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George Mason also has a football team.
Actually, Mason has had a football team for nearly two decades, though the Washington Redskins’ recent courting of the school as a potential training camp host got more fan attention than Mason’s team ever did.
“Not many people know about us,” says Jack Langley, the starting quarterback this season.
Joe Pascale is the father of Mason football. Until 2008, he was the only football coach Mason ever had. The program’s anonymity stings.
“All the work, all the years, for what?” Pascale says. Pascale, 67, founded the football club in 1993, when friends on the school’s Board of Visitors asked him to come over from Georgetown University, where he was an assistant coach. He says administrators pledged to help elevate the program to NCAA status. (NCAA programs grant scholarships, club sports usually don’t.) It never happened.
Pascale had already restored football as an NCAA sport at Catholic University in the mid-1970s. He left in 1984 as the winningest head coach in Catholic history.
Pascale says Mason’s rebuilding job should have been easier than Catholic’s, given the enthusiasm local businesses and students showed when he arrived. But his honeymoon at Mason ended after just a year, with the 1994 hiring of athletic director Tom O’Connor.
O’Connor is most definitely a basketball guy. His GMU bio shows that before taking over Mason athletics, O’Connor had been head basketball coach at Dartmouth and Loyola. He’s served on the NCAA’s Basketball Championship Committee, the body that oversees men’s March Madness, and was named its chairman in 2008.
O’Connor is a folk hero to most Masonites. In 2006, on his watch, Mason basketball had a “Hoosiers”-esque run to the Final Four. The Patriots head into this week’s Colonial Athletic Association tournament with the nation’s longest active winning streak.
So there’s no yardage in quibbling with O’Connor’s bona fides as a hoops administrator.
But O’Connor hasn’t ever tried out his administrative mojo on Mason’s gridiron. Pascale says that shortly after becoming AD, O’Connor told him to give up the NCAA dream.
“We had a meeting and he said that the only two varsity sports are men’s basketball and women’s basketball,” Pascale says.
Pascale stuck around for more than a decade after that meeting, and admits he never hid his disdain for the brass. He wasn’t canned until June 2008. “That was after I’d done all the recruiting for the [next] season, after I’d done all the scheduling, and too late for me to find any other coaching job,” says Pascale, who now works for Fairfax County schools. “Nice guys.”
John Moorhead, a punter, was the only Pascale-era holdover on this year’s squad.
“When I first talked to Coach Pascale at freshman orientation,” Moorhead says, “he told me within two years we’d go from a club team to an NCAA Division I-AA program.”
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Pascale did all a coach could do to make that happen. His teams won several league titles, even though Mason’s schedule was silly strong for a club squad, teeming with teams that were either already NCAA sanctioned or on the verge, including Tuskegee Institute, South Alabama, and Georgia State.
“We beat the hell out of South Alabama,” Pascale says. “And we beat Georgia State bad, too, scored up in the 60s. And now they’re both pretty big time, and Mason’s nothing.”
O’Connor denies pro-basketball equals anti-football, and points out that his résumé shows he’s played and coached high school football, and oversaw a football program at Santa Clara University when he was AD there. Every decision he’s made has been in the best interest of Mason’s bottom line.
“It’s not where we’re in a mode where we said we don’t want football,” he says. “It’s a cost issue.”
O’Connor says economic feasibility studies he’d commissioned showed it would take $90 million—$4 million for operating the football team and $86 million for a stadium—to start an NCAA program.
“There are schools around here that compete with a first-class program—Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech—plus the Redskins,” says O’Connor, “so we’d have to do it the right way.”
John McGeehan, a Fairfax business leader, got involved with Mason football early in Pascale’s tenure. He says the roadblocks administrators threw in the coach’s way inspired him to help raise money for stadium improvements and a endowed football scholarships, a rarity in club football.
McGeehan says he “doesn’t believe any” of the budgetary excuses, and claims sports officials crunch numbers as creatively the Nobel Laureates in GMU’s economics department.
“O’Connor came in with a football budget that counted 85 players, all on full, out-of-state scholarships,” McGeehan says. “In D1-AA football, you can have up to 60 scholarships, not 85, and the players are definitely not going to be all out of state. Then he budgeted a 40,000-seat stadium, when the average attendance for football in the CAA [Mason’s NCAA conference] was 11,000. He ran up the numbers to say football’s too expensive. Meanwhile, Mason makes a licensing deal with [a soft drink company], and every dime from that goes in the basketball budget. That sure makes basketball look good!
“The bottom line,” McGeehan continues, “is you can make it look like a program makes money or loses money. It’s all up to who keeps the books. Basketball people kept the books.”
Mason spokesperson Adam Brick confirms that the school would use stadium and scholarship figures cited by McGeehan, but says they’re based on CAA rivals: “If we aspire to NCAA 1-A, yeah, we would use those numbers.”
In the first game after firing Pascale, against Lincoln University in September 2008, Mason was held to minus-7 yards rushing during a 34-7 loss. The Philly school was playing its first football game in 48 years. Where 90 players routinely came out for Pascale’s team, Mason’s student newspaper reported only 22 players dressed for 2010.
“They told me they wanted to go in a new direction,” Pascale says. “What direction is that?”
Moorhead said when he first joined the Mason team, he enjoyed getting the free sweatsuits emblazoned with “George Mason Football.”
“But I’d put them on and walk around, people would say, ‘Mason has a football team?’” he says, chuckling. “That sucked.”
Moorhead, who’ll leave Mason in May having never played an NCAA football game, no longer wears the sweatsuits.