- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

George Mason is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since its amazing run in 2006, and the conventional wisdom says the Patriots can be Cinderella just once. George Mason, goes the argument, is now too well-known to surprise opponents as it did two years ago.

As usual, coach Jim Larranaga sees it a little differently.

“It’s funny how psychology works,” he said. “My favorite sign at the [Colonial Athletic Association] tournament was, ‘George Mason is this year’s George Mason.’ We want our opponent to feel that way as well.

“Our reputation can work in both directions. It might prepare the opponent that we’re not sneaking up on them. But they might also have in the back of their minds, ‘This team is very capable of knocking us off.’ And if the game is close, that thought can creep not only to the back of your mind but to the front of your mind.”

The 12th-seeded Patriots play fifth-seeded Notre Dame in the first round Thursday in Denver, and they again will be the underdog, which is just the way they like it. Little noticed as a No. 11 seed in 2006, the Patriots knocked off Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to reach the Final Four in Indianapolis and pique national interest.

Despite the loss to eventual champion Florida in the national semifinal, the Patriots authored an inspiring, feel-good story that put the Fairfax campus in the spotlight and immediately affected the entire university. According to school figures, freshman admission applications spiked 22 percent and Patriot Club fundraising rose 52 percent in the wake of the Final Four. The team set home attendance records in each of the last two seasons.

Admissions were gradually increasing anyway, but the success of the basketball program “really accelerated things,” dean of admissions Andrew Flagel said. “I don’t think anyone doubts that it dramatically sped things up.”

The 58-year-old Larranaga has had a lot to do with that.

“Every time he’s on camera, every time his players are on camera, I could not have scripted him better,” Flagel said. “He talks about the great campus we have here, the great programs. … He was and is a phenomenal spokesperson.”

For Larranaga, “I never imagined how much [life] was gonna change,” he said. “My wife and I talk about it all the time. I don’t think a day has gone by in the last two years that someone doesn’t bring that up, either in a phone call or an e-mail or a conversation. It absolutely amazes me how much of an impact our run to the Final Four had on people in general.”

Larranaga, who fended off potential suitors after the Final Four by signing a three-year contract extension that runs through 2012, said he is “absolutely amazed” by how often he is recognized, in places like Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and even the Middle East.

He was vacationing in Jerusalem, having a drink before dinner with friends in a hotel bar, when a tourist from Northern Virginia spotted him and yelled, “Oh, my God, it’s Coach L!” and ran to his room to grab a camera.

“That was very, very different,” Larranaga said.

“Before, when we’d go to a movie, people would point and say, ‘Oh, there’s the coach at George Mason,’ ” his wife, Liz, said. “Now they’re very willing to go up to you.”

Fame apparently has its limits, though. More than once, Larranaga said, he has been mistaken for New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin.

Other changes have been more substantive. Success opens many doors, like enabling Larranaga to fulfill a longtime ambition. As a member of the Washington Speakers Bureau, he travels around the country giving motivational speeches and “telling the George Mason story as to how an underdog can achieve its goals,” he said.

“There were times when I was just a basketball coach. I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve always looked at myself as an educator, someone who likes teaching. I also was a student, both of the game and of life. I want to be a well-read, well-rounded person and then be able to share that with my student-athletes. And now I’m able to do that in the corporate world.”

With a delivery style that ranges from professorial to comedic to cheerleader-frenzied, Larranaga is a natural communicator.

When he arrived from Bowling Green in 1997, he spread the word about his program at fraternities and sororities — anywhere the kids were hanging out. He and Liz would invite students to their home, 20 at a time, to eat pizza, play ping pong and meet the players.

Now he has a broader platform. In addition to his speaking engagements, Larranaga is, as he puts it, “heavily involved in the academic side of the university.”

His World Ball Project, in conjunction with the geography department, is a big hit. He belongs to the faculty of the School of Management and lends his expertise to the sports management program.

“Everything I can do to make a contribution to the university, help the university grow in a very positive direction, that’s what I want to do,” he said. “It’s such a unique place that’s been so supportive of me and the program.”

Recruiting, he said, is not drastically different. High school All-Americans and other so called blue-chippers are still likely to go elsewhere.

“We’re still identifying the same quality of kid,” he said. But he acknowledges that getting that type of player has become easier.

“The Final Four run made us more credible to people like Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell,” he said, citing two members of the 2006 team who are seniors this year. “Before, it was a struggle. We had to convince them to be interested. Now they’re interested right from the beginning. The door is open a little bit wider now.”

Those who know him say the onset of fame has left Larranaga unchanged. He still grabs the microphone and exhorts the crowd and still spreads quotations around. He still infuses the program with his special brand of funmanship and preaches the merits of staying loose.

“He’s still the same,” Thomas said. “He’s enthused about coaching every day, teaching us about basketball, having fun.”

There is one difference. In 2006, Wiffle ball was the diversion of choice after — and sometimes during — practices. Now it’s dodgeball. Why? Because the Patriots played it leading up to the CAA tournament, which they won for the first time since 2001, to earn an automatic NCAA berth.

“I would say I have some definite routines and beliefs,” Larranaga said.

Part of the routine is that he and Liz still occasionally dine at McDonald’s, but the reasons are mainly practical, not culinary.

“Jim goes because it’s so fast and convenient,” Liz Larranaga said.

Larranaga continues to read voraciously, always looking for material he can glean for the daily quotations he dispenses to his team and about 500 high school coaches nationwide (Example: “Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re right.”) He also remains an avid movie-goer. But again, there are practical considerations.

“It’s the only place I don’t work,” he said. “I have to turn off the cell phone, I’m away from the computer. I almost work non-stop, 7 a.m. to midnight.”

He always did that, and he always was well-regarded and respected as a coach, even before 2006. But things are different now.

“I certainly appreciate the respect,” he said. “What you never get tired of is people congratulating you on a job well done. It makes you feel good inside. You know that all that hard work is being recognized by others. It’s not so important to me that I feel vindicated or anything like that.

“I’m happy for our players, I’m happy for our athletic department. I’m happy for our university that we all share in this success.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide