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Monday, April 25, 2011
Larranaga has unique opportunity at Miami


Jim Larranaga wasn't thinking about leaving George Mason until president Alan Merten, his best friend at the school, told him he was retiring in late March, just days before Larranaga left for the Final Four in Houston.

And even then, Larranaga wasn't convinced there was a spot to land. He wasn't going to bolt on the program he had built over the past 14 years. He could have done that three years ago when the coaching job at Providence, his alma mater, was open.

"That's when I decided to start to assess if this is where I was going to be for the rest of my career,'' said Larranaga, 61, of Merten's decision.

Larranaga got a few calls from friends who had connections to the Miami job, which opened while he was in Houston after Missouri tabbed Frank Haith to replace Mike Anderson as its coach. "But I thought they'd hire Frank Martin,'' Larranaga said of the Kansas State coach and Miami native.

Larranaga's agent, Mark Carmony, called and told him there was interest from Miami. So Larranaga listened and then interviewed in Boston, just an hour after Harvard's Tommy Amaker did on April 11.

Amaker said no to the Hurricanes. Larranaga heard nothing. Miami then hired Shawn Eichorst as its athletic director. He was previously an assistant athletic director from Wisconsin.

The assumption was that Eichorst would turn to Milwaukee's Rob Jeter, a connection from the state of Wisconsin. Eichorst did talk to him. But it never got too serious. Suddenly, there was a renewed interest in Larranaga from Eichorst and Miami president Donna Shalala after the AD heard how well Larranaga had interviewed.

"And then by Wednesday [a day after Eichorst had been hired on April 12], I was the No. 1 candidate and there was an offer,'' Larranaga said.

The official hire of Larranaga came 11 days after he first interviewed in Boston. During that time, he wrestled as to whether he should leave Mason. He firmly believed at one point that he wasn't even the top choice. He was convinced that Martin was going to get the job, even though Miami never showed interest in him for whatever reason.

"Jim was upfront with me the whole time,'' George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor said. "I was hoping that he would stay. But I always felt that at any level Jim could coach, in the ACC, Big East, it wouldn't matter, he would be successful.''

O'Connor did what he could financially. Miami offered more and a five-year contract. But ultimately, Larranaga said the decision to accept Miami's offer was about his uncertainty on Mason's future without Merten. O'Connor always had his back, but Larranaga was intrigued by the challenge.

If there were ever a time to get into the ACC, it is now. Duke and North Carolina are the standard, as has been the case for decades now. But more than half the league is in flux. Gary Williams (Maryland), Leonard Hamilton (Florida State) and Seth Greenberg (Virginia Tech) are the only coaches (other than Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams) who have been at their school for more than two seasons, respectively. None has been a consistent NCAA team of late, as all have been out of the field or sweating plenty on Selection Sunday.

The rest of the league has had a complete turnover in the past two seasons. If Miami can keep forward Reggie Johnson from staying in the draft over the next week, and with the return of guards Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant, then there is no reason why the Hurricanes can't be competitive and in the ACC's top five next season.

If you were to compare Larranaga's last two options of leaving Mason -- Providence versus Miami -- it's not close. He made the right choice. The Friars are near the bottom of the Big East with plenty of disadvantages in the region, including a much, tougher, more competitive conference from top to bottom.

Larranaga's age shouldn't be a deterrent. He has plenty of energy. And as O'Connor said, he had the "total package,'' from tactical to motivation to enthusiasm to outreach to make a program successful.

And that's why leaving Mason was a tough call. He is leaving behind a Top 25 team next season, which will be one of the best at the school or at least comparable to the 2006 Final Four team. The Patriots lose two key players -- Cam Long and Isaiah Tate -- but return everyone else off the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season championship roster and second-round NCAA winner over Villanova. Ryan Pearson should enter the CAA as a possible conference player-of-the-year favorite. Sherrod Wright is expected to be healthy, too, after sitting out with a shoulder injury. That alone should bolster the team's chances.

"We've got four or five starters returning and a lot of guys with three years experience,'' Larranaga said. "We won 27 games with that team this past season, and we could be even better next year.''

But Larranaga wasn't sure where the leadership would turn above him in the next five to seven years. The Miami job presented a unique opportunity, and he took it once it ultimately came his way.

O'Connor now has to replace him. There are only a handful of head-coaching openings remaining. Even if there were more, Mason would be one of the best jobs outside of a power six. And you can argue that, except for the financial end of a Big East job like Providence, Mason is a better gig.

"Jim gave us the foundation, and there's no question that we are eternally grateful,'' O'Connor said. "We have a top 25 job, and that includes the BCS schools.''

Facilities aren't an issue. Mason lies in a fertile recruiting area. The CAA is experiencing a renaissance with VCU reaching the Final Four -- the second conference team to do so since 2006 after Mason's miraculous run. Old Dominion's Blaine Taylor has been wooed, most recently by Wyoming, and chose to stay put. VCU's Shaka Smart stayed despite the possibility of landing at NC State. Drexel's Bruiser Flint has been a consistent winner. Towson and Georgia State lured two coaches who desperately wanted in the league in Pitt assistant Pat Skerry and IUPUI head coach Ron Hunter.

"We've got everything in place,'' O'Connor said.

Whoever lands the Mason gig will have a team ready to win for next season and beyond.

Larranaga's move was precipitated by his president's desire to retire. Miami then had to sift through its own search process of seeking Amaker, dismissing the thought of pursuing Martin, and then finding a match in Larranaga.

These searches don't always end up the way they start. But in the case of Miami, it found someone who was willing to move, who had oodles of experience and can help the team win immediately.

O'Connor will seek the same result. He said he has a list of 30 names. He will whittle them down this week. O'Connor is a basketball lifer, from being a head coach to a chair on the men's basketball selection committee. He knows he has a sweet coaching gig to offer, a job where someone can win now.

Replacing Larranaga won't be an easy chore. But if O'Connor gets it right, Mason may not miss a beat. The foundation is in place, but more than that, the players are returning to continue a winning tradition.