After Mason's Magical Ride, Larranaga Nails the Landing

By Mike Wise
Thursday, October 12, 2006

Michael Jordan invited him to coach at his fantasy camp in Las Vegas over the summer, and in a blink Jim Larranaga was sharing tee times with all the glitterati. Chuck Daly, Larry Brown, Lenny Wilkens, Lute Olson, John Thompson, Dean Smith. On Larranaga went with the roll call of Hall of Famers, which eventually begged a question:

Did he feel a part of that great fraternity, or merely the fortunate coach of the team that rocked the college basketball world by advancing to the Final Four last spring?

"I felt like this could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something I would always remember," he said.

Nothing changes in Fairfax.

ESPN can set up its tripods tomorrow for Midnight Madness, the christening moment for most of the nation's Division I college basketball teams. A Big East school in need such as Seton Hall can unsuccessfully court Larranaga about its opening. George Mason almost doubled his salary. And, because of last season's run, the kids Larranaga speaks to about coming to play for Mason no longer ask, dumbfounded, "Who?" and "Where?"

But at the core of the school's men's basketball team is the same coaching lifer who speaks in long soliloquies rather than editable sound bites, whose major daily alterations come at the campus dining facility, where Larranaga decides to order either the mashed potatoes or the rice with his usual baked chicken.

"Coach L?" said Folarin Campbell, the best of the 11 returning players from Mason's magical run last season. "Naw, he's the same. Nothin' different about him."

After he checked out of his suite at the Mirage in Las Vegas and after his wife, Liz, returned the golf cart in Kona, Hawaii -- after the schmoozing died at the ESPYs in Hollywood -- Jim Larranaga came back to suburban Virginia to coach his mid-major college basketball team.

People always forget that about the giant-killing business: David still had to go home and feed the sheep.

"I don't sleep much at all now," Larranaga said. "I'm normally doing e-mails till midnight and up at 4:30 or 5, going back on my e-mail. But for the most part, I've tried to maintain the same schedule and routine as before."

Of course, the reality is there are two college teams in America that cannot possibly do better than they did last season: Florida, which won the national championship, and George Mason, which turned a controversial at-large bid to the NCAA tournament into a reason for every school with towering dreams to be afforded the same opportunity.

Winning the Colonial Athletic Association is kind of anticlimactic after shocking U-Conn. to win an NCAA region final, no? Before that game, Larranaga pretended his hands were drawn six-shooters, plucked dramatically from his make-believe holster. "We're from the CAA," he said, pausing for effect while he blew on the barrels of his index fingers. "The Connecticut Assassins Association!"

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