Jim Larranaga leaving George Mason to become Miami’s coach

Correction: An earlier version of this article said George Mason University assistant basketball coach Chris Caputo has interviewed for jobs at the universities of Kentucky and Florida. Caputo has interviewed at Louisville and Florida, according to a source. This version has been corrected.

Jim Larranaga, who led the George Mason men’s basketball program to national prominence with a stirring run to the Final Four in 2006, resigned from the Fairfax school Friday to become the head coach at the University of Miami.

The move ended a 14-year association with the Patriots, during which he transformed a backwater program into the envy of mid-level teams around the country and inspired underdogs in an array of sports.

At Miami, an ACC school where football overshadows basketball, he replaces Frank Haith, who was hired earlier this month by Missouri.

“It’s a challenge for me, but something that excites me very much,” Larranaga said Friday evening at an introductory news conference in Miami. “It’s the last piece in a coaching career to finalize what I am all about.”

Said Miami Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst, “Jim is a man of great character who will be a first-class ambassador for the University of Miami.”

Under Larranaga’s leadership, the Patriots had a 273-164 record, won three Colonial Athletic Association titles and advanced to five NCAA tournaments. This past season, they tied the program record for victories (27) and set the mark for consecutive wins (16).

“The last 14 years of my life have been absolutely wonderful,” Larranaga said.

After passing on offers from bigger programs in recent years — including Providence, his alma mater, in 2008 — Larranaga, 61, seemed certain to end his career on the burgeoning suburban campus. But George Mason couldn’t match an offer — reportedly more than $1 million in base salary per year — from Miami, which competes in the elite ACC.

“One of the things that kept coming back in my mind was I’d love to coach in the ACC,” Larranaga said, adding that his family’s ties to the state of Florida — he owns a home in Lakewood Ranch, near Sarasota, his father was born in Key West and his grandfather came to Florida from Cuba — were a major reason he decided to take the Miami job.

George Mason’s proposal would have placed him among the five top-paid coaches in the mid-major category, Athletic Director Tom O’Connor said. “The university was very open to making sure that we could do the best that we could do, and then it was Jim’s decision whether to accept it,” he said.

Larranaga’s contract with George Mason was to run through the 2015-16 season. In the spring of 2008, he received an extension that increased his base salary to $525,000. The deal was extended again last year. Under his arrangement, Larranaga would incur no financial penalty if he resigned between the end of the season and July 15.

After meeting a number of incentives, Larranaga made around $700,000 in salary this past season, and O’Connor said Friday that the school would have been able to pay Larranaga about $1 million next season if all incentives were met.

Another apparent sticking point was compensation for Larranaga’s three assistants and support staff. O’Connor said that, about 10 days ago, the university approved new salaries for them. Larranaga has asked Chris Caputo, Michael Huger and Eric Konkol, as well as support staff, to join him at Miami. Caputo interviewed for jobs at Louisville and Florida, and Huger spoke with Villanova, a source said.

According to individuals close to the program, there were other key factors, among them school president Alan G. Merten’s decision to retire next year and Larranaga’s relationship with O’Connor.

Larranaga and Merten had become close friends, having arrived at the university within a year of one another. Merten was a strong supporter of the program, attended games and led cheers from his courtside seat. Larranaga said Friday night that his relationship with Merten was “one of the great joys I’ve had.”

The rapport between Larranaga and O’Connor wasn’t as warm. “The relationship wasn’t good, and everyone knew it,” said one individual close to the program, who didn’t want to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the situation.

Asked about the relationship, O’Connor said, “I thought it was great.” He referenced their long association, dating back to when they were college opponents, and to last summer’s team trip to Italy.

Larranaga also asked for upgrades to the school’s athletic facilities, but because of budget constraints, the university didn’t follow through. Talks between Larranaga and O’Connor at times were contentious, sources said.

“It’s not about the money,” one source said, referring to Larranaga’s contract. “It’s about showing a little love.”

Larranaga has previous experience in the ACC as an assistant at Virginia from 1979 to 1986. He helped the Cavaliers to Final Four berths in 1981 and 1984.

At Patriot Center on Friday, while Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey was performing an afternoon show, Larranaga met with many George Mason players in the locker room. Afterward, he flew to Miami for his introductory news conference. O’Connor met with the players separately.

“I wasn’t surprised [Larranaga was leaving] because he’s been doing a good job for a lot of years,” junior forward Mike Morrison said. “Everybody understands he had to do what he had to do; it’s part of the coaching game.

“We're going to miss him, but we're moving forward and hoping to keep it going next season.”

The search for a replacement will begin right away and span the country, O’Connor said. “We want to do it as quickly as possible, but as thoroughly as possible,” he said.

Bill Diamond, an assistant coach at St. Benedict’s High in New Jersey, said O’Connor told him he hoped to have a new coach hired “in the next few weeks.” Vaughn Gray, who has signed a letter-of-intent to play at George Mason, attends St. Benedict’s. Diamond said Gray will wait to see who the next coach is before making a decision about whether to ask for a release from his letter-of-intent.

Cornell Coach Bill Courtney, who was an assistant to Larranaga from 1997 to 2005, is a possible candidate. He helped recruit a number of the players who led George Mason to the Final Four. Courtney also has been an assistant at Virginia, Virginia Tech and Providence.

However, an individual with knowledge of the situation does not believe anyone from the Larranaga family of coaches would be considered.

Another possibility is Vermont Coach Mike Lonergan, a former assistant at Maryland and former head coach at Catholic, where he led the Cardinals to the 2001 Division III title. Lonergan is from the Washington area.

American Coach Jeff Jones and Virginia Commonwealth assistant Mike Rhoades are also seen by some as possible candidates.

With just two seniors departing — leading scorer Cam Long and sixth man Isaiah Tate — George Mason is expected to be the CAA’s preseason favorite next season. Returning players include forwards Morrison and Ryan Pearson, guards Luke Hancock and Andre Cornelius, top reserves Vertrail Vaughns and Johnny Williams, and sophomore guard Sherrod Wright, who missed this season with a shoulder injury.

“Out there in the hinterlands of the coaching fraternity, we are a hot commodity and people are going to be very interested in our program,” O’Connor said. “It’s because of what Jim Larranaga did, quite frankly.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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