On Tuesday morning the man who has given every small school coach a reason to dream was in his office preparing for another assault on March. All around George Mason coach Jim Larranaga the postseason rose in piles of gameplans and travel itineraries. Outside, a phone jangled. A date with another team from one of those giant conferences ripe to be slain -- this time Villanova -- looms on Friday and there was still much to be done.
He is, at Mason, forever the underdog, his team an eighth seed in this tournament despite its 26-6 record and a 16-game winning streak that was the longest of any team in the country this season. This is the burden of coaching in the Colonial Athletic Association, long a springboard conference to something bigger. And were it not for the short, rectangular card folded like a paper tent that rests at the end of the desk he might well have left too. But the card, a nameplate from a press conference at the 2006 Final Four, is also the best evidence as to why he doesn’t need the Big East or the ACC or any of those other self-important super conferences.
Normally coaches leave for places like the Big East or Big Ten so they have a chance to get to the Final Four. Larranaga made the Final Four by beating a bunch of them.
It remains the biggest upset there ever was in the NCAA Tournament, when on March 26, 2006, George Mason beat a Connecticut team ranked second in the nation to go to the Final Four. This, after already beating perennial tournament giants Michigan State and North Carolina. Larranaga suddenly became the coach schools wanted to talk to about their head coaching jobs despite the fact he was 56 years old and had only been the head coach at American International, Bowling Green and George Mason.
No lure was bigger than Providence, his alma mater, which courted him for days three years ago. Yet he said no to all, to stay here, to know that beating a giant will always be an upset, regardless of how many times he does it.
“I’m just not driven by money,” Larranaga says. “I think money –- like everything else in life -– has its positives and negatives. There’s a lot in life that can come if you are financially successful, but if you’re just chasing the dollar, you might get the money but where will that take you in a few years?”
What he meant was, where will it take you when the job is such a mess that you win only 10 games a year and get fired after three seasons? Too many men have followed that path. It’s a dangerous one, leaving stable, thriving mid-major programs for shiny schools in big leagues that promise a package in the high six-figures or maybe more than $1 million a year with television shows, annuities and car deals.
So often the deal with the devil blows up in a flurry of lost recruiting wars and losing conference records. Then there’s nothing.
Larranaga says he thought a lot about this when deciding to stay at Mason. Few basketball coaches have as ideal a setup as he does here, with an athletic director in Tom O’Connor, who was a basketball coach himself, at Loyola and Dartmouth. Together they share a philosophy and basketball friends and with Larranaga having built a mini basketball empire at George Mason under a supportive administration, why leave?
The school, which sits in the shadow of Washington, D.C., is home now. His family is here. When he turned down Providence, both of his sons lived in the area. His grandchildren can come for sleepovers and the usual Sunday morning pancake parties All of this is why O’Connor, who worried about the pull Providence had on Larranaga in 2008, doesn’t seem concerned this time. When the news that Providence was looking for a new coach broke the other day, O’Connor mentioned it to Larranaga who gave a small shrug. They wondered who might get the job and then moved on.
“Jim isn’t a money guy,” O’Connor says. “He’s concerned with family, friends and quality of life. It was more about Jim the person than Jim the basketball coach in the long run.”
When Larranaga came to George Mason, he was told the story of a coach from another sport who upon arriving with his team at a hotel, walked up to the front desk and said, “George Mason is here.” The desk clerk paused, fiddled with the computer then looked up and said, “I’m sorry he isn’t registered here.”
“Now after the Final Four they greet us in school T-shirts, holding signs,” he says.
Everything has changed and yet Larranaga has remained the same.
The design of the greatest NCAA Tournament upset ever came not in frantic scribbles on a clipboard and furious offensive calls but rather in the beautiful simplicity of the same play perfectly run over and over and over again.
Larranaga calls this play “three” and drawn out on paper it must look so confusing with its array of options: Curls across the top, passes down to the two big men below, a drive and layup underneath. But as the mighty Connecticut Huskies lunged at George Mason that afternoon in 2006, Larranaga did something few coaches would have the stomach to try. He shouted “run three,” with about 10:00 left in the game and then after watching his players score a basket, he never took it off for the rest of regulation and all over overtime
until the Mason players were dancing on the floor, trimming the nets and heading to a Final Four that UConn, the No. 1 seed, seemed to treat as a birthright.
It is a brilliant example of coaching. Or rather, not over-coaching, of not letting ego complicate something that is working well. Too many other men in his place would have been signaling for substitutes, holding up fingers, bellowing anything simply tolook as if they were coaching harder than they ever had in their life. Larranaga resisted this temptation in the biggest game he ever coached. In addition to running the same play the last 25 times George Mason took the ball down the court, he never made a substitution in that time, either.
“During the NCAA tournament the timeouts are extra long,” Larranaga says, explaining why he kept his lineup the same.
But there was something more. Something bigger. He has always understood pressure through his life, grasping when the burden has shifted to the bigger, more-powerful team. At some point the pressure moved to Connecticut. And Larranaga knew he could have the same players run the same play again and again and mighty UConn was powerless to stop it.
Larranaga smiles. So much of the tournament is matchups. And Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut all played man-to-man defense with their centers and forwards standing between their opponents’ centers and forwards. He got the right draws and those teams weren’t able to adjust.
His team now is very good but also quite different from the one that went to the Final Four. As an old coach at 61 now, who loves tough, defensive teams, he bristles at the word “finesse,” but he knows it applies to his current group. He has made changes to accommodate this and took the team on a trip to Italy this summer so it could learn the new system and bond. He seems to like these players.
And though it is hard to imagine his current team can get through an East region with Ohio State, Kentucky, Syracuse and North Carolina in the way, he nonetheless had T-shirts made for the players. They arrived this week. And on the back is printed the answer to the question that arises every year now from those wondering who that year’s surprise Final Four team will be…
“We are this year’s George Mason,” they say.
Forever the underdog, yes, but Larranaga doesn't seem to mind. This is home now. No need to go anywhere.