George Mason ad (PDF format, 2.2 MB)

Boise State’s spectacular victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl Monday night was more than an instant classic, a rebuke of the BCS system, and a reaffirmation of hope and beauty. It was also the first real test of how ingrained George Mason University has become in the sports lexicon.

Since this March, just about every little team (or player) that could—or even might—has invoked comparisons to the Patriots’ incredible run to the Final Four. When Trinidad and Tobago tied Sweden in this summer’s World Cup, they were branded the George Mason of the soccer tournament. Kentucky Derby longshot Platinum Couple’s owners decided to race him on the reasoning that “if George Mason can do it, why can’t we?”

Well, because there’s a difference between a longshot and an underdog. That’s why even though George Mason could do it, Platinum Couple, Trinidad and Tobago, and all the other Mason wannabes couldn’t. But Boise State could. Like George Mason, the Broncos were articulate, good-humored overachievers with a killer instinct, led by an imaginative, gutsy, and principled coach (who sent a senior player back to Boise for violating curfew).

Commentators have rightly compared Boise State’s achievement with George Mason’s; some have even said that it trumps what Mason accomplished. College football now has its very own George Mason with which to compare future gatecrashers. But will the Broncos transcend their sport? Will Boise State eventually replace George Mason as the touchstone of choice when describing an athletics upstart?

No, thanks largely to a friendly gesture of goodwill (and serendipitously brilliant marketing strategy) from George Mason. Last week, the university took out a full-page ad in Boise State’s hometown newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, congratulating the Broncos on their season and wishing them luck in the big game. The ad, signed “From one Cinderella to another,” ran on Saturday, Dec. 30. Just about every media story that covered the game mentioned this ad, and Fox ran a short segment on it during the game. And each time someone brought up the ad, it subtly reinforced the fact that as sports Cinderellas go, the Patriots were the vanguard.

It all started about two weeks ago during the build-up to the Fiesta Bowl, when George Mason president Alan G. Merten noticed the media describing Boise State with the same kind of words as they had used during the Patriots’ Final Four run this spring. Merten, who has a heightened sensitivity for ascendant schools, decided to get in touch with Boise State President Bob Kustra to give his regards. The two presidents had a nice chat, and after a few moments of reflection, Merten called George Mason vice-president of university relations Christine LaPaille and suggested she put in ad in “the local paper in Boise.”

LaPaille designed the ad, got the thumbs-up from Merten, and a few days and several thousand dollars later, Fairfax had a sister city in Idaho.

Statesman advertising director Travis Quast was surprised to take an ad from George Mason. “It’s not unusual for schools to wish one another well, but it usually comes out of your own conference,” he says. “I think it was a very classy move for a university that went through the same grand thing of being a Cinderella.”

Merten had no idea that a spur of the moment gesture from one non-BCS school to another would generate so much attention. Since the game, he’s received dozens of calls and e-mails from people from Idaho to Iraq. “Yes, it was a great marketing success, but when I picked up the phone to call the president of Boise State, it was the farthest thing from my mind,” says Merten. “Did I sit down and think, how can we get our name referenced on Fox? Of course not.”

In fact, Merten didn’t even know Fox was going to run a piece on the ad until he was at home, about to turn on the television and received a phone call from his son-in-law in New York. “They just showed your ad on TV,” his son-in-law reported.

“Then I watched the rest of the game,” Merten says. “What a game.”