Miami Coach Jim Larranaga reacts to a call during the second half against… (Chuck Burton/AP )
The University of Miami basketball team’s rise in Coach Jim Larranaga’s second season has been acknowledged in the polls and remarked upon with amazement by national commentators. But to those who know Larranaga best, it also has had an air of familiarity.
Longwood Coach Mike Gillian, a member of Larranaga’s first staff at George Mason, has watched the Hurricanes’ success from the Farmville, Va., campus and has seen echoes of what first put Larranaga on the national stage seven years ago.
“Go look at the game against U-Conn.,” Gillian said, referencing George Mason’s victory over the Huskies in the regional final of the 2006 NCAA tournament. “What they ran on offense, they did it over and over again in the second half, and especially in overtime. If you watch Miami right now, primarily on offense is what they did in that game at the Verizon Center.
“But the guys that succeed at different places, for extended periods of time, there’s a reason why they did that. If they could, they would bottle it up and sell that.”
Larranaga, 63, is ditching the Cinderella role this time around. The fifth-ranked Hurricanes (23-4 overall, 14-1 ACC) are in line to earn a No. 1 seed in next month’s tournament, especially if they beat No. 3 Duke for the second time this season in a nationally televised rematch Saturday.
His approach, though, hasn’t changed much from his 14 seasons at George Mason, right down to the plays he used to lead an unheralded group from the Washington area to the Final Four.
“This is the way we’ve done it, and we’re gonna continue to do it a certain way,” Larranaga said. “But I wondered if this would work at the highest level.”
The transition to Coral Gables, Fla., has been anything but smooth. Four months after leaving Fairfax, Larranaga found himself embroiled in an NCAA investigation he and his staff had nothing to do with. Before his second season began, Larranaga watched the athletic director who hired him, Shawn Eichorst, jump ship and leave for Nebraska.
He also discovered a budget that, aside from recruiting expenses, was actually smaller than the one he managed at George Mason.
The off-court turmoil has hurt recruiting, Larranaga acknowledged, and it forced several players to sit out games last season, when Miami finished with the most conference wins in school history (nine) but fell just short of earning an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament.
“A lot of coaches would’ve let that destroy their attitude,” said Bob Rotella, a sports psychologist who works with Miami and one of Larranaga’s longtime confidantes.
Rotella remembers home games last season when the Hurricanes attracted no more than 1,500 fans. Each time, Larranaga would assure him, “Well, it’s not gonna be that way long.”
To manufacture excitement at Miami, where even the school’s high-profile football team can struggle to draw crowds amid a plethora of pro sports and entertainment options, Larranaga took a familiar “door-to-door” approach.
He sold the program whenever asked, whether it meant dinners with Miami’s wealthiest donors, speeches to the Greek system or helping out at Dwyane Wade’s fantasy basketball camp. He had the team spend nights “dorm storming,” handing out pizza and chicken wings to students. He started a youth clinic similar to the one he had in Fairfax. He laid awake in bed texting recruits until 1:30 in the morning. He has yet to turn down an interview request.
The BankUnited Center, meantime, has been sold out for four of the past six home games and students have begun lining up outside on “Larranaga’s Lawn” to get inside the building. Wade and fellow Miami Heat star LeBron James even sat courtside for a game earlier this month.
“If you go two miles east of here, homes are 10, 15 million dollars, and he’s very comfortable in those settings. Yet he’s very comfortable amongst every-day folk,” said Miami assistant Chris Caputo, who also worked under Larranaga for nine years at George Mason. “It was like hand-to-hand combat and a lot of it was similar [to George Mason], just in terms of building a love affair between the community and the basketball program.”
‘He can relate to anybody’
Larranaga loves numbers. He looks up the efficiency-based ratings at KenPom.com on his cellphone every day. He considers it more accurate than any of the national polls that have fallen in love with the Hurricanes this season, a way to determine exactly what he should be working on in practice.
It’s also how Larranaga introduced himself to Miami basketball in April 2011. In a small room of players who knew little about him other than his role in George Mason’s Final Four run, Larranaga went about persuading them his way was the right way.