INDIANAPOLIS — Some people have to die before good things are said about them.

Jim Larranaga only had to make it to the Final Four.

Twenty years into a head coaching career that’s been more honorable than extraordinary, Larranaga is the star of the show this week. George Mason is the most improbable team in the Final Four in 20 years, and people can’t get enough of the Patriots. Or their coach. He’s a comedian. A resident philosopher. A one-man dance party. A symbol of all that is good in sport.

“A friend of ours said, ‘Jim’s kind of being eulogized and he didn’t have to die.’ It’s so true,” Larranaga’s wife, Liz, said Thursday. “When somebody dies, we say all these wonderful things about them. When they’re here, nobody says anything.

“How beautiful is this?” she added. “He’s so lucky right now. But he’s worked really hard for it.”

George Mason (27-7), the first 11th seed to reach the Final Four since LSU in 1986, plays third-seeded Florida (31-6) on Saturday night.

Aside from his family, friends and the true college hoops maniacs, few people knew who the 56-year-old Larranaga was until three weeks ago.

Though he has a .571 career winning percentage and was an assistant on both of Virginia’s Final Four teams, he’s not one of those coaches who chases every job that comes open with little regard for who he’s crushing along the way. He’s in his ninth season at George Mason and was at Bowling Green for 11 years before that.

And if not for a snub by the NCAA selection committee in 1997, he might still be in Ohio.

Bowling Green had won 22 games that year, its most in almost 50 years. The Falcons lost in the semifinals of the Mid-American Conference tournament, but Larranaga was certain they were still worthy of an at-large NCAA bid.

“We didn’t even get close,” Larranaga said. “I felt like I just needed to start over someplace that maybe had a little more commitment to basketball. George Mason ended up being that school.”

To most, it seemed like a lateral move. George Mason was a mid-major just like Bowling Green, a commuter school in Fairfax, Va., that was part of the Colonial Athletic Association. It was still reeling from its Paul Westhead experiment and was a distant fourth to Georgetown, Maryland and George Washington when it came to local interest.

But Larranaga believed he could turn George Mason into something special.

“We were in a geographic location where we could get involved with more players immediately because of the fertile ground for recruiting that Washington, D.C., Maryland, Northern Virginia is,” he said. “Our philosophy is to recruit locally and build a family atmosphere. We felt like we could do that far better at George Mason than we could at Bowling Green.”

Larranaga went 9-18 his first year at George Mason. He was welcomed so warmly, though, that Liz Larranaga said it didn’t seem like an ugly season.

“From the get-go, people embraced him,” she said. “They embraced his style, they embraced his values.”

Those values can be summed up in one sentence: Everything is a positive.

Instead of scowling or screaming when his players make mistakes, he claps. Yelling at people only makes them more uptight, he reasons. He comes up with corny motivational slogans — who will forget him saying CAA stood for Connecticut Assassin Association? — and he gets his players to believe in themselves by doing it himself.

And that talk about being a family? There’s a reason both of his sons chose to play for him.

“The idea is always to build a relationship between player and coach, simply because you spend so much time with each other trying to accomplish the same things. But this goes beyond that,” said Washington Wizards guard Antonio Daniels, who played for Larranaga at Bowling Green.

“I still speak with Coach every week, and I know how great of a person he is and how much he deserves everything he’s getting right now.”

When Tony Skinn, the team’s second-leading scorer, punched an opponent in the groin during the CAA tournament, Larranaga made the tough call to suspend him for a game — knowing it might be the first game of the NCAA tournament.

“He was mad at me a little bit,” Skinn said. “But he was the one who called me more than anyone else just to make sure I was fine.”

As everyone has discovered, Larranaga can coach, too.

Despite being smaller, shorter and less deep than everyone they played, the Patriots knocked off Michigan State and North Carolina the first weekend, then stunned Connecticut, the season-long favorite to win the title, to reach the Final Four. Together, those three schools won four of the last seven NCAA titles.

Now George Mason — George Mason! — and Larranaga are two games from winning it all.

“I don’t know if words can describe how I feel,” he said. “It’s not just about our basketball program. It’s about our university. It’s about our community. It’s about our region. It’s about people identifying with the idea of a group of young kids overachieving where everybody says you can’t do what you’re doing. And yet we have.”

React to this story:

0
0
0
0
0

Trending Video

Recommended for you