- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

How do the accomplishments of the George Mason men’s basketball team rank in the pantheon of surprises sprung by Washington area sports teams?

You would have to go back 82 years — count ‘em, 82 — to find a parallel.

During the era of flappers and bathtub gin, the Washington Senators won the 1924 World Series after more than two decades as mostly loud losers. They did it by whipping Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees for the American League pennant, then took the Series against John McGraw’s New York Giants when a routine ground ball hit a pebble and bounced over the third baseman’s head as the winning run scored in the 12th inning of Game 7.

In the eight decades since, no team from the capital region has notched so unexpected a triumph. Until possibly now.

True George Mason’s frisky and fun-to-watch Patriots must win two more games against heavily favored opponents to become national champions. But who could, or would, doubt them after upsets of Michigan State and North Carolina, a Sweet 16 win against Wichita State and Sunday’s stunning victory against top-seeded Connecticut in this surreal NCAA tournament?

Some other area teams have achieved notable success, though not as often as their partisans would have liked.

• The Senators captured subsequent pennants in 1925 and 1933 but lost World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates and Giants, respectively.

• The Redskins won NFL championships in 1937 and 1942 and Super Bowls following the 1982, 1987 and 1991 seasons. The 1942 title was a mild surprise, coming against a Chicago Bears team that had devastated Washington 73-0 in the title game two years earlier — but this was, after all, a Redskins team that lost only one game during the regular season.

• The Bullets went to the NBA Finals three times in five years beginning in 1975 and won the title by beating the Seattle SuperSonics in 1978.

• D.C. United won Major League Soccer championships in 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2004.

• On the major college front, Georgetown won the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 1984 and Maryland in 2002 — neither a particular surprise.

• In football, Maryland won a national championship in 1953 before losing to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

George Mason’s miraculous march through March Madness qualifies as an equal — and more astonishing — feat than these.

There are surprises sprinkled through sports history — all of them by definition unexpected. Some at least can be partially explained away: The favored team didn’t take the game or series seriously, the underdog had a pathological need to earn respect, the stars were properly (or improperly) aligned.

But there is no way to explain George Mason — without, that is, invoking the possibility of divine intervention. Which, in turn, would assume that Somebody Up There cares who wins the games people play.

Regardless, George Mason’s balding, whistling middle-aged Jim Larranaga currently is the envy of every other Division I coach save those at Florida, LSU and UCLA.

Even ex-coaches marvel at what he and his troops have wrought. Lefty Driesell coached for 41 years at Davidson, Maryland, James Madison and Georgia State, taking all four schools to the Big Dance. But none made it to the ultimate weekend.

“Would I like to be in Jim’s shoes? Heck, yes,” said Driesell, who came within one victory of the Final Four with Maryland in 1973 and 1975. “I can’t really relate to how he’s feeling because I never got there, but he has to be on top of the world. And he deserves it. He’s an excellent coach.”

Driesell, now retired and living in Virginia Beach, said George Mason’s rise is good for college basketball.

“[The NCAA] should let in more teams from [mid-major leagues] like the [Colonial Athletic Association],” he added. “I’d rather see that than the seventh or eighth teams from the ACC and Big East getting in.”

So what’s the secret of Larranaga’s success?

“He whistles [instructions to his players] on the sideline — I never saw a coach who whistles like he does,” Driesell said. “Me, I just used to stomp.”

Another big Larranaga booster is East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland, who hired him as an assistant coach at Davidson and later Virginia.

“The most amazing thing about Jim’s coaching style is that he is always positive, as was evidenced by his approach when his team fell behind early [in Sunday’s Washington, D.C., regional final against top-seeded Connecticut],” Holland said. “He didn’t panic and called for the zone, which is hard to do when you are behind by double figures and your basic [defense] is man-to-man. What a gutsy move instead of chewing out his guys and trying to make them play harder when they were already struggling.

“He made the right move, as he has so often in his career. The only thing different now is that the whole world is watching.”

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