What Does It All Mean? Mason Profs Analyze Impact of NCAA Run

Posted: April 3, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Larranaga with crowd
While camera flashes pop, men’s basketball Coach Jim Larranaga greets one of many crowds of enthusiastic fans he’s encountered in the past couple of weeks as Mason mania has swept the country.
Creative Services photo

By Laura Jeffrey, Tara Laskowski and Colleen Kearney Rich

For an analysis of what the Patriots’ run in the NCAA Tournament has meant and will mean to the university, the Mason Gazette turned to the experts in analysis: the university’s own distinguished professors. Following is a closer look at what some of them have thought, written and taught in the past couple of weeks.

Economics at Mason a Lot Like Basketball

The success of the men’s basketball team has allowed many of Mason’s academic departments to explore their own achievements. Recently, in an article on Slate.com, economic professors Alexander Tabarrok and Peter Boettke compared the Patriots to their department’s own surprising successes.

“The George Mason economics department – which didn’t even award PhDs until 1983 – has two Nobel Prize winners on its faculty. What’s remarkable is that Mason’s freewheeling basketball team and its free-market academic teams owe their successes to very similar, market-beating strategies,” they wrote.

“George Mason University has excelled on the court and in the classroom by daring to be different. Its basketball team and academic programs began with the (correct) assumption that they couldn’t hope to compete against the top schools in their fields – say, Harvard Law School or the Duke Blue Devils – by directly imitating their methods.”

The professors say Mason’s free-market-oriented economics department got started “with a heretical premise: The academic market is inefficient, so how can we exploit it? George Mason University knew it couldn’t afford to be a first-class MIT and didn’t want to be a second-class MIT, so successive chairs of the department, backed by entrepreneurial university presidents George Johnson and Alan Merten, looked for unexploited opportunities.”

Some of those opportunities included recruiting world-class, but unconventional, academics. “James Buchanan, George Mason University’s first Nobel Prize winner, has never had an Ivy League position … Gordon Tullock, a potential future Nobelist, has no degree in economics and took only one class in the subject. [Nobel Prize winner] Vernon Smith, who moved his team from the University of Arizona (again, no Harvard) to George Mason University in 2001, had to fight to get people to treat experimental economics as more than a cute parlor game.”

The professors concluded, “The odds are still against George Mason University on the court and in classrooms … Building with the odds stacked against you is difficult, but George Mason University proves it can be done. Look for undervalued assets, eschew political correctness and take the long view … A small economics department today is more likely to succeed by assembling a quality group of socialists than free-marketeers. Bring it on! We’re ready to play.”

Learning from the Media Blitz

Communication students at Mason can learn a lot from the fairy-tale media blitz. In a recent communication class taught by Mike Dickerson, he and his public relations students asked themselves what they would do if they worked for University Relations, the university division that handles media and public relations.

The basketball team’s performance provided “a unique window of opportunity,” said Dickerson, visiting professor in Communication who coordinates the internship program. “Mason is not necessarily known around the country. Now, it’s a legend in its time.” Regardless of whether Mason wins the NCAA championship, name recognition has gone way up, the class agreed.

From a public relations standpoint, says Steve Klein, who coordinates the electronic journalism minor in the Department of Communication, coach Jim Larranaga is the “perfect pitch man.”

“He’s a natural. He’s been given this wonderful opportunity and he hasn’t made this about him, or even about the team, but he’s made it about the entire university. I don’t think I can give him enough credit for that.”

Larranaga talks to the media
A Mason professor describes Coach Jim Larranaga as “the perfect pitch man” for the university.
Photo by Joe Milmoe

According to Klein, who is a former online sports editor for USA Today, “This shows us the impact sports has on our society,” he says. “Our culture loves sports. I hate to say it, but if one of our fantastic researchers here came up with the cure for cancer next week, it might not get as much attention.”

However, says Klein, the sudden spotlight on the university has allowed Mason to show the other centers of excellence on campus. “This is much more than a basketball game. The world gets to see our university for all the good things.”

Basking in the Patriots’ Collective Glow

Psychology professor Lou Buffardi is a little disappointed the Mason Quality of Work Life surveys didn’t go out last week. A member of the Psychology Department’s nationally ranked industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology program, Buffardi specializes in work and family issues. This is the third such survey he has assisted the university in preparing and administering.

But planning meetings were postponed when the Patriots advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, and the committee hasn’t had a moment to reconvene since. And as a long-time basketball season ticket holder, Buffardi had little time to dwell on it as he packed his bags for Indianapolis. Still, he would have loved to see that data.

“One of the things the I/O field has been focused on over recent years is conflict between work and family domains,” he says. “But we are overlooking that work and family can facilitate each other. And the basketball team’s success has been a perfect example of this.”

For the Buffardi family, Mason’s drive to the Final Four has been a family affair, and they are not alone. One of Buffardi’s sons rode the bus to Dayton with his father. Buffardi’s other son, who lives in Illinois, joined his parents in Indianapolis to catch the game on Saturday. In addition, after Mason’s victory against UConn, Buffardi’s Seattle-based daughter called and had him sing the Mason fight song to her boyfriend, a University of Florida alum.

“In this case, the workplace had a positive spillover into people’s personal lives. As for my family, we had a wonderful time.”

And the effect the excitement has had on overall morale is obvious. “There is definitely an emotional component to all of this,” he says. “The mood is just so high on campus. You feel like you are a part of something bigger, that you have to support the home team. And the commitment and support feed each other. As they continue to win, it makes you more committed to the institution.”

According to Buffardi, there is “no data on the half life of such euphoria.” Will it dissipate? He suspects it will, but when it does, the university will be in a different place.

“Our pay didn’t suddenly go up, and the traffic is still bad, but we are in a whole different mindset now,” he says.

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