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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."

By Marc Fisher |  April 1, 2006; 9:36 PM ET
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"...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"
I strongly object to this statement, which implies that GMU invests in good professors, while UF instead invests in sports. While I have a great amount of respect for GMU, it is necessary to point out that UF is a top-notch university with thousands of excellent professors. As a UF student from the DC area (Fairfax County, actually), I am aware that not much is known about this university up there. In contrast to the above quotation, UF is extremely competitive to get into, much more so than George Mason. Just because the gator nation takes great pride in their sports, in no way should that ever imply shoddy academics. The school is able to invest so much in athletics only because of the huge profits coming in from those sports because of the enormous numbers of die-hard gator fans. So, in the future, please get your facts straight before automatically assuming that a powerful sports school equates to a poor academic school.

Posted by: Laura | April 1, 2006 10:45 PM

While there are obviously very good professors at Florida or any other major university, it's simply a fallacy to attribute the quality of faculty to profits from athletics. As William Bowen's definitive work, "The Game of Life," showed, college sports do not make a net contribution to university finances nor do they improve the overall quality of the university's academic offerings.

Posted by: Fisher | April 2, 2006 12:09 AM

I may be married to Florida but -- NoVa native -- damn I wanted GMU to wipe the floor with those Gators. Damn.

Posted by: desertwind | April 2, 2006 3:29 AM

Fisher -- that was not my point at all. I was NOT saying that any big-time sports school must have quality professors because of the additional revenue. In contrast to what it seemed you were suggesting earlier, all I was saying is that the two are completely unrelated. However, in UF's case, we do happen to have a strong academic school in addition to having a reputation for powerful athletics. My objection was to your implying that BECAUSE Florida is known for its sports, the school must not put its money into top-shelf professors. I was solely disputing your tying those two elements together as if they are inversely related. Obviously, your doing so especially bothered me because you were insulting the academic quality of my school (which, by the way, according to the university, had an average SAT score of 1380 for the freshmen class of 2005).

Posted by: Laura | April 2, 2006 12:05 PM

Not to belabor the point, but I am indeed saying that there is an inverse relationship between a university's decision to dedicate enormous resources to athletics and its ability to offer the best academic program that it could otherwise muster. I take your word that Florida has fine academics; my point, which is backed up by the compelling statistical analysis in the Bowen/Mellon Foundation study, is that the school could be even better had it not decided to focus so heavily on athletics.

Posted by: Fisher | April 2, 2006 3:47 PM

I recieved my MPA from George Mason in 95 and have also taken advanced Public Policy courses there. Yes they have a fine faculty, so do many other schools. However, their faculty is only one aspect of Mason's success and not the most important. I have studied at Georgetown, American, GW, Va. Tech Nova extension and George Mason (life long education is great hobby but very expensive). Mason distinguishes itself by a relentless focus on CUSTOMER SERVICE. they make a point of knowing, and meeting, the needs of their students. The classes are often taught by active or retired professionals with hands on experience in the field. The academic concentrations reflect the job market graduates will compete in. Classes are often (but not always) scheduled to meet the needs of working professionals. Most importantly, they balance real education and career enhancing credentials. Everyone at Mason demonstrates a real passion for thier subject matter and tries to instill that same passion in their students but they never lose sight of the fact that studnets need programs that match their career goals and need to be able to complete those programs in a timely manner. Now if they could only get the costs down, I might go back for my PhD.

Posted by: Peter | April 3, 2006 10:15 AM

Laura – If you disagree with Fisher that’s your problem, but don’t try and disparage Mason to try and defend your school. UF is only nominally more competitive than GMU and is competing against the likes of UVA, Virginia Tech, and William & Mary for in-state talent. GMU also far outshines UF in several fields such as Law, Public Policy, and Economics. The real difference though is that at Mason we have true Student-Athletes, not the mercenaries that play for big-time sports programs like UF.

Posted by: Joe | April 3, 2006 11:59 AM

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