The effects of GW’s nationally ranked basketball team, which has been in the top 10 for close to a month, could have lasting effects for the University – and not just in the Smith Center.
Administrators said the greatest effect of a highly ranked basketball team is the sense of pride and unity it breeds throughout the entire school – but there are also reverberations for merchandise sales, media coverage and possibly even admissions figures.
“This makes faculty and staff feel better about the institution,” said Robert Chernak, senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services. “It gives people bragging rights and makes people positive about their affiliation with GW.”
“People are just feeling sky high,” Chernak added. “Octogenarian season ticket holders who would never stand up during games are getting up and cheering.”
University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg hinted that national media coverage could help increase application figures in the coming years. He said that while students who never would have considered GW as a school still may not apply, college basketball fans might take a second look at GW.
“What this (ranking) says is that we’ve got a commitment to appropriate athletic competition at the University,” Trachtenberg said. “The truth of the matter is that kids who want to go to (University of) Nebraska aren’t coming here, and they won’t confuse us with a school that has at the top of their agenda big football.”
“Might we get a little Stanford and a little Duke?” Trachtenberg said of college-bound students. “That wouldn’t be so bad.”
Undergraduate Admissions Director Kathryn Napper said she sees a possibility for an increase in the future applications to GW as a result of the team’s success. Applications were slightly down this year, and reached an all-time high two years ago when the men’s team was struggling.
“Since there has been more national media coverage on GW, we may find a few more admitted students selecting GW over a less-visible institution,” Napper said. “We may see an increase in applications next year for the same reason.”
GW hoops success in the 1990s coincided with a spike in applications. Between the fall of 1989 through the fall of 1992, applications received went from 6,036 to 6,388.
In the fall of 1993, applications jumped to 7,875. In the 1992-1993 season, the Colonials reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, making that team the most successful postseason-wise in school history. Napper was quick to add that the admissions spike can also be attributed to new initiatives within the University during that period.
Gonzaga University in Washington state has been described as a “Cinderella” story with a basketball program that in recent years has grown dramatically.
Gonzaga’s director of public relations, Dale Goodwin, said the Spokane school experienced a similar rush of enthusiasm and pride when it entered the national spotlight during its NCAA tournament run in 1999.
“(Gonzaga’s success) has sparked a pride on campus that is greater than I have ever seen, and it’s not just confined to basketball,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin added that in 1999, before the team rose to national prominence, freshmen and sophomores were required to live on campus and would flee as soon as they could. Today, Goodwin said, Gonzaga is working to build more housing for upperclassmen because they want to stay on campus for all four years due to the new vitality on campus created by the basketball team.
Enrollment has increased at Gonzaga from 4,400 students in 1999 to 6,400 today, Goodwin said, and admissions inquiries have doubled from 25,000 in 1999 to 50,000 in 2006. He said there were 1,800 more applications in 2006 than in 1999. The school’s basketball team is number No. 4 in the national polls, two ahead of GW.
Jesse Estok, a high school junior from New Jersey who took a tour at GW on Tuesday, said that having a winning basketball team on campus would definitely increase his likelihood of choosing GW.
“That’d be pretty cool to have a big-time team here on campus,” Estok said.
Not all prospective students were so swayed by the basketball team’s success.
Jenna Haring, who is from New Brighton, Minn., and may apply to GW, said the basketball team’s success would not influence her decision.
In the media spotlight
One of the clearest differences this historic basketball season has brought is increased media coverage, Chernak said. In The Washington Post, GW is no longer treated as the kid brother to other D.C.-area schools such as the University of Maryland and Georgetown University, he said.
When GW was featured on the front page of the USA Today sports section two weeks ago, newspapers were “gobbled up like candy,” Chernak added.
But not all the media coverage GW is enjoying has been complimentary. Last Sunday, The Post ran a front-page article investigating the legitimacy of GW senior Omar Williams’ high school diploma as part of a national investigation of the standards used by the NCAA Clearinghouse, the organization that certifies a player’s eligibility to play in college.
An article published in The New York Times two weeks ago named Williams and Maureece Rice, a sophomore guard, as graduates of a Philadelphia preparatory school that is far from academically challenging, has just six teachers and is not accredited by the state of Pennsylvania.
“You take the rough with the smooth,” Trachtenberg said. “When you’re in the spotlight people take a shot at you.”
GW’s past as a commuter school where alumni felt little connection to the University after their academic tenure ended has often served as a disadvantage to its development and advancement programs.
Laurel Price Jones, vice president for Advancement, said some of these alumni are now coming out of the woodwork.
“Overall the annual fund is about $700,000 ahead of where it was the same time last year,” Price Jones said. “We think that it is very likely that this has to do with the good news about the basketball team we are getting because it means that people are thinking about GW.”
Alumni are not the only group giving up more money. Parent giving is up 20 percent to around $400,000. Price Jones attributes the increase to students being more excited about GW when talking to their parents than in the past, a change that might be attributed to the Colonials.
The athletic department, the most likely recipient of new funds, is also reaping benefits. Dom Perno, associate athletics director for Athletic Development, said the team’s success has made his job immeasurably easier.
“There is significant booster support,” Perno said. “We don’t have enough good seats to accommodate the interest we have.”
Tickets have been harder than ever to obtain, and GW is having trouble accommodating requests to join the “AD’s Club,” a donors’ organization that provides such benefits as pre-game receptions and autographed basketballs.
Off the racks
Chernak said GW ranks in the top 10 for athletic apparel sold nationally among Division I non-football schools, and that sales for GW apparel are up at the bookstore. The bookstore has unrolled new T-shirts boasting the “District of Colonials” and proclaiming “Hobbs magic is contagious,” a reference to the team’s energetic coach.
Pat Lee, the director of the GW Bookstore, said the success of the team has lead to a definite increase in demand for basketball merchandise. While Lee could not provide specific numbers regarding increase in sales or available items, she said the store is working hard to keep inventories stocked and is lucky its suppliers have provided the store with a 48-hour turnaround time.
“There has been so much excitement generated. After the game (last) Saturday (against Charlotte) we stayed open later, it allowed people to come in and shop. We are trying to accommodate everyone interested in buying GW apparel,” Lee said.
Trachtenberg said students should enjoy the national spotlight while it lasts.
“I think this is a terrific thing; it gives you a bit of a rush and flush in your cheeks,” Trachtenberg said. “Unless you can deliver a good solid team year after year, it just becomes a flash in the pan.”