“I would have loved for it to have been smoother, for the circumstances to have been a little more comfortable for me and my family,” Larranaga said from behind the desk in his new office, whose shelves and coffee table are bedecked with a host of photos from his days at George Mason. “It got more complicated than I would have liked.”
What was complicated? Better question: What wasn’t? Nothing about his departure from Fairfax, or arrival in Miami, went smoothly. Five months after he agreed to lead the Hurricanes, the NCAA’s investigation of allegations that a jailed former booster gave improper benefits to football players and coaches at Miami — and to current basketball reserve player DeQuan Jones — became public. Larranaga, who had known nothing about the probe when he accepted the job, found the task of competing with the ACC’s powerhouse schools for recruits more trying than he imagined.
“For the players, it’s business as usual,” Larranaga said. “For the coaching staff and I, it’s a little more complicated. I get questions all the time, and quite frankly, I just don’t have any answers now. It’s definitely impacted our recruiting. . . . Are some students eliminating us because of concerns? The answer to that is yes. But we then just have to beat the bushes harder.
“It certainly complicates my job. It wasn’t what I was anticipating, but I can’t look in the rearview mirror. I have to look straight ahead. The best way is to continue in the direction I planned on going.”
Other setbacks came on the court: losing star center Reggie Johnson to a knee injury in June that will keep him out until December or January, and forward-center Julian Gamble for the year because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Larranaga said he has tried to respond by leaning on sound work habits honed over 27 years as a head coach, with 11 at Bowling Green before he joined George Mason in 1997 and kicked off 13 straight winning seasons.
“The last few months have been about injuries,” Larranaga said. “It’s frustrating that not everyone is out there every day. [Actually] I wouldn’t use the word frustrating; I’d just like them to be there.”
To cope, Larranaga has schooled his players about the importance of planning and being proactive, instructing them on “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by self-help author Steven R. Covey.
He’s also sought to form friendly ties throughout the campus, local community and state of Florida. He figures more excitement about a team usually dwarfed regionally by the NFL, college football and the NBA will help create a winning environment. He and the trio of assistants he brought from George Mason, Eric Konkol, Michael Huger and Chris Caputo, looked outward as much as inside the roster when they first arrived, sending out about 1,000 e-mails a day three or four days a week.
The e-mail blasts usually contained inspiring thoughts or other messages designed to connect with potential allies and community figures in a personal way. Miami, which finished 21-14 last year and missed an NCAA tournament bid, averaged just 4,763 fans a game. During his tenure at George Mason, attendance at men’s basketball games grew from around 3,000 fans per game to nearly 6,000.
Larranaga knew a priority would be shaking hands and making himself known. Indeed, he believed he was an afterthought in the minds of Miami’s decision-makers when a replacement for former coach Frank Haith was sought. Larranaga believes he drummed up interest by calling upon longtime friends and associates to speak on his behalf.
What puzzled and disturbed him, he said, was feeling like an afterthought at his own university.
“I guess what I had anticipated was George Mason, having been through 14 years of my leadership, I’d been there the entire time, that they would have responded immediately to any overture from another school,” Larranaga said. “By that not happening, it allowed the process with Miami to develop more and more. When Miami made the offer, I was ready to make the decision to go.”
George Mason Athletic Director Tom O’Connor disputes the assertion that there was anything slow about the school’s response. O’Connor claimed he had to wait on Larranaga’s own lawyer, but yet pushed the process of getting raises and contract extensions for Larranaga — who last year earned $525,000 — and his assistant coaches as fast as he could get approval from above his head.
“I wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing,” O’Connor said. “Everyone wanted Jim to stay.”
Larranaga said he considered the decision from every angle, professional and personal. He had grandchildren in the Washington area, but three siblings in Florida. What proved decisive was the list of goals he had kept for years, checking them off one by one. He’d ticked off “advancing to the Final Four” via George Mason’s improbable run in 2006, leaving only two big ones: Win a national championship. Coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where he had spent seven years as an assistant with Virginia from 1979-86.
“Being a head coach in the ACC has been on the list since 1986,” he said. “it’s something that has always been in the back of my mind. It’s something that I wondered if I would ever get a chance to do.”
To Larranaga, the ACC represents the top of the college basketball mountain. And even though Miami was coming off a disappointing season, he believed the conference’s financial security, long tradition and the school’s location would help him reach his primary goal, winning a national title, earlier than he could do it at George Mason.
Still, one question nagged him and his wife, Liz, he said: “Were we willing to give up the joy and happiness we had? I loved every minute of it at George Mason.”
Larranaga brushed away a question about whether he would consider trying to get out of his contract should Miami get hit with NCAA sanctions; he said his only contract “option” was to win. That, of course, is what he did — against seemingly all odds — at George Mason.
“That’s something my wife says to me,” Larranaga said. “Can we do it all again?”