood, a senior guard on the basketball team, said later. “Then he came back. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Coach Jim Larranaga, like Gunston, has engineered his share of comebacks. He, for instance, rallied his Patriots from a 16-2 deficit to an upset of defending national champion North Carolina in last year’s NCAA Tournament.

But the never-say-die coach didn’t see this one coming, not when Gunston already had one shaggy foot in the grave.

“I was absolutely shocked,” Larranaga said. “I thought he was a goner.”

Well, almost. School administrators decided after the Patriots’ miraculous run to the Final Four that they wanted a mascot that was bolder, more definitive and more marketable — and less Cookie Monster strange.

A fluffy, green mound of ambiguity was good enough for the lean seasons of George Mason basketball, when few paid attention to either the team or the school. But when the Patriots went big-time, well, they needed a big-time mascot, too.

And so Gunston — that mysterious creation named for the plantation where George Mason, considered one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, lived — was sentenced to life as an ex-Patriot.

“People would say, ‘Aren’t you guys the Patriots? Isn’t that a Sesame Street character?’” said Ryan Kish, a senior with his own Mason basketball blog. “Ever since I was a freshman, I wondered, ‘What is it?’ We need something that makes us look like a major school. I hate Gunston and think it is an embarrassment to our school.”

The administration agreed, and the fun-loving green machine got the pink slip. Officials thought that Gunston inspired little school spirit and that the alumni and students would rally around a newer, more aesthetically pleasing face. A mascot search committee was to be formed to find a successor.

Gunston, however, would not go quietly, and suddenly, the fur was flying in Fairfax.

The low-key dismissal became controversial and was picked up nationally as a human — or something — interest story. How could the school dump its long-suffering friend just as things were getting good? National Public Radio featured the debate. And FOG (Friends of Gunston) took action.

Dana Cizmadia was sick of Gunston getting trashed, so the recent Mason graduate started a petition to save this endangered species.

“I first started going to basketball games because there wasn’t much to do on campus on weeknights,” said Miss Cizmadia, who followed Mason and Gunston to the Final Four in Indianapolis. “And Gunston was a big part of having fun at games. My girlfriends and I would hold up signs on Valentine’s Day saying, ‘Gunston, will you be my Valentine?’ He is just such a warm and welcoming mascot. The whole environment of the basketball games would change if Gunston wasn’t there.”

The school received emotional phone calls from fans pleading for Gunston’s life, said Dan Walsch, the press secretary for university relations. Mr. Walsch was given the task of dealing with reporters and fans because other administrators wanted no part of the whole hairy situation.

Mr. Walsch said there also were a few calls from the anti-Gunston constituency. Ultimately, the school elected to keep its embattled mascot — but the beast apparently isn’t out of the woods yet.

“He’s definitely with us for the next year,” Mr. Walsch said. “During that time, we are going to look at coming up with a new look for him or a new mascot. We want to find the best way to represent George Mason.”

Gunston could not be reached for comment.

He (or she? or it?) was originally scheduled for a makeover for this season after getting a reprieve. Now, the surgical enhancement will be put on hold. Many were anticipating a new, improved Gunston when the same old furball showed up at Midnight Madness.

“Is he no longer that green Smurf?” said Norwood, who has been quizzed by relatives and friends wanting to know just what, exactly, Gunston is. “All I know is he is a fun-loving character. I am a Gunston fan. He has been good to us. He is our good-luck charm.”

Gunston’s own luck is holding steady, for now. And this month the Patriots will usher in the post-Final Four season with their old enigmatic emblem in place.

“I know Gunston took a lot of heat, and I think he survived,” Larranaga said. “More power to him, to be able to overcome the odds like we did. Because I thought he was a goner last spring, I am absolutely shocked. He got some national recognition and rose above the controversy. I hope people appreciate him.”


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