Selection Sunday is over, and the University of Miami ended the day with a No. 2 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which ties the record for highest seed in the Miami Hurricane’s history. On Sunday, the school — known far more for its football team than its hoops squad — won its very first ACC championship. And as March Madness heats up this week, some bracketologists are betting the Canes could make the Final Four, which would be a first for the team.
What changed? The team has some key players, of course — point guard Shane Larkin being the most critical. But many are looking to the Hurricanes’ 63-year-old coach, Jim Larranaga, as the man behind the team’s success. It’s just the second season for Larranaga, who formerly coached at George Mason University, and he inherited a Miami program that had its share of distractions. Yet with a mix of management changes, extreme organizational focus on details, and a belief in coaching the players he has, Larranaga seems to have turned the team around.
One of the smartest things Larranaga did when moving from George Mason, where he led the mid-market team to the Final Four in a surprising run, was to take his coaching staff with him. The move itself is not that unconventional, but the roles he gave them are. According to the Miami Herald, Larranaga sets up his staff differently than other teams, which typically have assistants that each coach different positions and rotate through the scouting responsibilities.
Larranaga, meanwhile, has an offensive coordinator, a defensive coordinator and a master scout, in order to keep communication with players and messaging about potential recruits uniform. Such a setup also provides for a highly integrated coaching style that gives the team’s leaders a greater view into the skills and weaknesses of more players.
The Bronx, N.Y. native is also a voracious consumer of management books. The New York Times writes he “would seem right at home at a TED conference, exchanging innovative management ideas.” His favorite: Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” which he appears to quote from relentlessly. He’s a devotee not only of the guru’s ideas but of the FranklinCovey daily planners that bear his name. In his office, Larranaga keeps two decades’ worth of the binders carefully tracking every goal, every practice and every appointment.
That kind of meticulousness carries over into the way he coaches the team, relying heavily on numbers to guide his thinking. He uses stats-driven Internet sites to track each player down to each possession, using that data to help him coach. His defense-driven style instructs his players to limit opponents to 12 points per position. He breaks down practices into minute-by-minute increments that players say are so strategic and organized that they’re able to guess what their opponents will do once it’s time for the game.
But perhaps the biggest reason for Larranaga’s success is the confidence he has in the players on his team. He borrows the “train it and trust it” philosophy from golf, putting all his focus on practice and then letting his players execute on their own during the game, rather than trying to over-manage from the sidelines. Hit with recruiting challenges following an NCAA ethics investigation into events at Miami that pre-dated his arrival, Larranaga has chosen not to start over with a new recruiting class. Rather, he’s focused on the players he’s got, ten of whom are seniors or juniors. As senior Julian Gamble told the Washington Post’s Mark Giannotto recently, “He has a lot of confidence in us. Probably more confidence than we have in ourselves sometimes.”
Who knows if Miami could win it all — there are plenty of reasons that might not be in the cards this year. The quality of their coach, however, isn’t likely to be one of them.