Jim Larranaga’s departure for Miami means no storybook ending at George Mason

Mike Wise
Columnist April 23, 2011

I know it’s just another coach who left because he had a chance to make more money and ply his trade in a more prestigious conference. I understand Jim Larranaga is 61, unfailingly loyal to everyone around him, and this is likely his last opportunity to cash in as a basketball lifer after having said no to the millions his alma mater and other schools tried to tempt him with for years.

But why does it feel like Gene Hackman is leaving Hickory High to take over UNLV today?

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Why, less than 24 hours after Larranaga bid adieu to the Fairfax campus where we all figured he would retire gracefully at, oh, 70, and took a more prominent job at The U., does his parting feel so awkward, so out of place?

Coach L. to South Beach? That’s like Tom Brokaw to “Entertainment Tonight” or Mister Rogers bolting PBS for MTV. It doesn’t feel right.

Larranaga was George Mason University, right down to the plate of meat loaf, mashers and peas and carrots he devoured in front of me at the school’s food court four years ago. Perpetually upbeat, thoughtful (okay, and a tad long-winded), Larranaga seemed so unaffected by the unseemliness that became his business over the past two decades.

He didn’t promise money or minutes. He didn’t politic for the next big job. He simply got his kids to believe in old-fangled notions of teamwork and unselfishness, employing the occasional goofy quote to ease the tension before a big game.

(Who can forget Larranaga pulling his index fingers from his pockets before Mason shocked U-Conn., miming a cowboy about to draw his pistols? He told his Colonial Athletic Association team they were from the “CAA — the Connecticut Assassin’s Association.” Five years later, as corny as it is, the scene is part of his comforting legend.)

Larranaga seemed to come from another time, when gym teachers taught their particular athletic discipline with the goal of building a young man’s character and confidence — not so the teacher could merely win games and keep his job.

And now he’s gone, off to an ACC school for more money, an East Coast snowbird heading to the warm climes of Miami.

Coach L., coming soon to the Land of LeBron and Riles. From Mr. Mason Miracle to Tony Montana, just like that. First, ’choo get the money. Then ’choo get the power. Then ’choo get the players.

(I actually used the “Scarface” and “Hoosiers” references out of respect for a great movie buff like Larranaga.)

There’s a saying that goes “Don’t mess with happiness,” no matter how much someone is offering you to leave your current job and life. It’s why Larranaga remained at George Mason three years ago instead of leaving for the millions his alma mater, Providence, was offering to coach the Friars in the Big East.

If we’re being honest, it’s also why he left the Fairfax campus everyone thought he would retire from.

The dirty little secret came out over the weekend, when the simmering feud between Athletic Director Tom O’Connor and Larranaga emerged; Coach L. wasn’t happy.

People will say it was about money; no, it was about respect. And in this case, money just happened to equal respect. Bless Shaka Smart for leveraging another job and a Final Four run into an annual $1.2 million at Virginia Commonwealth, but if you’re Larranaga, whose base salary was less than half that, here’s what you have every right to feel and think:

Mason could’ve done more.

Did you know VCU is spreading $150,000 among Smart’s three assistant coaches, who already make about $300,000 between them, because they understand what it takes to keep their young, hot coach to stay in Richmond?

Yes, VCU messed up the economics for mid-major programs, not just in the CAA. Some of its moves may reverberate nationally. Tough. As much as Smart deserved what he got, you have to find a way for Larranaga, who spent 14 years putting new wings on your classroom buildings by filling the gym each winter and indelibly putting George Mason on the map five years ago.

You can’t put a price on that, still, the school needed to try harder.

I hate losing Larranaga for another reason; He is the “Where’s Waldo” of college basketball, a part of some of the game’s iconic moments.

One of the great ironies of Mason’s upset of Connecticut in 2006 was that Larranaga was once on the other side of college basketball’s biggest upset ever — Chaminade over Virginia in 1982, the night a hamlet of an NAIA school nestled in the hills of Honolulu floored the nation by beating the top-ranked Cavaliers and their NBA-bound center Ralph Sampson.

He knew of the utter dejection of being part of a staff that had no business losing to a tiny program. And 25 years later, he would feel the ecstasy of being on the winning end for a Little Team That Could.

If Coach L. was ever going to take another job, I always figured it would be coaching at the Palestra or Indiana’s Assembly Hall or some other shrine in the college game — not Coral Gables, Fla.

But that’s where most New Yorkers end up for winters now. The Land of the Early Bird Special. The Land of LeBron and Riles.

I’m happy for him, finally getting to coach against Gary and Coach K. and Roy and all those big names in the twilight of his career, earning money he probably should have been receiving years ago.

But somehow, it just feels like Coach Norman Dale was asked to take over for Jerry Tarkanian on the other side of the globe, in a fast world where people like Jim Larranaga seem misplaced.

In the movie, he was supposed to stay at George Mason.

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