The Evolution of Mason’s Homecoming
By Beth Pullias and Tara Laskowski
Neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of chilly overcast afternoons can keep George Mason University from celebrating Homecoming. Since its inception in 1999, Mason’s winter Homecoming has experienced all sorts of weather—rain, snow, sleet, warm sun, and crazy unseasonable, unexpected temperatures—but festivities have never been cancelled.
At first, Mason celebrated Homecoming in the fall, with programming centered around a soccer game. Although there may have been celebrations before, the 1990-91 Senior Expressions viewbook was the first to mention any type of Homecoming.
“Who said you can’t have Homecoming without a football team? 1990 proved to be more successful than many would have imagined,” read the opening line to the Homecoming page spread in the viewbook. The page was filled with photos of former President George Johnson with the Homecoming court, the Masonettes dance team debut, and a winning float called “Phantom of the Art Center” by the fraternities Pi Kappa Sigma and Gamma Pi Beta.
“I remember going to Homecoming soccer games where they had a handful of floats circling around the field,” says Mason alumnus Andy Gibson, BA History ’92, an Alumni Association director at large. “I don’t recall much of a homecoming experience when I was a student. For me, the homecoming experience has grown along with the success of the basketball program. It’s more than just a basketball game. It’s become a big family event–I have 12 family members coming this year.”
In an effort to create a new tradition and build a fan base for the basketball program, a group of university administrators and stakeholders decided in 1999 to switch the event from fall to winter to coincide with basketball season. That same year the men’s basketball team won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, and the Homecoming theme was “Hoop It Up.”
The potential for cold weather didn’t faze any of the planners. “Around the committee table we had people from Wisconsin, Montana, and Buffalo, ” says Chris Clark-Talley, associate vice president for alumni affairs, who was on that first winter Homecoming committee.
As winter Homecoming became a tradition at Mason, the tailgate party before the big game also evolved. But the committee didn’t use the word “tailgate”—they decided to call it a “block party.”
“We wanted to create a community experience that welcomed the entire university and encouraged alumni to come back,” says Clark-Talley. “There were examples on other college campuses [of how this was done], but we wanted to do it the Mason way. It is very gratifying to see how the tradition has developed into a major university event that continues to grow.”
For the first few years, the block party was just that: a party where people or an organization could reserve a block of several parking spaces for tailgating. There were approximately 200 people at the first block party and it’s been growing exponentially for the past 14 years.
The evolution continued with the creation of College Row, where the schools and colleges each have a tent. The deans quickly became competitive to see who could have the best block party area.
In more recent years, College Row was replaced with large heated tents. The Alumni Association provides a central tent with food and giveaways where alumni and their families could reconnect with their deans and administrators as well as each other.
Some of the more serious groups who regularly attend the block party are known for their own traditions. Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity is known for roasting an entire pig each year and have added a tent in recent years.
The Fairfax Social Club, a group of alumni who love Mason basketball, have in years prior distinguished themselves by bringing a big attraction—one year they brought tricycles for races and another year a large slot track with remote controls. Even though the club does not do the tricycle races or slot track races anymore, they still get together for games and especially Homecoming.
“Homecoming is one of the few times the Fairfax Social Club has the opportunity to get together these days,” says Christopher Preston, BS Management ’96, the Alumni Association president elect. “Several of the members have moved away. While most of the guys are still busy with work and business travel, we still get out to the games and will be at Homecoming this year.”
On February 16, you will see tents throughout Lot K and lots of activity. The Alumni Association will host a hospitality tent with catering while academic units and alumni organizations have their own spaces and tents. Six years ago, Student Involvement added what is now another block party tradition—the Kids Zone— which provides fun for future Patriots.
The block party isn’t the only thing that has evolved. The pep rally prior to the game used to take place on Friday. Four years ago, the planners switched it to Mondays at lunchtime in the Johnson Center to kick off the week. Homecoming has become a full week of events culminating in the game and post parties today.
This year, each day of the week highlights a period starting from the 1960s to today to promote the decades subtheme of this year’s theme, “The Evolution of Greatness.”
“The activities planned by Patriot Activities Council [formerly Program Board] work to increase the school spirit on campus throughout the week of Homecoming,” says Dennis Hicks, associate director of Student Involvement. “It’s important that we share in the fun of and build those memorable moments at events such as the annual talent show or the lip-sync contest—or even how they painted their faces green and gold and came to an event. It’s all about loving life as a Patriot and being proud of the school you chose to attend.”
The Alumni Association is encouraging alumni and friends to attend their events throughout the weekend. For the past seven years, on the eve of Homecoming, the Alumni Association has hosted a popular beer tasting. Three years ago, they added an after party in the Grand Ballroom of the Mason Inn on Saturday night.
With the evolution of the block party, pep rally, themes, and activities, one thing is still certain: Rain or shine, win or lose, Mason spirit has always been and always will be, bigger and better every year.
The block party will begin on February 16, at 1 p.m. in Lot K. Don’t forget to don your green and gold at the basketball game and fight, fight, fight against Georgia State University on 4 p.m. in the Patriot Center followed by a fireworks over Mason Pond. A full schedule of events for alumni, faculty, staff, and students is available online.
To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.