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After each win in George Mason's Cinderella run to the 2006 Final Four, Patriots coach Jim Larranaga was careful to talk about more than basketball with reporters. He would mention Mason's academic strength--including the Nobel Prize winners on its faculty--and its diverse student body. Watching at home, Andrew Flagel, the school's dean of admissions, would beam. "The great thing about Jim is, no one had to get on the phone and say, 'Here's what we want you to talk about,'" Flagel says. "We just needed to stay out of his way."
George Mason's string of upsets over such name-brand programs as Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut was certainly a boon to the basketball program, but officials at the 34-year-old university in Fairfax, Va., believe the wins could give an even greater boost to the school. Soon after the tournament ended, the administration established a committee called Operation Legacy, and it has been trying to maximize the benefits of the team's success ever since.
Despite being the largest university in Virginia, with almost 30,000 students, George Mason is sometimes confused with George Washington and James Madison, more established neighboring colleges named for better-known founding fathers. Part of the school's image problem is that only about 4,000 of its students live on campus; the rest are commuters. Now, says school president Alan Merten, "we no longer have to answer the question, What is George Mason University? We've become a household word."
George Mason would have had to spend at least $50 million for a public-relations campaign that gave it the exposure it received during the tournament. That's the conservative estimate of C. Scott Bozman, an associate professor of business marketing at Gonzaga, who studied the benefits of hoops success at his own school. Robert Baker, a George Mason associate professor who will be undertaking a similar analysis this summer, says, "We should exceed that amount if we're thorough [in tracking every mention]."
The publicity has already shown returns. Student inquiries and tour sizes have tripled, and merchandise sales have skyrocketed. In March the campus bookstore sold more than $800,000 worth of George Mason clothing, compared with $625,000 worth in all of 2004--05.
The surge in Mason pride is expected to boost alumni donations as well. During the tournament more than 1,000 alums registered on the school's website, increasing the size of the database by 10%. Judith Jobbitt, the school's vice president for alumni affairs, says George Mason hopes to increase fund-raising for the coming year by 25%, to $25 million.
The admissions office was particularly aggressive in capitalizing on Mason mania. It sent a torrent of e-mails to students who had applied to the school, using the basketball news as an entree to tout the university's academic virtues. The school projects a 2% increase in the number of applicants who say yes to an acceptance letter. Flagel also expects to see an uptick of 10 points in the students' average SAT score.
There are skeptics, of course, about the notion that sports can elevate a university. "It's silly," says Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and author of Unpaid Professionals, a critical look at college sports. "A school can get a short-term kick, but the gain doesn't sustain itself." Many schools, he says, end up losing money--and their values--chasing that winning feeling.
George Mason will in fact be spending more money. The school gave Larranaga a pay raise, some contractual bonuses and an extra $100,000 just for being such an effective spokesman. It will also fast-track the construction of a $5 million sports practice facility that previously languished on a long-term wish list.
Merten is confident that his school can build its hoops program and retain its soul. He has always seen sports as George Mason's "front porch," as he puts it; he meets with every basketball recruit in his office and attends every home game.