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George Mason hires Paul Hewitt as men’s basketball coach

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Paul Hewitt, who guided Georgia Tech for 11 seasons before being fired this spring, has been hired by George Mason to oversee a men’s basketball program shaken by the departure of Jim Larranaga just 10 days ago.

Hewitt, who agreed to a five-year contract, will be formally introduced at a news conference Monday afternoon in Fairfax.

Following Larranaga’s departure, George Mason Athletic Director Tom O’Connor said he spoke with numerous potential candidates before narrowing the list to six. He declined to name the others.

O’Connor reached out to Hewitt on Tuesday and invited him to campus Thursday for interviews with five other athletic department and university officials. After Hewitt met with George Mason President Alan Merten on Friday, a deal was struck. He is the ninth head coach in the program’s 44-year history.

“What impressed me the most was his teaching ability, and to me, there’s a difference between teaching and coaching because first you have to teach,” Athletic Director Tom O’Connor said Saturday. “Paul wowed us. He’s the right person for the program.”

O’Connor was familiar with Hewitt through interaction between the NCAA selection committee, on which O’Connor served, and the National Association of Basketball Coaches. (Hewitt is on the board of directors.) They also crossed paths when Georgia Tech and George Mason played one another at a tournament in Puerto Rico early in the 2009-10 season.

“I’ve seen him up close and personal,” O’Connor said. “I think the world of him as a coach and as a person.”

Hewitt, who didn’t return a phone message seeking comment, is the first black head coach in George Mason men’s basketball history. O’Connor informed the players of the hiring Saturday afternoon. They will meet Hewitt for the first time Sunday.

Hewitt replaces Larranaga, who left the Patriots after 14 seasons and five NCAA tournament appearances to accept an offer at Miami, which, like Georgia Tech, competes in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Hewitt, who turns 48 next week, had a 189-160 record at Georgia Tech and guided the Yellow Jackets to five NCAA appearances. In 2004, as a No. 3 seed, Tech lost to Connecticut in the national championship game.

His record in the ACC, however, was 72-104. His teams finished above .500 in league play just once and never won a regular season or ACC tournament title.

This past season, the Yellow Jackets were 13-18 overall and 5-11 in the ACC, tied for 10th place. They lost to Virginia Tech in the first round of the conference tournament. Average attendance slipped to about 6,100, third lowest in the elite league.

“They’ve been more than fair to me,” Hewitt said upon his dismissal at Georgia Tech. “I had my chances.”

As part of the separation, Hewitt accepted a buyout of more than $7 million. Now that he’s employed again, the amount owed him by Georgia Tech is expected to shrink. In March, Dayton’s Brian Gregory succeeded Hewitt in Atlanta.

Terms of Hewitt’s deal with George Mason were not disclosed. Larranaga’s base salary was $525,000, and when the university attempted to retain him this spring, the package was worth almost $1 million, if all incentives were reached.

Before coaching Georgia Tech, Hewitt led Siena to a 66-27 record in three years. He also served as an assistant at Southern California, Fordham and Villanova.

At George Mason, Hewitt inherits a team that, in 2010-11, enjoyed the best regular season in program history, won a school-record 16 games and finished first in the Colonial Athletic Association.

After earning an NCAA at-large berth and No. 8 seed, the Patriots used a stirring comeback in the final two minutes to defeat Villanova before losing to top-seeded Ohio State. Their 27 victories matched the program high mark, set by the 2006 Final Four squad.

With four starters and several key reserves returning, the Patriots are the early favorites in the CAA next season. One of Hewitt’s top priorities is filling out his staff; Larranaga’s three assistants followed him to Miami.

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