Friday, March 31, 2006

Who is George Mason and should anybody care?

I’ve always been a fan of the underdog, in my sports teams, music I listen to and companies I support. The “David vs. Goliath” scenario has always intrigued me. While sometimes these match-ups end up being more media hype than a legitimate mismatch, this year’s run by George Mason University, rising like cream, from the bottom of the pile of 64 basketball teams, to the NCAA Men’s Final Four, is the real deal and has captivated both the hard-core fan and jaded sports enthusiasts, alike.

To give you an idea of how my favorite teams usually fared, I’ll share one from my boyhood, that being about the 1972 Texas Rangers. I fell in love with this team due to my enjoyment of watching the underdog Washington Senators and huge Frank Howard (6'6", 250 pounds), who appeared larger than life, even on the primitive black and white TV that I first watched Red Sox games on. I also developed a fixation for a young Senators' player, Jeff Burroughs, a powerful right-handed slugger, who as an 18-year-old bonus baby, received his hitting instruction from a manager named Ted Williams, a pretty good hitter in his own right. The ’72 Rangers were a woeful team, hence, my fascination with them. With a woeful 54-100 record, they finished dead last in the American League West Division that summer. Burroughs showed his appreciation for my adulation by never answering the 15 or more requests I sent him for an autograph. Fucking asshole!! (Apparently still a sore spot)

Williams had been voted AL manager-of-the-year in 1969, for leading the Senators to a respectable 3rd place finish. If you know the Senators’ sordid past, you’ll know that winning 86 games as their skipper made Williams worthy of that honor. Williams followed up his successful 1969 campaign with season totals of 72 wins in 1970 and 69 wins in 1971. In 1972, Williams and his Senators found themselves in the Texas no-man’s-land of Arlington, midway between Dallas and Fort Worth. While the Splendid Splinter was a wonderful hitter and reputable hitting coach, he was never much of a manager. At the end of ’72, the late Red Sox slugger found himself out of a job.

Back to George Mason. This unlikely crew of college basketball players have captivated college basketball fans nationwide. Despite finishing the regular season with a 23-7 mark, they were a surprise selection for the NCAA tournament, mostly because the Colonial Athletic Conference (CAA), isn’t considered one of the elite conferences and there were doubts about their strength of schedule. They did win a key “bracket buster” game against perennial national power, Wichita State, back in February (and also beat them in the NCAA tournament). Still, the CAA hasn’t receive an at-large invitation to the big dance since 1986, when Richmond (now a member of the Atlantic-10) received an at-large invitation.

Despite the incredulity expressed by ESPN host, Billy Packer, at GMU’s at-large bid to the tourney, all GMU has done is march through the NCAA field, with four upset victories and now will face Florida (a great story in their own right) tomorrow, at 6:05 PM. Can this Hollywood movie in the making script give us one more (or the unthinkable, two) victory?

What I’ve been impressed with about GMU, is that unlike many other traditional basketball powers, who year-after-year end up in the Final Four, this university is actually a school where the emphasis has always been on academics. It’s ironic that a school like Mason, has to rely on college athletics to receive any national attention. As their president, Alan Merten (in an interview with C-Span’s Brian Lamb, this AM) expressed, this is a great opportunity for the school and sometimes, particularly for a school like his—only in existence since 1972—sports success is what it takes to get noticed. Obviously he understands America’s obsession with “bread and circuses.”

One interesting note about George Mason, since immigration policy has dominated the news of late, is the diversity of this Fairfax, Virginia-based school. There are 140 different nationalities on campus, as well as 85 languages represented. Merten mentioned that 30 to 35 percent of the student body are either foreign-born or first-generation Americans.

Will the Patriots be able to finish strong with their improbable Cinderella story? Obviously, it would be a Hollywood scenario, ala Hoosiers, if they did in fact beat the higher-seed, Florida. One thing is for certain, much of the country will be rooting for them.

The Washington Post does a nice article on the team’s coach, Jim Larranaga.


moi said...

Just came across your blog about GMU; thanks for rooting for us :)
You said "What I’ve been impressed with about GMU, is that unlike many other traditional basketball powers, who year-after-year end up in the Final Four, this university is actually a school where the emphasis has always been on academics."

As a recent graduate of GMU, this has been a constant struggle for our university. Even though it is the largest in VA, it has a lot of competition from "better" schools such as Georgetown, George Washington, University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins, William & Mary, etc, all of whom are associated with the greater DC metro region. Even schools that lack the academic strength of GMU, such as American University, get more attention and praise just for the name, and because it's a private school. It is kind of sad to think that we could only attract national attention through basketball, but then again if this is the only way to do it, then I'm very happy it happened. There's a lot Mason has to offer, and I think many people realize that now because of our team.

Jim said...

Nice to have you drop in and share your thoughts as a member of the GMU family.

I've known about the school from hearing it mentioned in passing. I was impressed with President Merten's interview on CSpan and what I've read about Coach Larranaga. Just today, the AP has an article about how he stands for something bigger than just winning and losing. In a culture where ethics and character seem to have gotten lost in pragmatic cynicism, it's hard not to be impressed with what he seems to stand for.

I can only imagine how "crazy" things must be on campus and for the many former students who have come back, or are gathering in different parts of the country, to follow The Patriots.

I, like many others--alumni, current students and Johnny-come-latelies--will be tuning in later today, and rooting for one more upset in this improbable string of victories.

BTW, liked your post about Jill Carroll, a story I've been following and am so happy for her release.