Larranaga has Miami ready to dance
Jim Larranaga was in the Miami locker room before a game during this regular season, talking about the importance of defense, when he decided words were not going to be enough to illustrate his point.
So the 63-year-old, two-time-hip-replacement-patient, white-haired, suit-wearing man fell backward like he was taking a charge, then started shouting.
"When you see that," said senior guard Durand Scott, "you want to run through a wall for this guy."
The wall had no chance. Larranaga's team went out, fully energized, and beat North Carolina by 26.
Larranaga has taken charge of what not long ago looked like a wayward Hurricane program - leading Miami to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship, a 27-6 record, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and quite possibly putting a school that hadn't been to the men's version of the Big Dance since 2008 in position to win a national title.
Miami plays Pacific (22-12) in Austin, Texas on Friday. So on Monday, other than consenting to about a dozen media interviews, Larranaga tried to rest.
"We've got to turn the page," Larranaga said Monday. "When non-conference season was over, we turned the page. Regular season over, turn the page. ACC tournament is over, turn the page. One does not have anything to do with the next. They're all separate events and we need our guys to get some rest, because it was a long, grueling tournament."
Larranaga and the Hurricanes made getting out of that ACC tournament look easy.
Not bad for a guy who, when he decided to pursue the Miami job two years ago, was absolutely convinced he had zero chance of being hired.
"He's a great teacher," Miami President Donna Shalala told The Associated Press. "When you get right down to it, in higher education, there are a handful of really great teachers. Sometimes they're in chemistry, sometimes they're in English, and sometimes they're the basketball coach.
"When we heard he wanted the job, I thought this was an opportunity of a lifetime for the University of Miami."
She might have been right.
At a time when the athletic department has been rocked by a scandal involving a former booster who prompted a long and still-unresolved NCAA investigation - over things that occurred long before Larranaga arrived - this men's basketball season has clearly been a ray of light in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes' arena was sold out for many games, bringing Shalala to tears at least once. A pair of ACC titles will be commemorated by banners. The team seems to be an in-vogue pick to win it all.
And whether he wants it or not, Larranaga - a likely national coach of the year candidate - is getting much of the credit.
That's why, when the bus carrying the ACC champions arrived back on campus Sunday night, outside the on-campus arena and practice facility that Miami built a few years apart, Larranaga was the first to exit and start giving hundreds of high-fives to delirious, screaming fans. Players waited about a minute before joining the celebration.
"That was his moment," said senior forward-center Kenny Kadji, who carried the trophy off the bus. "That was for him."
Best known for leading George Mason to the Final Four in 2006, Larranaga was a hire at Miami that raised some eyebrows after Frank Haith left for Missouri in 2011.
He arrived with the school very much in a transitional phase, with a change imminent in the athletic director's office, the news of the NCAA scandal about to hit and only a few months after Al Golden was hired to lead the football program. By the time Larranaga even registered a blip on Miami's potential-hire list, the Hurricanes had interviewed five other people and the consensus pick was that Frank Martin - a Miami native - would get the job.
Then Larranaga got a phone call, telling him that Martin would not be Miami's guy and urging him to fly to Boston and meet with Miami's hiring committee. Larranaga took the trip, believing Tommy Amaker would be the eventual Hurricanes coach. His interview lasted only an hour, cut short by the news that Miami had hired Shawn Eichorst as athletic director and that he would take over the lead role on the basketball search.
"I told my wife, I got a token interview," Larranaga said.
Eichorst and Larranaga eventually spoke briefly. Eight days passed before they spoke again - when Eichorst offered the job.
"We're not perfect, but he brings the best out of everybody," Scott said. "He's the one that did it. He came here and told everybody their role, everybody plays their role and everybody's fine with it. When you're winning, everybody's happy."
With all his success, Larranaga has never lost sight of who he is and where he's from.
As a kid who spent 50 cents a day on the 10 Reese's peanut butter cups that served as his lunch, Larranaga played for the legendary Jack Curran at Archbishop Malloy High in New York. Curran died last week, just days before Miami began play in the ACC tournament. Even with a trip to the NCAAs looming - accompanied by endless hours of preparation for an opponent he and his staff knew little about when the pairings were revealed - Larranaga will fly to New York on Tuesday for the services for his mentor, then quickly return home without even interrupting the Hurricanes' practice schedule.
"He was like my best friend throughout my life," Larranaga said. "Losing him on Wednesday was very sad for me. But I said to him, 'I'm going to do everything I can to help my team win this ACC tournament in your honor.' And he helped me stay calm throughout the weekend."
It wasn't just that weekend. Players have noticed it all year.
"It was very important and it trickles throughout the team," senior Julian Gamble said. "He's our leader. Throughout the chaos, he stayed even-keeled and told us to keep having fun. You have to control the things you can control, and truth is, there are very few of them."
Some symmetry might be at play for Miami in this tournament. George Mason earned its Final Four ticket by winning two games at the Verizon Center in Washington. If the Hurricanes win two games in Austin, they'll be heading to that very same arena, with a chance to get Larranaga - who still has plenty of friends and fans in that area - back to the national semifinals.
Players speak about it openly: Naturally, they want the title, but when pressed to identify a top reason why they want to win, they say for Larranaga.
"Magical seasons don't happen very often," Shalala said. "The great thing about sports is you get the unexpected. You don't get that in many other professions because you sort of build up to it and see it coming. But in sports, on any given day, in any given year, something extraordinary can happen. And that's what happened at the University of Miami."
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