George Mason Meets March Madness PR Challenge

Tony Skinn is probably one of the happiest men in America. A guard for the George Mason University basketball team, Skinn’s name and picture were all over ESPN for a couple of days in early March, but not for a good reason.

In a game against Hofstra University, Skinn became upset after a Hofstra player hit a big shot late in the match. On the way down the court, Skinn punched the Hofstra player in the groin. The player fell to the floor in agony, and Skinn was ejected from the game, which George Mason subsequently lost.

The loss to Hofstra, which came in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament, endangered George Mason’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament, otherwise known as “The Big Dance.” Jim Larranaga, George Mason’s coach, did not wait for the school or the conference to take action against Skinn. After the Hofstra game, Larranaga suspended Skinn for one game. The suspension could have ended Skinn’s college basketball career on an ugly note. Lucky for him, his teammates stepped it up.

Over the past two weeks, George Mason has embarked on one of the most unlikely runs of any team in the history of organized sports. A controversial at-large selection for the NCAA Tournament, the school has reeled off wins against national powerhouses Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut, sandwiching a victory against another Cinderella story, Wichita State, in between. On Saturday, the school will play the University of Florida, with the winner playing for the NCAA Basketball Championship next Monday. Suddenly, the commuter school in Fairfax, Virginia is in the spotlight, and everyone involved is taking full advantage of the opportunity.

Up until a few weeks ago, most people outside of the Washington, D.C. area were probably not very familiar with the name George Mason. They most likely did not know that George Mason is considered by many Constitutional theorists and historians to be “The Father of The Bill of Rights,” partly because he was responsible for crafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a document on which our nation’s Bill of Rights was based. They most likely did not know that Mason was at the Constitutional Convention representing Virginia, but Thomas Jefferson wasn’t.

As for George Mason the school, it’s possible that until recently only diehard basketball fans and economists would even think to mention the institution: the latter because the school has two Nobel Prize winners for Economic Sciences on the faculty; the former because George Mason once had a player named George Evans, who three times won the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year Award, the last time at the age of 30. (Evans was a Gulf War veteran who didn’t start college until after his military career ended.)

These days, however, a lot of people know about George Mason University. With the basketball team’s run to glory, the school has been featured by all of the broadcast and major cable networks. ESPN can’t go five minutes without mentioning the school. The Washington Post’s pages are filled with stories about George Mason, which in the past was consistently overshadowed by other area schools with longer histories (George Mason was founded just 34 years ago), bigger sports programs (The University of Maryland men’s team won the NCAA Basketball Tournament in 2002, and the women’s team is in the Final Four this year), better academic programs (Georgetown University was #23 on U.S. News & World Report’s America’s Best Colleges 2006 list; George Mason did not make the list) and more specialized programs (Gallaudet University is the world’s only college specifically aimed at the deaf and hard-of-hearing). Reporters from newspapers and magazines from all over the country, not to mention the world, have flocked to Fairfax to get the story behind the story.

School officials have done a remarkable job in handling the press. In interviews, administrators have stressed George Mason’s Nobel Prize winners and its innovative Biosciences school. They’ve also noted that the school, long known as “just another commuter college,” is getting more and more on-campus and out-of-state students each year, and that the campus and curriculum continue to expand. The school has even used Larranaga’s own words to promote the education it offers.

“Coach Jim Larranaga continues to urge his players to develop ‘habits of excellence.’ This is exactly what we have been striving to do in all areas of the university,” university president Alan G. Merten said in a March 22nd press release.

Larranaga deserves a lot of credit for the job he has done, on and off the court. By suspending Skinn, he sent out a message that all coaches should heed: “If you do the crime, you serve the time (on the bench).” Larranaga has also proven to be a charismatic and intelligent representative for George Mason, publicly dancing after his team’s wins, and quoting William Jennings Bryan in a post-game press conference. His players, meanwhile, have handled the pressure well.

Skinn, even before the NCAA Tournament began, displayed uncommon maturity for a young man.

“Happy as I am, it still doesn’t feel the way it should feel,” Skinn told The Washington Post after his team was selected for the NCAA Tournament. “I’ll do everything I can to help the guys prepare and be a cheerleader on Friday night (the game Skinn had to sit out for the suspension). But I have to depend on them putting it together so I can play another game. The worst part of that is, I’m the one who put myself in this position. No one else.”

Other players, young men such as Lamar Butler (Most Valuable Player of the Washington, D.C. Region in the Tournament), Folarian Campbell, Jai Lewis and Will Thomas, have hit all the right notes with the media, coming off as nice young men with level heads. More than anything, you get the impression that these guys are a team, something professional athletes – and all of us – should take note of.

From top to bottom, George Mason has taken advantage of the limelight its basketball team has provided. Students come off humble, if not shocked, in media interviews. School administrators have kept their eye on the ball, hyping academics and not just athletics. Alumni have also been a good source of media attention, and local politicians who have championed the school in the past are also getting some well-deserved time in the spotlight.

Few people expected George Mason to get this far in the NCAA Tournament (about .0006 percent, or a little more than 1,800, of the more 3 million entries in the NCAA Tournament Challenge had George Mason in the Final Four), but the university appears to have been adequately prepared for the resulting media attention. As an observer, and a public relations person, I can see that George Mason’s PR staff has done a good job of keeping messaging-points front and center, and of accommodating the media.

Win or lose this weekend, George Mason has pulled off a huge public relations coup, one that could lead to increased funding from the state, corporations and individuals, as well as increased enrollment. In addition, alumni with George Mason on their resume have reason to cheer, as they can finally walk into a job interview with the knowledge that the interviewer has probably heard of their school. Most important, George Mason is getting press for the right reason – winning, and doing so in a way that everyone can appreciate.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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