For nearly 16 years, those two words have rung throughout the home arena, students and fans standing to recognize the man who has made the biggest impact on George Mason University. They chant his name in order to reciprocate the love and affection that President Alan Merten and his wife, Sally, have showed all students, staff and fans since they arrived in Fairfax in July 1996.

And on Saturday evening, they chanted his name to say farewell.

Raising both hands in the air, President Alan Merten stood to acknowledge the “Al-an Mert-en” chants that echoed throughout the crowd of over 7,000. He and his wife both wore big smiles as they admired the plethora of white T-shirts that stacked to the rafters of the Patriot Platoon.

by Stephen Kline

“It reminds me of what I’m here for,” Merten said during a conversation in November. “And that’s the students.”

Nearly 16 years ago, Merten and his wife took office as president and first lady of a small, commuter university that schooled just 24,000 students.

Using athletics as the front door, the Mertens played a major role in morphing the university into the fastest growing institution in Virginia, eclipsing the 30,000-student mark and being recognized as one of the nation’s top up-and-coming universities.

“This is a very special place and a very special university,” Merten said. “It has meant a lot to Sally and me to be able to play a role in making this a better university. To see what we’ve created, particularly what we’ve created in respect to the enthusiasm from the student body, it’s just been incredible.”

Since the family took office, Merten and his wife have attended nearly every home basketball game. Second to none, they have become the most passionate fans and can oftentimes be seen exhibiting as much emotion as seniors Mike Morrison and Ryan Pearson.

“Long before everybody else jumped on the bandwagon, he was promoting how good we were,” said Jim Larranaga, longtime coach of the Patriots and good friend of Merten. “He talked to the national media about how proud he was — not just of the basketball success, but of the success academically.”

When the unthinkable occurred in 2006, Merten and his staff were primed to take advantage of the spotlight and morph the university into one of the biggest universities in Virginia. Riding a hot streak throughout the NCAA Tournament, the Patriots made nearly every trip with their president by their side.

“Most presidents don’t fly on the planes because they don’t have that kind of relationship with the coach or the players,” Larranaga said. “But President Merten would come out to our practices. He cared that much about our program.”

Still, after so many years watching Mason basketball, Merten cares as much for his Patriots as he did when he arrived nearly 16 years ago.

Prior to the tipoff, Merten paced around the lower bowl of the arena, staring up at the flurry of white shirts that filled the Patriot Center, pausing for a few brief moments to admire the giant cardboard head that contained his face.

With time left in the first half, Merten stood to acknowledge the crowd. He aimed his air-powered gun into the heart of the student sections and fired off several T-shirts, each falling into the hands of a thankful student.

Not just thankful for the shirt, but thankful for what it stands for: the everlasting love of President Alan Merten.