UCLA's Final Four run much bigger than basketball, says AD Martin Jarmond

·4 min read
UCLA Athletic Director Martin Jarmond.
UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond reflects on his school's trophies. To him, this year's Final Four run is bigger than basketball. (UCLA Athletics)

Having followed UCLA on its unexpected Final Four run, Martin Jarmond heard the roars, saw the excitement and felt the energy generated by every win.

It wasn’t until the Bruins athletic director returned to the relative quiet of Westwood that its full impact struck him. A university employee who doesn’t usually watch sports mentioned being captivated by the team, that it made her proud to be affiliated with the school.

“That’s when I started thinking, this is more than basketball for UCLA and for our fan base and people around the country,” Jarmond said Wednesday. “I think this team personified resiliency, toughness, the way that they performed, you can draw comparisons to just how tough it’s been, this pandemic, and we needed something good to happen and it really galvanized our fan base.”

Students, alumni, fans and university employees have bonded over the team through phone calls, tweets and text messages, many reconnecting after years of silence.

“That helps not just UCLA athletics, that helps UCLA, that helps alumni engagement, that helps donations, that helps season tickets,” Jarmond said. “It’s not just an athletics wave, it’s a university wave.”

Jarmond is a veteran of Final Fours, having gone to three while working at Michigan State and one at Ohio State before coming to UCLA last summer. So he knows how that success can increase donations, sell season tickets and generate buzz.

The Bruins already are experiencing a surge in each of those areas after five riveting wins that came as a No. 11 seed many had picked to lose to Michigan State in the First Four. Jarmond said the team’s Twitter page had generated 14.5 million impressions in the last week and 26.1 million impressions since March 1.

New season ticket sales have enjoyed a “significant” increase in the last two weeks, Jarmond said. Among the newest donors to the Wooden Athletic Fund is Ryan Gesas, the super fan who became a good-luck charm after Jarmond replied to a tweet and supplied him with tickets to every game.

The school still is discussing ways to honor the team on campus, but Jarmond said one Los Angeles-area professional team already had committed to recognizing the Bruins at a game.

Final Four teams often tout how many more applicants their schools generate in the years after their appearance on college basketball’s biggest stage, but that’s one area where UCLA doesn’t need any help; it’s already the nation’s most-applied-to university.

The Bruins’ exposure boost could come in other ways. The 14.94 million television viewers for UCLA’s national semifinal against Gonzaga included more than hot basketball prospects.

“That’s water polo recruits, that’s rowing recruits, that’s football recruits all watching UCLA experience success,” Jarmond said, “and there’s only three other teams that can claim that.”

Of course, it was probably the basketball recruits who were most impressed. UCLA being a homespun team full of locals probably resonated with young players across the state.

“We talk about keeping California talent in California,” Jarmond said. “What better way to showcase that in all of our sports when basketball gets to a Final Four and you see Jules Bernard, David Singleton, Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr., all these guys, California guys, that’s important because what it shows the talent in California and the West Coast is that you don’t have to go somewhere to be on the biggest stage — you can come to UCLA.”

The Bruins’ run through March and into April also served as a psychological boost for long-suffering fans who had endured some dark times for the school’s marquee teams. The football team has logged five consecutive losing seasons and the men’s basketball team had not notched a victory in the NCAA tournament since 2017.

Now the school has some high-profile success to go with its men’s water polo team winning the national championship last month, and its softball and women’s beach volleyball teams poised to defend the national titles they won in 2019 and were unable to repeat a year ago amid the pandemic shutdown of sports.

“This run by this program made a statement to everyone: UCLA men’s basketball is here and the future is bright with Mick Cronin and we have a lot of guys — if not all of them — coming back and we’ll probably start next year in the top 10,” Jarmond said. “So this is important. If men’s basketball is successful, that helps all of us.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.