Ten years after guiding George Mason to the Final Four, Jim Larrañaga is ready to return with Miami
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Ten years have passed since George Mason sashayed its way to the 2006 Final Four, slaying Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and UConn on their way to college basketball immortality. The run changed the paradigm of the sport, ushering in a new era of possibility for mid-major schools. The subsequent Final Four runs of programs like Butler (2010 and '11), VCU ('11) and Wichita State ('13) carried Mason's "Don't Stop Believing" ethos, inviting everyone to hold on to the feeling of a sun-kissed March.
No one benefitted more from that run that George Mason coach Jim Larrañaga, a respected but obscure mid-major lifer who captured the country's affection. Americans got to see Larrañaga's unique combination of sideline guile and grandfatherly charm, turning him into one of the sport's most endearing boldface names.
In 2011, Larrañaga left George Mason for an ACC basketball backwater at the University of Miami. Larrañaga's ability to resuscitate a lifeless program into an ACC contender may be as incredible a career accomplishment as engineering Mason's magical March. When on Wednesday asked about his crowning professional achievement at Mason a decade ago, the 66-year old Larrañaga responded with a twinkle in his eye. "I hope at the end of this season," he said, "that it's not."
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When Larrañaga arrived at Miami five seasons ago, many dismissed the move as just another 60-something winding down his career in Florida. Miami resonated much more as a retirement destination than a basketball one, as the school had failed to finish above .500 in the ACC in its seven years in the league. Even worse than the losing was the apathy, as the program had no buzz, sparse attendance and was under the cloud of NCAA investigation into the Nevin Shapiro scandal.
Now the No. 3 seed Hurricanes take the court against No. 14 Buffalo amid one of the greatest runs in school history. In Larrañaga's five seasons, they've won an ACC regular season title, a conference tournament and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs. Larrañaga's teams have been above .500 in four of his five years. "Before he got here," said Miami assistant James Johnson, "Miami was just another job."
At an age when many workers are focused on the performance of their 401(k)s, Larrañaga decided to square off with Duke's Coach K. Larrañaga had won 62.5% of his games with the Patriots and guided them to five NCAA tournaments, but he was still willing to leave his comfort zone. "He was a guy who was going to have the court named after him and a statue built at George Mason," said Miami associate head coach Chris Caputo. "For him to challenge himself, that took a lot of guts."
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Larrañaga has always embraced change. He brags that his teams at Mason were among the first in college basketball to use Synergy Sports, a comprehensive resource of player film that has since become mainstream. When he first heard about Synergy from an NBA friend in 2008, Larrañaga called up the company's founder and brokered a deal that they'd waive the fee if he could convince 10 programs to sign up. The first time Mason assistant coaches showed Larrañaga kenpom.com advanced metrics, he believed in them so strongly that he said they should check them daily. Larrañaga has won 558 career games in part because he doesn't dwell in the past.
But to change the culture and ceiling at Miami, Larrañaga needed to answer a vexing question about its future in the ACC. In his office earlier this month, he summed it up succinctly to SI.com: "If you can't get the McDonald's All-American, how do you compete with a McDonald's All-American?"
Initially, the answer started with transfers. On Miami's breakthrough Sweet 16 season of 2012–13, three of the starters came from other programs—forward Kenny Kadji (Florida), point guard Shane Larkin (DePaul) and wing Trey McKinney-Jones (UMKC). This season, the Hurricanes followed a similar blueprint and have three more starters on the bounce from other programs—senior point guard Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State), senior wing Sheldon McClellan (Texas) and junior power forward Kamari Murphy (Oklahoma State). With the transfer market as competitive as ever, why have players chosen Larrañaga? Rodriguez tells the story of his official visit. His mother, who hails from Puerto Rico and speaks limited English, joined him. As Larrañaga toured them around campus on a golf cart, he brought a translator in order to communicate with Rodriguez's mom, Jacqueline Tricoche.
"That was very special for my mom," Rodriguez said. "That to me meant a lot." Rodriguez, who played high school basketball in Miami, added: "[Larrañaga] was the only reason why I came to Miami."
Rodriguez (11.7 ppg) teams with leading scorer McClellan (15.8 ppg) to give the Hurricanes one of the most potent offensive backcourts in the country. Both are 23 years old, making them among the nation's oldest as well. McClellan's story is similar to Rodriguez's, as he came to Miami for a fresh start and a new voice. "Obviously Coach L, he's just a guy that gives me a lot of confidence," McClellan said. "He believes I'm the best player in the ACC. Things like that really mean a lot to me."
Despite his age, Larrañaga is always looking to connect with his players. He has few hobbies other than going to the movies, but recently relayed the story of seeing Straight Outta Compton this summer and spending the next few days calling recruits to talk about the movie. "Do you know the kind of passion that those guys had to overcome the adversity they faced?" he asked them. "Do you have that kind of passion for basketball?"
Larrañaga's wife, Liz, points to his willingness to learn how to dance, busting out the Whip and Nae Nae earlier this year after a victory over Florida. During the 2013 tournament, his air boxing went viral. "Who really wants to do that?" she asks. "But I think he just loves the kids, loves being around them. It invigorates him."
And he has clearly invigorated Miami, pushing the program to the point where a Final Four run this year would be viewed more as the culmination of five years of hard work than a charmed run through March. And here may be the most surprising part of his run: Miami has lured a top-10 recruiting class to campus next year, including 6'9" McDonald's All-American Dewan Huell. Larrañaga has built the Hurricanes to a point where they can compete with Duke and UNC on the recruiting trail.
That's a program overhaul nearly as impressive as Mason's charge to college basketball's elite. And in the next few weeks, Larrañaga's work at Miami has a chance to match that magical March a decade ago.