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Serving on the staff of the Michael Jordan Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas was a tough ticket. It helped if you coached in the NBA or were in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Then there was the case of Jim Larranaga and some others who had coached in an NCAA Final Four.
He made that magical trip, a mid-major miracle of sorts, with George Mason University at the end of the 2005-06 season and found himself coaching at Jordan’s camp the following summer.
There, he met two Miami businessmen, Jose and Jorge Mas, well-known Cuban-Americans in south Florida. They became friends, especially after learning the ties went even deeper.
You might not guess it from his last name or his Bronx birthplace or his New York City/Eastern seaboard accent, but Larranaga’s paternal grandfather was Cuban and immigrated to Key West in the early 1900s. The coach’s father was raised there.
So when the University of Miami coaching job opened in April of 2011, Larranaga knew what phone numbers to dial. It became a hurry-up process. The George Mason coach was traveling and didn’t have a resume at hand. So he cut-and-pasted his Wikipedia page and forwarded it to the selection committee. To make a long story short, including a hearty recommendation from Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, he got the job.
Before becoming head coach at Bowling Green State University in 1986, Larranaga had been an assistant under Terry Holland at Virginia for seven seasons. In four of those years the Cavaliers had, at one time or another, been ranked No. 1 in the country, and twice they went to the Final Four.
From the day he left he had one burning desire — to return to the Atlantic Coast Conference as a head coach. A quarter of a century later, he owned 470 collegiate victories, had led George Mason to five NCAA tournaments, and in that regard was a hot prospect. He also had celebrated 61 birthdays and in that regard he was not.
For various reasons — storm clouds of an NCAA investigation that would envelop the entire Miami athletic department were brewing, minimal interest in a basketball program that had never been competitive in the ACC — big names weren’t exactly lining up for the job. After Coach L used his connections to crack the door, he blew ’em away with an energetic interview. As the school’s new athletic director said at the time, age went out the window. He couldn’t imagine not hiring Larranaga.
Today, the Miami Hurricanes will play at rival Florida State as the No. 3 ranked team in the nation. They are 19-3, 10-0 in the ACC, and have made a wild, almost unprecedented climb the last five weeks going from unranked to No. 25 to No. 14 to No. 8 to No. 3. Their power ranking, strength of schedule and RPI are off the charts. Once a ghost town at a football school in a pro-sports town, fans now line up for tickets at the beautiful but fairly small (7,972 seats) BankUnited Center on the campus in Coral Gables. The NCAA tournament is a foregone conclusion; the discussion now is over a No. 1 seed.
Larranaga said Tuesday he is not the least bit surprised; if not for injuries and suspensions he felt as if last season’s team, his first at Miami that won 20 games and posted a first-ever winning record in ACC play, might have done the same.
“It’s been great,” he said via telephone. “When I took the job people said, ‘You’re never going to draw fans; you’ll never create any interest in the program.’ They told me the same thing at Bowling Green and George Mason. By the end, we were packing the place at both schools. This past Saturday, our North Carolina game (a blowout 87-61 win), we had LeBron and Dwyane Wade sitting courtside. I think people noticed that. I know recruits noticed. I think the nation is noticing now.”
When the Miami job opened, coupled with coaching changes at other ACC schools, Larranaga said he saw a league in transition with Miami sporting a veteran team while sitting in the midst of a fertile recruiting area.
“It’s the ACC, the best basketball league in the country, and I saw an opportunity to succeed,” he said. “The first meeting I had with players at George Mason in April of ’97, I asked them who had the best programs, the role models. The first two places mentioned were Duke and North Carolina. And I tried to build the program at Mason in their image, that ACC image. I loved every minute of my 14 years there, but when [the Miami] opportunity came up I very much wanted to achieve this goal.
"I envisioned success.”
Larranaga has always had a vision, even if it wasn’t clear to others. Maybe never fully appreciated at BG — he is the second winningest coach all-time at 170-144 while operating in an antiquated Anderson Arena, but never took the Falcons to the NCAAs — many were surprised when he made what appeared to be a lateral mid-major move.
At George Mason Larranaga saw a modern, 9,500-seat arena and a chance to make an impact at a school where no resources were siphoned off by football or hockey. Fans saw a lateral move to a fairly anonymous school in a similar, maybe then slightly better league; he saw potentially another Gonzaga or Butler. And, for the most part, he delivered.
Now, Larranaga’s latest vision is coming into focus. And he is delivering big again, finally back home, in the ACC and south Florida.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.