Larranaga Is Loving Life

"People make him happy," former George Mason assistant Bill Courtney said of Patriots Coach Jim Larranaga, above. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006

Before the George Mason basketball team departed for Dayton, Ohio, last week, Coach Jim Larranaga delivered one of his "Thoughts of the Day," promising his players he would have more fun than any other coach in this NCAA tournament. After the Patriots completed their shocking weekend with a win over North Carolina, Larranaga performed a 56-year-old coach's take on the "Running Man" dance in the locker room.

"The moves he was doing, I have never seen," point guard Folarin Campbell said. "I've never seen a coach this happy."

As the Patriots became national media darlings this week, Larranaga fulfilled dozens of interview requests, starting early each morning and continuing all day. Tuesday night, the last reporter asked the last question sometime after 7 p.m. Larranaga, dressed in a heavy gray George Mason sweat suit, turned eagerly to one of the school's besieged public relations staffers.

"What's next?" he asked.

The Patriots' march to the round of 16 has all the elements of a heartwarming, made-for-television classic. George Mason's roster is filled with local kids who, tomorrow night, will play the biggest game of their lives in their hometown arena. It's a team whose second-leading scorer was suspended one game for an on-court punch, but whose teammates then won without him, offering a chance for redemption. It's a team whose invitation to the NCAA tournament angered defenders of college basketball's elite, arguments rendered foolish after the Patriots knocked out two of the last six national champions in one weekend. And it's a team whose coach could not be better suited to this moment, a coach who might as well be helping waitresses hang up touching photographs at the neighborhood Applebee's while his wife of 34 years sits in a nearby booth and smiles.

"There's a lot of people that feel like I do, that feel like Jim Larranaga is their friend, not just a coach," said Brion Sumser, whose restaurant, Brion's Grille, is that restaurant commercial, hosting the Patriots' coaching staff after home games in an establishment packed with George Mason memorabilia. "I can think of 100 cases where he's gone and spoken to elementary schools, civic groups, anybody who will ask him. It's not about fees; it's not about anything like that. It's that he believes bringing the community together will eventually result in something like this."

Which is why the flourishes from this particular script seem like they were crafted for a movie about a Division III school in some heartland burg, not a suburban Division I campus just outside the Beltway. When the Larranaga family arrived in Fairfax nine years ago, wife Liz told her realtor that their house needed to be no more than 15 minutes from campus, so the boys on the team could come over to play pool and Ping-Pong in the family's green-carpeted basement. When Larranaga's team was once trapped in the Newark Airport during a blizzard, he encouraged them to turn the deserted concourse into a baseball diamond, and so a ball was created out of athletic tape and the other stranded passengers clapped and cheered. When students this week began camping out for tickets to tomorrow's game, a sign appeared bearing the words "Camp Larranaga," and the coach stopped by periodically to drop off provisions, shake hands and pose for photos.

"It's not like they're putting on a show or anything," said oldest son Jay Larranaga, who played for his father at Bowling Green. "That's how he is as a coach and how he wants his players to be -- just to have a good time, just trying to enjoy every minute of your life."

Larranaga is the sort of man who still relishes regular visits from his high school coach, Jack Curran. Larranaga doesn't curse, because he's never heard Curran curse. Curran, who is in his 48th season coaching basketball and baseball at Archbishop Molloy in Queens, declined an invitation to tomorrow's game so as not to miss two high school baseball games this weekend. "Ambitious? I don't know if that's the right word," Curran said, when asked about his former pupil. "He just was always hard-working, you know? Committed. Working to be as good as he can be."

Larranaga is the sort of man whose interview process for potential assistants might include a pickup basketball game and a trip to the movies. He is incredibly devoted to his family, and so he didn't hire former assistant Bill Courtney until the two men had been throttled in a two-on-two game by Larranaga's two sons. ("He preaches defense, but he don't play none," Courtney noted.) He is an avid movie buff, buying several hundred dollars worth of tickets at a time, and so Courtney's interview also included a trip to the theater. They saw "The Fan."

"It was the worst movie of all time," Courtney said.

But the men enjoyed each other's company, and Courtney got the job. Larranaga later told recruits he hired Courtney because he liked his personality.

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