Against all odds
There's a rule for media covering sporting events: No cheering in the press box.
So it's a good thing I'm not in Indianapolis this weekend because I'd find it impossible not to root for George Mason at the Final Four.
Big-time college athletics are ruled by a handful of schools in the two major sports, football and basketball. In hoops, you have Duke, Connecticut and Kansas, just to name a few. On the gridiron, USC has returned to dynasty form, Notre Dame is back and Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and Florida State rule the roost.
These schools are cash cows, and 99 percent of the time, the rich get richer and the poor get crushed. Guys from the Colonial Athletic Association are supposed to be mere speed bumps for the power schools en route to national championships.
That's what makes the George Mason story great. But before we get into Tony Skinn and company matching up with the Florida Gators, I thought it might be better to start by going back a few years – like who in the hell was George Mason?
I must have been getting in valuable beach time at the University of Hawaii and missed American History 101 on the day we covered George Mason. So, a little research is in order.
For some reason, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin got all the pub back in the 1700s and, outside of Virginia, Mason didn't get much ink. Kind of like Michael Jordan's Bulls – we remember Michael, Scottie, Rodman – and Yahoo! Sports' own Steve Kerr, of course. Luc Longley was there, too, but who remembers Luc?
It's the same story with George Mason. In fact, on my first search for "George Mason," I got the bio for the actor who played a guy named Mason on the TV show "24." You've got to be kidding me. A character actor named Xander Berkeley gets more love than an original founding father?
Anyway, Mason was next-door neighbors with Washington and is hailed as the "Father of the Bill of Rights." Mason was big on individual rights. It says he wanted slavery abolished (even though he owned slaves himself), so Mason refused to sign the Constitution because it did not make slavery unlawful.
Enough history. Now for a clarification.
If you've watched any coverage of the NCAA tournament, invariably you've heard broadcasters refer to "tiny" GMU slaying the giants. Turns out GMU isn't exactly tiny. Student enrollment is more than 28,000, slightly more than UConn and North Carolina, both of whom were upset by the Patriots. Yes, GMU plays in a league that includes William & Mary and Hofstra, but Mason is not a small school.
However, the Patriots may be a little small up front when it comes to controlling the Gators. Jai Lewis and Will Thomas are Mason's tallest players, both standing 6-foot-7. Defending 6-11 Joakim Noah, who has turned into a star the past two weeks, and 6-9 Al Horford may be a problem.
But head coach Jim Larranaga has gotten his undersized Patriots this far, so you know he'll come up with something against Florida.
Larranaga looks more like your uncle than a grizzled coach. He actually smiles and has a personality, which is unusual, especially if you're used to watching Final Four regulars like Jim Calhoun and Mike Krzyzewski. And make no mistake, Larranaga and his players are eating up Mason's 15 minutes of fame, which has been extended indefinitely.
"I tell them to have more fun than any other team in the tournament," says Larranaga, who is in his ninth year at GMU. "It's been a great recipe for success."
Logic says GMU should lose to Florida or the winner of the UCLA-LSU game in the national championship. But the Patriots have overcome such tremendous odds already that you can't discount them cutting down the nets on Monday night.
"I think it's a Hollywood story already," GMU senior guard Lamar Butler said.
When they cast the movie, Larranaga has a suggestion on who should play the coach – Craig T. Nelson. "We have the same hairline," Larranaga joked.
George Mason as national champions? Improbable … maybe impossible.
But it's definitely something to cheer for.