Coach Is No. l With the Neighbors

Wes Lincoln watches Connor Anderson go up for the shot at Lincoln's home next door to GMU Coach Jim Larranaga.
Wes Lincoln watches Connor Anderson go up for the shot at Lincoln's home next door to GMU Coach Jim Larranaga. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006

The children who live on Wheatland Farms Drive in Oakton all know the nice man who lives in the red-brick house on the hill.

He gives them T-shirts and rides to summer camp, entertaining them en route with trivia quizzes on geography and sports. He hands out free tickets to basketball games and makes sure they get into the players' locker room. He lets them skateboard down his long, sloped driveway.

"Coach L" is their breezy nickname for Jim Larranaga. The coach of George Mason University's basketball team is their neighbor, gracing them with one degree of separation that has made them the envy of their classmates, especially this week.

"The kids all say I'm so lucky," said Wes Lincoln, 13, wearing the NCAA tournament T-shirt that he had his next-door neighbor autograph the morning after the win over the University of Connecticut that vaulted the team into the Final Four. "It's awesome living next door to him, because he's famous."

The children are not the only ones energized by the thrill of proximity on the wide street of spacious houses in Fairfax County where Larranaga lives with his wife, Liz. Residents who have attended block parties with the couple and watched basketball players troop in for dinner at the Larranaga house are as caught up in the hoopla as any Mason alumnus.

Almost every mailbox is festooned with yellow and green balloons. Congratulatory posters have been erected on the Larranagas' front lawn and doorway. The neighbor known for his elaborate Christmas displays has rigged a spotlight to shine on the posters so they are visible through the night. Children have marched up and down the block banging pots and pans after Mason victories and have chalked the words "We love you Coach Larranaga" on his driveway.

Now, the big neighborhood dilemma is what to do tomorrow night when a long-planned progressive dinner is scheduled at the same time as Mason's national semifinal game with the University of Florida. Already, husbands have told their wives to call around and make sure the hosts intend to have their televisions turned to the game, or they aren't going.

Residents who have known the Larranagas since the family moved into the neighborhood in 1998 say their excitement is born of their affection for a generous and kind couple.

"We thought Jim was a champion from the day he moved in," said Wendy Lincoln, who goes on a walk every morning with Liz Larranaga. "It's not because they're in the Final Four. He's a superstar because of the person he is. We're thrilled because we love Jim and Liz. They're great people."

Larranaga's neighbors say that when they tell people that they live near him, they are invariably asked one question: What's he really like?

"I always say he's just like you see on TV," said neighbor Rebecca Jarmas. "He's gentle. He's a quiet, caring man."

Mostly, he is known for his generosity. Virtually every child on the block has a George Mason or NCAA shirt from him, complete with his autograph on the back. They wore them, like so many uniforms, to school this week.

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