JEFFREY BROWN: Old George Mason, one of the nation's founding fathers, is getting quite a makeover this week as the young university that bears his name gets one of the biggest jolts into national prominence any school has ever experienced.
A 34-year-old state university of almost 30,000 students, George Mason has grown fast, building up its academic programs. Its faculty includes two Nobel Prize economists, but it's still little known outside its suburban northern Virginia home. Its team, the Patriots, competes in the unheralded Colonial Athletic Association and features players overlooked by other schools.
ANNOUNCER: ... gets his own rebound!
JEFFREY BROWN: But it has now stunned the sports world by beating traditional powerhouses Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut.
ANNOUNCER: By George, the dream is alive!
JEFFREY BROWN: It's now made it to the NCAA men's basketball Final Four this weekend in Indianapolis.
ALAN MERTEN, President, George Mason University: We believe that this is a life-changing experience in the life of George Mason University.
JEFFREY BROWN: Alan Merten is the school's president.
ALAN MERTEN: We have an opportunity now to, in a sense, take this success and have it help both our academic program and our athletic program. People, ready or not, here we come with information that's already started, but it will continue over the next weeks and months ahead.
We are now part of the Mason nation, and so is everybody else.
JEFFREY BROWN: There's no question about the excitement here on the George Mason campus this week, but there are questions about any long-term benefits that come to the university because of this basketball success. And that's part of a larger debate within academia about the role and the impact of college athletics.
It's known as the Flutie Effect, named after one of the most famous plays in college sports history...
ANNOUNCER: ... deep one for the end zone, if anyone is down there.
ANNOUNCER: Oh, he got it!
ANNOUNCER: Did he get it?
ANNOUNCER: He got it!
JEFFREY BROWN: ... when Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie completed a Hail Mary pass with no time left to defeat Miami in 1984. The next year, BC saw a spike in admissions applications. On the NewsHour last week, I asked sportswriter John Feinstein how important these high-profile victories are for schools.
JOHN FEINSTEIN, Author-Sportswriter: It's almost incalculable, because if you go back and study schools at all levels that have success in this tournament through the years, whether it's a power school like Duke or the schools you're talking about, like George Mason and Wichita State, admissions goes up, endowment goes up, contributions from alumni go up, bookstore sales rocket.
JEFFREY BROWN: But some prominent reports suggest otherwise, among them a 2004 study from the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
It found that: Individual institutions that decide to invest more money in their sports programs in the hopes of raising more funds or improving their application pools may be throwing good money after bad and would be wiser to spend money in other ways.
Other studies have shown that alumni contributions that come in after victories on the field or court are typically funneled into sports programs and facilities, not academics. And after that initial spike, Boston College saw its applications soon fall back to normal levels.
To some observers, college sports overall are a losing proposition.
MURRAY SPERBER, Author-Educator: Most schools in Division I basketball and IA football, and there are a lot of the same schools, are losing anywhere from a little amount of money to a huge amount of money.
JEFFREY BROWN: Murray Sperber is a professor emeritus of English at Indiana University and author of "Beer and Circus" and "College Sports, Inc." He says most universities are chasing illusory athletic glory and, in the process, betraying their principal educational mission.
MURRAY SPERBER: There's a great lure of going big time in basketball, and more and more schools want to go to Division I. But it's like buying into this high stakes poker game that the NCAA keeps raising the ante.
Or think of it as a kind of lottery, buying a lottery ticket. Yes, somebody wins the lottery, and George Mason is here as winning the lottery, but it's lost it for many years. And there are 334 schools in Division I, the vast majority like George Mason or poorer.
JEFFREY BROWN: George Mason doesn't field a football team and spends about $10 million annually on all its athletic programs. By comparison, the other schools in tomorrow's Final Four spend much more. Florida spends $63 million; LSU, $55 million; and UCLA, $42 million.
DAVID EPSTEIN, Inside Higher Ed: The question usually throughout academia is: If you're trying to improve your academic profile, is money better spent on athletics or better spent directly on academics?
JEFFREY BROWN: David Epstein, a reporter for the online magazine Inside Higher Ed, says the new question for academia is: What will be the George Mason effect?
DAVID EPSTEIN: Other institutions who want to grow will look at them and say, "If we do what George Mason did with our athletic program, you know, can we expect this kind of national attention?"
Everybody is jealous of George Mason right now. There are administrators sitting in their boardrooms wondering how they can do what George Mason did, but, you know, this is a Cinderella story. Nobody plans necessarily on doing what George Mason did.
JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, George Mason itself didn't plan for this turn in the national spotlight, but President Merten is giddily ready to seize the moment...
ALAN MERTEN: We're going to make sure that we're going to get in people's face, if you want, to be able to explain more and more about our academic program.
JEFFREY BROWN: ...while also promising to keep his priorities straight.
ALAN MERTEN: I have no interest, and the people that help me at George Mason University, have no interest whatsoever in turning us into some sort of major athletic power. We want our athletic program to be done in the right way.
We got the perfect balance or we've got a balance that we really like. I'm not going to change it as a result of this.
JEFFREY BROWN: While heralding its basketball success, in its press releases, George Mason emphasizes its Nobel winners, its diverse student population, and its new spending on academic buildings and residential quarters. According to the university, that's where the focus will remain, just not this weekend.