- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

This has come to be the coming-out party of the suburban academic institution that always has functioned in the shadow of Georgetown University, George Washington University and the University of Maryland.

Funny. George Mason University has been in the education business since it was opened as a branch of the University of Virginia in 1957. It became a full-fledged university in 1972 and eventually became a significant education destination.

Its 29,000 enrollment is the largest in the state. It has two Nobel Prize winners in its economics department and a highly regarded law school. Its tree-lined campus is a pristine oasis tucked beyond the strip malls and traffic congestion of downtown Fairfax.

Yet until the George Mason basketball team defeated Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to advance to the Final Four in Indianapolis this weekend, the school was burdened with both an identity problem and an inferiority complex.

The challenge of purging those conditions has fallen on Jim Larranaga, the coach with the ready smile, amusing anecdote and infectious personality. He is one of us, a working stiff who happened to hit college basketball’s version of the lottery this month. The sudden notoriety is not about to change who he is.

He instinctively understands what so many of the leading names in his profession do not: It is a game, and a game is supposed to be fun, especially after a victory that has placed the team and university in the national spotlight.

Mr. Larranaga actually is enjoying the experience, as opposed to those who treat each stop of the NCAA tournament as if were a root canal. To be fair to the tightly wound, Mr. Larranaga is not burdened with the unrealistic expectations that dog so many in the coaching profession.

Yet even as the stakes have risen with each victory, Mr. Larranaga has retained his openness, using the buildup as a free advertising blitz to tout both his basketball program and the university.

Right or wrong, Mr. Larranaga has come to be the face of a university, for few things command the attention of the nation like a major sports event. And no institution could have a better ambassador than Mr. Larranaga, who has a boyish charm and informal air that serves his players and university well.

Mr. Larranaga is not one to toss a chair or berate a player at courtside or pick a counterproductive fight with those who buy their ink by the barrel. No inane question goes unanswered if he is at the podium. He even goes along with the George jokes.

In Dayton, Ohio, where the team began its journey, he put a daunting question before a group of reporters: Is George Mason a small, private school or a large state university? He compared the silence of the reporters to students who had not done their homework.

Mr. Larranaga could not help but laugh. That is part of his crafty shtick. He uses humor to correct the misperceptions previously affixed to the university, neither small nor private.

And Mr. Larranaga resists the irony of the heady moment, which is this: His is one of four basketball teams remaining out of the 334 institutions that compete at the Division I level, which qualifies as an element of the absurd for a program that usually is viewed as being no better than No. 4 in the D.C. region.

Mr. Larranaga has been careful not to use the occasion as a job application. No, he says, this is about the team and university. As far as he is concerned, he and his wife are perfectly satisfied in suburban Virginia, which, of course, is always subject to change after the Final Four has faded from view.

Until then, Mr. Larranaga will be selling a program and a previously unknown university in his engaging way.

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