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One Year Later, Mason Still Riding the Magic Carpet

March 14, 2007

By David Driver

Almost exactly one year ago, tickets were made available to Mason students who wanted to see the Patriots play in the first round of the NCAA mens basketball tournament in Dayton, Ohio.

Little did those fans know they were about to embark on "a magic carpet ride," as head coach Jim Larranaga would later call the team's exciting run in the tournament.

When the Patriots returned to campus less than three weeks later, after playing in the Final Four in Indianapolis, Larranaga and the team and George Mason University were the talk of the nation.

Taking Advantage of the Spotlight

A few days after the Final Four, President Alan Merten asked Christine LaPaille, vice president for University Relations, to head Operation Legacy.

"Dr. Merten wanted us to create Operation Legacy so key people at the university would get together on a regular basis to have a conversation on how we could take advantage of the visibility," says LaPaille.

According to the Ad Council, the NCAA tournament run generated $90 million in free advertising for Mason. But a few weeks after the Final Four, LaPaille went to Mason's executive council and posed the question, "How do we move our reputation to the next level?"

Now that Mason had the nation's attention, LaPaille wanted to showcase the university's efforts not only in athletics, but also in academics and research. She led the development of a series of image ads that were produced by University Relations staff. The $575,000 ad campaign, which is ongoing, began last fall and will run about a year, with placements in several national publications.

Bearing the tagline "Think. Learn. Succeed," the ads focus on successful students and faculty members, many engaged in research.

LaPaille says, "Leadership at George Mason immediately understood we needed to maintain a balance we always had between academics and athletics. There was a feeling that we cant go overboard now and throw a lot of money at athletics just because we had a wonderful experience."

At the same time, says Maurice Scherrens, senior vice president, "We clearly, as a result of the Final Four, tried to make some investment of resources to take advantage of the fact that we had greater visibility. The direct financial rewards from appearing in the Final Four allowed us to jumpstart some of the things we wanted to do in athletics anyway."

As examples, he cites an increase in coaches' salaries and renovation of the Patriot Center and other facilities that were already in the works.

Tom OConnor, assistant vice president and director of athletics, recalls a staff meeting with head coaches from every sport in early May of last year.

"The name recognition (from the Final Four) allowed our coaches to get involved in the initial steps of recruiting a lot quicker," says OConnor.

A Boost for Admissions, Alumni Affairs

"Im not sure we will ever be able to say (definitely) what the Final Four did. What is more important is how Mason approached what happened, and that started with Coach Larranaga," says Dean of Admissions Andrew Flagel. "Every opportunity, he talked about the school and not just basketball."

The day after Mason beat North Carolina to clinch a spot in the Sweet 16, Flagel got the green light to launch a recruiting blitz to take advantage of the spotlight. Two days later, his department had a new web site in place.

Flagel saw a significant increase in freshman applications for fall 2007 up more than 23 percent overall, with an increase of more than 47 percent in applications outside of Virginia.

Flagel says the size of campus tours has doubled and even tripled since last April. He notes there has also been a marked increase in phone calls, e-mails and general inquiries.

Alumni have perked up as well. Since last years Final Four run, the number of alumni who have registered with the online Mason alumni directory has grown by more than 52 percent.

"That is huge for us," says Christine Clark-Talley, associate vice president for Alumni Affairs. "Its a cultural shift. It creates a link to our alumni."

Last fall, the office filled a new position of assistant director of Alumni Affairs with the responsibility of reaching out to alumni who live outside of the Washington, D.C., region, many of whom contacted the university after the Final Four.

Numbers Up around the University

Judy Jobbitt, George Mason University Foundation president and vice president of University Development and Alumni Affairs, says the university needs to continue to capitalize on the 2006 exposure. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the effect of the Final Four on giving, the balance sheet shows more than $23.5 million was received in new gifts and pledge payments in 2005-06, compared to $19.6 million in 2004-05.

"The true effect of the Final Four appearance will be felt over a number of years," she says. "The Final Four was symbolic of the developments that have been made across the university."

According to Benn Crandall, associate director of University Services, about $1 million in additional merchandise sales, mostly T-shirts, was generated around the Final Four. In the past year, sales of spirit clothing are up by about 30 percent overall.

Other benchmarks are up: Mason drew an average of 6,834 fans for home games this season, double the mark from the previous season. Even the number of job applicants at Mason has climbed since the Final Four, although no analysis has been done to see if there is a correlation.

As this years NCAA tournament begins, Mason may not be dancing. But the university is still reaping rewards from the 2006 experience.

"We can publicize the academics so much better than we used to," says LaPaille. "We can get visibility for our researchers here in national newspapers. Mason became a household name."

"As a whole, the best is yet to come in a lot of different areas," says athletic director OConnor. "This is a truly unique environment to be in."

And, a year later, says Scherrens, the balance still seems right between athletics and academics at Mason.

"The challenge has been to maintain that balance. I think we have the right emphasis," he says. "We try to do things the right way."