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A Coach Finds Himself Where His Dreams Came True

By John Feinstein
Friday, April 4, 2008

SAN ANTONIO Jim Larranaga has always been someone who writes things down: goals, plans, things to remember, statistics, memorable things he has heard people say.

It was, he believes, at least 25 years ago that he wrote this down: "I want to be the head coach at Providence College someday."

At the time, he was an assistant coach under Terry Holland at Virginia. He had played under Dave Gavitt at Providence, graduating in 1971. He wanted to be a Division I head coach someplace, but in his dreams, that place was Providence.

In 1985, the chance came. Joe Mullaney retired from the school, and Providence Athletic Director Lou Lamoriello asked Larranaga to fly to New York to discuss the job with him.

"Lou said he thought I did a great job with the interview," Larranaga said Thursday afternoon. "But his concern was that I'd never been a Division I head coach."

Lamoriello ended up hiring Rick Pitino.

"You certainly can't knock that hire," Larranaga said. "He took them to the Final Four."

Even though he understood Pitino's hiring, Larranaga vowed he would be better prepared the next time the chance to coach Providence came up again.

"Little did I know it would be 23 years later," he said. "A lot had changed."

That's putting it mildly. Larranaga was no longer a 35-year-old assistant coach looking for his first chance. He was a coach with 22 years of Division I head coaching experience and a trip to the Final Four under his belt. He had been at George Mason for 11 years and had become a campus icon. Several weeks ago, when a faculty member named Lou Bufaro was in intensive care at a local hospital, Larranaga and his wife, Liz, went to visit him. They weren't allowed in because they weren't relatives, but they did get to see Bufaro's wife and kids.

Mrs. Bufaro said to Larranaga, "Now Lou has to live if only so I can tell him that you came to see him."

In fact, so much had changed since 1985 that when the Rev. Brian Shanley, Providence's president, offered him the job this past Sunday, Larranaga turned it down. It was, without question, the most complicated decision he has made in his professional life.

"I don't want to call it a tough decision," he said, "because it was a no-lose decision. I could stay at a place that I loved or go to my alma mater, another place that I loved. That's not tough, but it is complicated."

From the minute Tim Welsh was fired two weeks ago, Larranaga was bombarded by phone calls and e-mails from old teammates, classmates and friends at Providence. When the call from Athletic Director Bob Driscoll arrived, Larranaga knew he had to listen.

"It's my alma mater," he said. "It's a place I love, a place I'm still connected to, it's a place I want to see do well. Plus, it was a job I had wanted for years and years."

Eight days ago, Larranaga met with Driscoll in a hotel conference room near Dulles International Airport. They talked for three hours. The next day, Larranaga got an e-mail from George Mason President Alan Merten asking if they could meet Saturday. Merten had heard from Athletic Director Tom O'Connor about what was going on and wanted to let Larranaga know how much the school wanted him to stay.

"The great thing about Dr. Merten is how excited he gets about everything at George Mason," Larranaga said. "He had been to a dinner the night before at which one of our faculty members was honored as, I think, the meteorologist of the year and he was telling me all about that. He's always been great at making people feel they're part of something great at the school. He reminded me again how much I enjoyed being part of all that."

The next day it was Providence's turn again. This time Shanley flew to town and spent most of the afternoon at Larranaga's house in Fairfax, telling him his vision for the basketball program and how important it was to him for Providence to be competitive in the Big East. Larranaga was impressed and, not surprisingly, torn.

"Before he left, he offered me the job," Larranaga said. "I knew I had a lot of thinking to do. To me, there was no simple answer. I wanted input, and I wanted to think."

He got the input from Liz and from their two sons, Jay and Jon. He also called his older brothers John and Bob and his old friend Bob Rotella, a sports psychologist he became friends with while at Virginia. He talked to Gavitt. All basically said the same thing: You're the one who is going to be doing the rebuilding job or turning down your alma mater; we'll support you either way.

"We talked a lot," Larranaga said. "I listened a lot, I thought a lot. I knew I needed to make a decision soon, but I just wasn't certain."

There were some funny moments. Jay Larranaga, who plays professional basketball in Italy, e-mailed one day and, after pointing out to his father that Providence plays its game at "Dunkin' Donuts Arena," said he should demand unlimited breakfast coupons from Dunkin' Donuts because "their bagel sausages are silly good."

"He's got young kids," Larranaga said. "He knows about this stuff."

Larranaga was so uncertain about what to do that he canceled his flight to San Antonio on Wednesday morning because he needed more time to think and didn't want to be surrounded by the chaos of the coaches' hotel while deciding. He talked to Driscoll one more time Wednesday morning and then set a personal deadline for himself: noon that day.

"I was sitting in the family room with Jon," he said. "Liz was in the kitchen. I just stood up and said to the two of them, 'I'm staying.' It was just what my gut told me was the right decision. I just didn't want to leave George Mason. I loved the place when I first got here, and I love it more now. I couldn't pull the trigger on leaving."

Jon, who lives nearby, told his father he was glad he was staying. When Jim called Jay in Italy, he said the same thing. When he called Merten, both men became emotional. Larranaga knew he had made the right decision.

The only problem was he couldn't get another flight to San Antonio. He hadn't missed a Final Four since 1986, when he had just been hired at Bowling Green and was buried with work trying to get organized.

"Not getting another flight might have been a break," he said Thursday. "I think we're all drained by the last few days."

On Thursday afternoon, Larranaga got an e-mail from Lou Bufaro. He was out of the hospital. His wife had told him about Larranaga's visit.

"I can't tell you," Bufaro wrote, "how good it makes me feel to know that you're still going to be at George Mason doing what you do."

If Larranaga had any lingering doubts, they were erased when he read that e-mail. He knew he was where he wanted to be and where he belonged.

It wasn't easy for Larranaga to turn down his dream job, except for one thing: After all the talking and all the listening and all the wondering, he realized he already had it.

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