- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

Jim Larranaga sat alone on a wooden bench inside a cramped locker room at Boise State Pavilion. He remained motionless as his somber players packed up to leave the building.

“I can’t believe we lost the game,” Larranaga said afterward.

George Mason and star George Evans had controlled the 2001 first-round game and even led by one entering the final minute. The Patriots were so close to the first NCAA tournament victory in school history and the first in Larranaga’s 15 seasons as a coach.

But it wasn’t to be: Steve Blake hit a go-ahead 3-pointer, third-seeded Maryland avoided a big upset and the Patriots left Idaho heartbroken.

That was five years ago, but the memory is fresh.

“The night we lost to Maryland, I laid in bed that night thinking, ‘How would it have been if we won?’” the 56-year old coach said. “Now I know.”

The loss to Maryland was the second time in three seasons the Patriots had made the NCAA tournament. It would take five seasons for George Mason to earn another shot at March Madness.

This time the Patriots not only closed out the first round with a win over perennial power Michigan State, but George Mason also knocked off defending national champion North Carolina en route to the Sweet 16. The 11th-seeded Patriots will meet No. 7 Wichita State tomorrow night at Verizon Center for a trip to the Washington Region final.

“I laid in bed in Dayton and thought to myself, ‘How would it have been if we won again?’” Larranaga remembers pondering after beating Michigan State. “This has been a great week for our George Mason family, the players, my coaching staff, my sons.”

Larranaga no longer has to wonder what it feels like to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The coach who took over a scandal-ridden and losing program nine years ago is now the wide-smiling man in the middle of a Cinderella Party.

And while Larranaga is beaming in the moment as Fairfax has suddenly become a basketball hotbed, it wasn’t really the vision he had when he took over for fired coach Paul Westhead in 1997.

“My goal was not to build a good team but to build a great program,” Larranaga said in his deliberate, thorough manner. “A good team is one that plays well that season. A great program is one that wins year after year after year. And we have been able to do that, maybe even better than I envisioned.”

Eight straight winning seasons and five postseason appearances, including two in the NIT, have made his point.

And he has done it his way, in which winning is not always the most important thing.

The most revealing moment of this remarkable run did not come when the Patriots earned a controversial at-large bid to the tournament or upset perennial power Michigan State. Nor was it was shocking the Tar Heels to become the first team from the Colonial Athletic Association to get that far since Richmond in 1988.

Nope, the most telling moment for Larranaga and his program came shortly after Hofstra eliminated George Mason in the CAA tournament semifinals. The coach made a bold — but not surprising to those around him — decision that appeared to be a self-inflicted wound to the Patriots’ tournament hopes.

He saw a videotape of point guard Tony Skinn throwing a punch to the groin of Hofstra’s Loren Stokes. While many coaches who preach ethics might find a way to rationalize keeping one of their best players on the court, Larranaga stuck to his program’s principles and suspended Skinn for one game.

The NCAA selection committee takes into account whether a top player is missing when determining its field. The decision also meant Skinn, a senior, could miss the final game of his career if the Patriots lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament or NIT.

“He knew he made a mistake the instant he did what he did, and he regretted it that moment,” Larranaga said. “But there was no hesitation or doubt that he needed to be disciplined. Not punished but disciplined in the sense of we are educators, coaches are. We are responsible for helping our players learn. This was one of those life lessons for him and the rest of our team.”

Larranaga asks three things of his players: have positive attitudes; fully commit to what they are doing, whether it is basketball or school; and always act in a first-class manner.

Thus, the swift suspension was a foregone conclusion.

“Coach L suspending me was something that had to happen,” said Skinn, who wrote an apology to Stokes and Hofstra’s coach. “I know with my son or if I was a coach and something like that happened, I would have to take disciplinary action. He had to do it. I know he didn’t like it, but you have to have respect for him.”

It didn’t end there as the two spoke regularly, sometimes for an hour a night on the phone. Larranaga wanted to make sure his player was OK while he was being scrutinized and carrying the weight that he could be the reason George Mason would be left out of the NCAA tournament.

The coach knew he had to do the right thing even if it cost his program, and he did his best to keep Skinn and his teammates upbeat. It is all part of his larger mission of mentoring players into responsible adults.

“Jim is very lucky because he is in a field where he really can make a difference,” said Larranaga’s wife, Liz. “A lot of people don’t have that opportunity. They have to do something else, some volunteer work or work for a charitable company. He gets to do that at work. He realizes it is bigger than winning or losing games, although you better do that because that is what you get paid for, so you better do that or you won’t have the opportunity to help the kids.”

Maybe it is karma that Patriots are having a historic run after one of their more embarrassing moments. Or maybe it is the basketball gods making things up to Larranaga, who is in his third NCAA tournament in 20 seasons as a coach.

The coach did not make the NCAA tournament in 11 seasons at Bowling Green, which included a 22-10 season in 1996-97 led by current Washington Wizards guard Antonio Daniels. Larranaga felt he wasn’t getting the necessary support from the administration and sought out the George Mason job on the advice of his then-assistant Bill Courtney, who is from Northern Virginia.

And Larranaga doesn’t seem bothered he has watched so many others enjoy what he and George Mason finally are experiencing. He has watched many of peers move on to big-time programs, such as former CAA coaches John Beilein (West Virginia) and Jerry Wainwright (DePaul) now in the Big East.

Larranaga has been at George Mason so long that he is the CAA’s all-time winningest coach, which is a little bit like being a minor league home run king. In part because he is not seen as an up-and-comer and he doesn’t actively promote himself, he hasn’t been the target of big-time programs.

And that seems to be fine with him.

Larranaga has three years left on his contract and likely will get a sizeable raise after this season. He said he would listen if other schools call but didn’t take the job with the idea of getting a better one. Besides, he would be reluctant to leave what he has built at George Mason.

“I said this to the [search] committee [nine years ago], ‘I am someone who doesn’t move easily,’ ” he said. “I was at Bowling Green for 11 years. I have been at George Mason for nine and hope to be here until I retire.”

JIM LARRANAGA:

Born: October 2, 1949, Bronx, N.Y.

School: Providence, 1967-71

Coaching Experience:

• American International (1977-79)

• Bowling Green (1986-97)

• George Mason(1997-present)

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