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Selling a School

George Mason’s president, coach talk business and basketball at Chamber event.

George Mason University’s basketball team electrified the entire region, and eventually the country, when it made its improbable run to the Final Four after creating controversy for even being selected to the 64-team NCAA Basketball Tournament. Accompanied by a state police bodyguard, the team’s coach Jim Larranaga came to the Mount Vernon Country Club on Oct. 18 to passionately describe his team’s unexpected success to members of the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce. He grew so excited while recounting the team’s overtime win over top-seeded University of Connecticut that his raised voice set off a deafening feedback buzz from the microphone he had left lying five feet away.

Larranaga focused on the primal passion engendered by upset defeats and the age-old lessons about cooperation and faith that can be learned from them. But University president Alan Merten, who also addressed the Chamber, looked at the school’s success last March from a more contemporary perspective, one that he said has been a bedrock reason for the young university’s rapidly expanding student population and its growing national reputation: marketing.

"For us, ‘marketing’ is not a dirty word," Merten said. After its basketball success, the school kicked off a year-long advertising campaign to get its name into magazines like Forbes, Fortune, U.S. News and World Report, Time and Newsweek. "We tell our story over and over again," Merten said. And the NCAA tournament gave them more opportunities to do it. According to Larranaga, one public relations firm calculated that the school’s tournament victories were worth $100 million in free advertising exposure.

Merten said his bottom-line perspective on the school’s name recognition was one of "four things that make us special as a University." Besides marketing, he listed the school’s entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to take risks and innovate, it’s location in Northern Virginia and it’s focus on doing a few things well.

George Mason became an independent University in 1972, when it had just over 4,000 students. Today it has almost 30,000 on three campuses in Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William. Its business-like approach has led it to outsource many of its services, such as housing and event management, and Merten said the school’s "culture of ready, aim, fire" in areas like hiring top-notch professors and trying new academic programs gives it a competitive advantage over universities with a common tendency to commit every decision to a series of tortuous studies and committees, what Merten described as "victims of ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim."

To illustrate, he said that George Mason landed a coveted economics professor in 1999 by agreeing to the expensive proposition of hiring his six faculty colleagues as well. In 2002, that professor, Vernon Smith, won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Merten said George Mason beat out other universities because it was able to make a decision, and commit to carrying it out. "We were thinking about it and you were doing it," Merten said he was told by the rueful dean of another large university.

MERTEN SAID GEORGE MASON does not hesitate to capitalize on the "unfair advantage" its location in the dynamic metro D.C. region gives the school. He said the school has a policy refusing to "try to be excellent at anything that doesn’t either draw upon or contribute to the greater Washington area." This philosophy melds the competitive edge of the school’s location with the school’s disciplined attitude governing the fields it enters, one that Merten summarized simply. "We don’t try to do everything."

Recognizing that every new initiative creates a new "cost center," Merton said, means that George Mason is very carefully about spreading itself to the point where it is tied up in a web of expensive but unexceptional endeavors. For example, the schools Engineering Department focuses almost entirely on information-technology applications and does not even offer chemical or mechanical engineering.

But none of George Mason’s policies would work without employees who can implement them. "The key job is to hire the right people," Merten said, " and I did that in 1997." This was the year when Larranaga, head coach at Bowling Green University, was selected to take over George Mason’s basketball program. Larranaga has a 166-105 record in his nine years at the school, and last year took the program beyond respectability to an elite level in college basketball. The team’s selection to the tournament was the first time in 20 years that a team from the Colonial Athletic Association received an at-large birth, and its success marked the first time a team seeded eleventh had ever reached the semi-final round.

After learning they had made the tournament, Larranaga described how he motivated his players. He convinced them that they were in control of their own success. "It doesn’t matter who we play," he recalled saying. "It doesn’t matter where we play. It matters how we play."

"Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results," Chamber president Kahan Dhillon said as he awarded plaques to the two speakers from George Mason. This year, the school’s basketball home opener will be on Nov. 18.