On Basketball: Jim Larranaga’s legacy is Paul Hewitt’s burden
By John Feinstein,
After George Mason Athletic Director Tom O’Connor made the decision Friday to hire Paul Hewitt as his new basketball coach, he told his wife Barbara that the response he wanted when he told people was one word: “Wow.”
He got it. That said, once you get past the initial “wow,” there are some concerns. But many of them would come attached to anyone following Jim Larranaga at the school where he had become an icon.
On the one hand, Hewitt has a remarkable resume. He will be 48 on Wednesday (one year older than Larranaga when he arrived in 1997) and has won 255 games as a Division I head coach. He was only 40 when he took Georgia Tech to the national championship game seven years ago. What may have caught O’Connor’s eye at least as much, though, was his three-year record at Siena: 66-27.
Siena is not all that different from George Mason as a basketball school. It plays in a mid-major conference (the Metro Atlantic) that isn’t nearly as deep as the Colonial Athletic Association. Like the CAA, however, it has produced teams — Siena among them — that have gone to the NCAA tournament and produced early upsets.
O’Connor firmly believes that Mason is capable of continuing to play at the remarkable level Larranaga achieved. Clearly he believed Hewitt’s background at both the mid-major level and the ACC level, combined with his relative youth, was exactly what he was looking for.
That’s all good. You can throw this in too: Hewitt is never going to become the kind of cult figure Larranaga became at GMU because his personality is entirely different from Larranaga’s. He’s not going to high-five cheerleaders during player introductions or come up with sayings about being Kryptonite or being from the CAA — Connecticut Assassins Association.
That’s not him. But he’s a respected leader in the coaching community — a member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches board of directors — and someone who will have the instant respect of his new players because of the players he’s sent to the NBA (among them Chris Bosh) and because of his demeanor. Hewitt will never be as cuddly as Larranaga, but he will be well-liked.
Of course there’s always a “but” line when a coach is hired, and with Hewitt there are a few. He said himself when he was fired this past March by Georgia Tech that he had been given every possible opportunity to succeed. Tech only reached the NCAA tournament three times in seven years after its run to the final in 2004 and never advanced past the second round again. Last season was an embarrassing disaster: a 13-18 overall record and 5-11 in the ACC with attendance dropping like a stone.
Hewitt’s overall record at Tech was 189-160 — decent but not overwhelming at a school that can buy at least a half-dozen wins a year with guarantee games — and, less impressively, just 72-104 in ACC play. His only winning season in the ACC was 2004 when the Yellow Jackets were 9-7. There’s no doubt that winning in the ACC is never easy but, just for perspective, consider the record during those 11 seasons of Maryland’s Gary Williams, who has come under fire in recent years for winning too few conference games. Maryland was 103-73 — a difference of 31 victories. And, just to take it a step further, Duke was 133-43 during the same period.
Of course the unfairness in that comparison is that Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski is in the Hall of Fame and Williams should be someday soon. Hewitt’s a good coach with a solid record who has proven he can recruit big-time players. The issue for him at Tech was getting those players to be consistently productive. Watching Tech struggle during an ACC tournament game a couple of years back, former Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odom shook his head sympathetically.
“Believe it or not, there are times in this game when you can recruit too well,” Odom said. “You recruit the kind of players Paul has recruited and you find yourself dealing with a lot of outsiders. The kids have their heads on a swivel trying to decide who to listen to every single day.”
Those are not the kind of players that Larranaga built his program around and are not the kind Hewitt will be recruiting at Mason. Hewitt had five players drafted in the first round of the NBA draft while at Tech and has several others who have played in the league. No one who played for Larranaga at Mason was ever drafted, and none played in the NBA.
All of which means Hewitt is returning to where he began when he was the coach at Siena. He will face considerable pressure in his first season because the Patriots return four starters from a team that won 27 games and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. They are likely to be picked first preseason in the CAA and if they do not return to the tournament, the first person fingers will be pointed at will be the new coach.
That’s how the coaching game works. In perhaps no other sport is the coach given so much credit — or so much blame — as college basketball. Hewitt knows that and so does O’Connor. Larranaga set the bar very high and any drop off will be directly connected to his departure in the minds of Mason’s now considerable fan base.
One thing you can be sure about: Hewitt will win Monday’s press conference. He will be quietly charming and his subtle sense of humor will no doubt be on display. The players will say all the right things — and mean them — about how excited they are to have a coach who has been in the Final Four replacing the Final Four coach they lost 10 days ago.
The real test for Hewitt will be long term: building on Larranaga’s recruiting success and continuing to bring good players to Fairfax. That said, the scrutiny will begin as soon as the ball goes up in November. George Mason is in the preseason NIT. If it wins its opening game, it will play at Virginia Tech in the second round.
Hewitt’s last game at Georgia Tech was against Virginia Tech in the first round of the ACC tournament. The Hokies won, 59-43, and it wasn’t that close most of the night. Mason fans will expect the Patriots to be a lot more competitive than that under their new coach.
They will expect it that night and for a long time into the future. That’s Larranaga’s legacy. And Hewitt’s burden.