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Monday Q&A: He’s been there

Michael Schwartz April 4, 2011 0

Cinderella’s run is over.

But although Richmond heaved a collective sigh on Saturday night when the VCU men’s basketball team lost to Butler, the momentum the university is experiencing will be in play for a while.

Just ask George Mason University President Alan Merten.

It’s too soon to tell – and more specifically too soon to quantify – exactly the impact of VCU’s Final Four appearance, but perhaps no one knows that better than Merten what a big sports run can do for a school.

Until this year, George Mason was the Cinderella of all Cinderellas after its run to the Final Four in 2006. And the two schools share similarities for being known previously as mostly a commuter school in the Colonial Athletic Conference.

GMU has quantified the exposure it received from its run as worth more than $600 million. And five years later, Merten said, George Mason is still reaping the benefits.

Merten, who recently announced that he will retire from his role as GMU president next year, spoke by phone with BizSense last week to provide some perspective on what VCU can expect and how the school can best capitalize on its newfound place in the spotlight.

The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Richmond BizSense: In terms of the business of running a university, how big of an impact can a run to the Final Four have on a mid-major conference school?

Alan Merten: It gives you more exposure than one could ever envision. There were days when we were told by the media that we were on the front page of over 200 papers across the country. It starts a lot of conversations.

RBS: How quickly are the benefits felt?

AM: We saw an uptick in admissions – inquiries and applications from all over the county. Interestingly enough, it was from the smaller communities where it was the most dramatic uptick. You also get the pride in students, faculty, staff, alumni, neighbors, friends, everybody.

RBS: How much easier is it to then get donors to pry open their checkbooks?

AM: People give you money for what they think is important, and basketball helps you with the conversation. It’s an icebreaker. It puts people at ease. People talk about the team representing the university and coaches representing the university – that’s the windfall.

RBS: How long does the impact last? George Mason hasn’t been able to match its magical run. Does that put a damper on the momentum?

AM: We still get it. I describe it as the gift that keeps on giving. Anytime an underdog does well in anything, they’ll refer to them as “the George Mason of … ”

I got interviewed in Florida papers when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays went to the World Series. We became synonymous with the underdog, but we also became synonymous with the coach and what [George Mason men’s basketball coach Jim Larranaga] was as a leader.

RBS: Academics are supposed to be the core of universities. But is it safe to say a Final Four run is the biggest thing that can happen to a school like GMU or VCU?

AM: We always say there are four things that stick out for George Mason: the Nobel Prize winner in 1986 and 2002, the basketball team in 2006 and when the U.S. News and World report did the survey of innovative and up and coming universities in 2008. [GMU topped the list.]

RBS: Is it hard for some to swallow that sports can put a school on the map quicker and to a greater extent than academics?

AM: People would say to me, “Is the faculty offended when the basketball team gets all the attention as opposed to getting it for academics?” The unanimous response from the faculty was, “This is fantastic.”

RBS: Should VCU feel pressure to perform at that level each year now?

AM: I don’t think its pressure; it’s more of a hope. When we had some success in 2008 and this year, people want to see it again. They know what it meant. But it’s not at all costs. If you watch some of the scandals in college basketball today, there’s a real downside in major college athletics. You better have the right people running it.

RBS: Is there temptation, once you see how big of an impact sports success can have, to try to take it to the next level like some of the big programs, where they do some of the things that lead to scandals?

AM: That’s something you thought, but it didn’t happen. We said from the beginning we weren’t going to do that, and we just stuck with it.

RBS: How important is it to the university as a whole to retain the coach who led the successful run? Should VCU pull out all the stops for Shaka Smart even though it’s not a major conference school?

AM: I will tell you any time there’s even a hint that someone is looking at Coach Larranaga, we get into the business of making sure he stays.

RBS: Even though you can quantify the financial impact of a sports success story, at what point does a salary for a coach become too much to justify?

AM: For any positions, professor or coach, you have to be aware of markets – what are people being paid in that area? The market for basketball coaches – it’s expensive. I think some of them have gotten way out of line. If you look at the CAA and similar conferences, I think the coach’s salaries are high. But the extra compensation is based on performance and graduation rates.

RBS: If you could give one piece of advice to VCU President Michael Rao and the school’s administrators on how to handle and capitalize on the situation, what would it be?

AM: The key is just remembering you’re going to be watched. You better have your academic stories in line, because the media is going to write about you. If you have problems, they are going to find them and they’re going to write about them. You better have your act together. With respect to the basketball team, make sure those kids graduate. You had a windfall to a great degree and remember that’s the good news and the bad news because you’re going to be watched. But I tell you, it’s sure a lot of fun.

RBS: CAA rivalries aside, have you been rooting for the Rams?

AM: Of course. This is not only big for the CAA, this is big for Virginia. Virginia had five teams in the NCAA tournament this year. When [former VCU President Eugene Trani] was president, I know how he cheered for George Mason. I say go all the way.

Michael Schwartz is a BizSense reporter. Please send news tips to [email protected]

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