- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

George Mason University completed its first unbeaten home basketball season in 25 years Saturday before a crowd of more than 9,800. It was nothing like what guard John Vaughan encountered when he arrived at the Fairfax campus in 2004, before everything changed.

“The most obvious thing is the fan support,” the fifth-year senior said. “Students got more involved, the alumni started coming back. … The numbers are obviously different.”

In Vaughan’s first year, the Patriots averaged 3,938 at home games. It was 6,295 this season, a 60 percent jump. But the attendance boost isn’t the only difference at George Mason since coach Jim Larranaga and his merry band of overachievers made the Final Four in 2006.

Sparked by the massive jolt of publicity and good feelings, George Mason’s name recognition skyrocketed. Student applications and enrollment immediately increased. So did donations from alumni and others, helping finance scholarships, academic programs and research.

Three years later, the memories remain fresh - “It’s absolutely amazing to me, it astonishes me, how often the run to the Final Four still comes up in conversation,” Larranaga said - and the impact still is being felt in a variety of ways.

“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” university president Alan Merten said.

Added athletic director Tom O’Connor: “Fundraising has gone up. The perception, the awareness of the basketball program and the university as a whole was helped by our appearance in the Final Four, and that’s continued.”

Coming from nowhere to shock Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut in the NCAA tournament before falling to Florida in the semifinals, George Mason instantly became a nationally known brand and a symbol of the ultimate underdog. The Patriots are now the template for the little teams, or even horses, that could, or at least believe they might. Boise State in football, Davidson in basketball, Platinum Couple in the Preakness and others have been labeled as variations of “the next George Mason.”

The exposure helped expand George Mason’s recruiting base, and the larger crowds created a true homecourt advantage. The Patriots have gone 27-1 at home the past two years. The only loss was by two points.

“It’s made our building a very tough building,” Vaughan said. “We feed off the enthusiasm from the students, the alumni, the band. It’s created a good atmosphere and culture.”

The Patriots stumbled in the aftermath of the Final Four and failed to make the NCAA tournament the following season. But they returned last year after winning 23 games. This season, George Mason went 20-9 and finished second in the Colonial Athletic Association. Its first game in the conference tournament is Saturday against James Madison or William & Mary.

Larranaga said that in the wake of the Final Four run, the program is stronger than ever. The team appeared on television a record 27 times last year and surpassed 20 appearances this season. With a shallower recruiting pool lately, “we had to go searching,” he said. “And our exposure has allowed us to go into areas we never recruited.”

Two of the top players in the incoming recruiting class are from Florida, another from Memphis, Tenn. There are four Floridians on the current roster and one player from North Carolina. Senior Dre Smith, who signed with the Patriots shortly after the Final Four, is from Houston.

Smith said it didn’t sway his decision but helped him feel better about it.

“When they first started recruiting me, I had never heard of them,” he said. “Now, when you say you play for George Mason, people say, ‘Oh yeah, the team that went to the Final Four.’ We’re known now. You say ‘George Mason,’ and everyone knows who they are.”

The stunning run also spurred plans for an $11 million practice facility for the men’s and women’s teams, which includes new offices, training rooms and locker rooms. The project has been slowed by the sagging economy, “but it’s just a matter of time,” Larranaga said.

A year ago, associate professor Robert Baker, the director of George Mason’s Center for Sports Management, released an exhaustive study on the impact of the school’s Final Four appearance. Through a complex formula, he determined the free publicity was worth $677 million. And that, he said, was a conservative figure.

Among Baker’s other findings were substantial increases in out-of-state applications (40 percent), total freshman applications (22 percent) and Patriot Club fundraising (52 percent). Bookstore sales were greater in March 2006 than the entire previous year.

And now?

“We’re still on an upward trajectory,” Baker said. “We were already on the increase, but it steepened the curve.”

Baker also pointed out that Merten, along with the charismatic, quotable Larranaga and the rest of the university community, knew how to seize the moment. “The leadership really provided the things that were needed,” he said.

Even before the 2006 tournament, the university had begun transforming itself. The growth spurt - which includes an ongoing $750 million capital improvements project - would have happened anyway, Baker said, but the Final Four appearance accelerated the process. “It was like a surge of adrenaline,” he said.

And when Larranaga took the job 12 years ago, Merten told the coach that he wanted George Mason to be “the biggest and the best university in the state,” Larranaga said. “He has kept with that vision, and I think what the basketball program has done has helped.”

Merten noted that even former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin mentioned the Final Four to him at the Alfalfa Club dinner in January.

“What it did for the university in terms of pride is overwhelming and heartwarming,” he said. “We’re finding that more and more people who had zero connection who have now attached themselves to the university.”

Added Marc Broderick, vice president of university development and alumni affairs: “The sense of alumni pride, the sense of donor pride has increased exponentially and remains to this day. That’s a tangible asset.”

Broderick said specific dollar amounts are confidential, “but it’s safe to say there has been a significant increase in gifts and alumni gifts.”

“We’re setting records across the board,” he said. “I don’t know if all of that is attributable to the Final Four run, but a sense of ownership that donors may or may not have had before is definitely here now.”

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