Final Four: Mason Loses, Mason Wins
Here's the Sunday column:
Sometimes it's worth staying out past midnight, even if your carriage turns into a pumpkin.
Even as thousands of George Mason University students stood, faces fallen, chants silenced, even as kids like John Macias and Ted Pokin considered the reality of the dance being over just 13 hours after they completed their 13-hour road trip to Indianapolis, even as the armchair experts under the big dome talked about Mason being outclassed, nobody doubts that the glass slipper will reap rewards for years to come.
George Mason, the 18th century guy, refused to sign the Constitution of the United States because he said it needed more rights guaranteed--more liberty, more pursuit of happiness.
The team that bears his name pursued their happy dream to the finish, and while they ended this night with heads hanging and a long trip home ahead of them, it's essential to note what they accomplished on their way to Indianapolis.
A school that didn't exist 35 years ago, in a county of a million people that's known largely as an appendage to a city half its size, is now firmly on the map.
"It's all about the little guy," said Pokin, who was graduated from Mason three years ago and now works for a defense contractor in Reston.
"Now people know what Mason is," said his friend Macias, a senior at the Fairfax school.
All weekend long, the contrast between Mason and the other schools represented here has been stark. You could choose to see it as an embarrassing gap, or as proud evidence of a superior value system.
At the Big Dance concert in downtown Indy, the rock bands gave way to a competitive pep rally featuring the cheerleaders, dancers and bands of the Final Four colleges. The bands from Florida, Louisiana State and UCLA were crisper and more polished than the Mason ensemble. The other schools' dancers wore far skimpier and sleazier costumes--the UCLA coeds even sported chokers and nighties. In contrast, the Mason students looked like something out of the 1950s.
But when the teams ran onto the hardwood, it didn't matter that the Florida players were preceded by beefy cheerleaders waving enormous flags in the school colors. The non-Floridians in the crowd were overwhelmingly on Cinderella's side, and as the game progressed, you could literally see those who weren't so inclined come over to the Patriots.
"I've received more than a thousand emails this week and zero were negative," said Alan Merten, the president of George Mason University, who was greeted like a rock star (mobbed for photo opps, hugs, autographs) as he walked through the Ram sports bar, the Mason fan headquarters downtown. "On a campus as diverse as ours is, it's hard to find anything that everyone can cheer for."
Even without winning the national championship, "we've changed college athletics," Merten argued. "We've shown that if you do stuff the right way, you don't have to make athletics dominant."
But to avoid this miracle becoming a once-in-a-lifetime fluke, won't Mason have to start spending a far greater portion of its resources on sports? Doesn't this success undermine the school's focus on academics? Won't there be immediate pressure to divert millions from other activities and toward sports?
"There will, and I won't," Merten said. "We'll spend some more; we already planned to. But we'll also raise more now. Our priorities won't change."
Even the kids wearing green and gold face paint and green shock wigs, even the road warriors who came to the game on zero sleep and heavy malt fortification, even the hard-core fans who spent the entire afternoon shouting down Floridian naysayers on the streets of Indy--every one of the kids I spoke to said they'd far rather attend a college that puts its money into top-shelf professors than one that worships at the altar of big-time sports.
The coaches on the Final Four teams made a grand total of more than $5 million last year, the Indianapolis Star reported today in an investigation that made the case for paying college players some kind of stipend.
Mason kids don't see their school as part of that foolishness. They admire Mason's basketball players because they made it this far without being the tallest and the flashiest, without having attended phony high schools, without living apart from their peers in special dorms.
With luck and fortitude, Mason will reap the benefits of its higher profile without succumbing to the temptation to taste the corruption of big-time college sports.
But it will take great strength to stand tall against those lures. "Our board of visitors is very conscious of the success of the athletic program," said Knox Singleton, president of Inova Health System and a member of the Mason board from Oakton.
How far could it go? Would Mason's board consider launching a football team?
Singleton replied: "Never say never."
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