- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

It was an annual rite of rejection for Jim Larranaga.

Each spring, the coach of George Mason’s basketball team contacted the Washington Speakers Bureau to offer his services.

And, each spring, Larranaga always got the same answer from the agency that books speaking engagements for political figures and sports celebrities like Joe Gibbs, Joe Theismann, Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino.

“I got a very nice reply saying, ‘No,’ ” Larranaga says.

Funny how a most unlikely trip to the Final Four changes things.

The little-known coach that no one cared to listen to now is something of a folk hero for proving that anything is possible, for his corny antics and entertaining storytelling and for his passion for basketball and life.

Larranaga didn’t just make history with the Patriots’ astounding run to the Final Four in March; he also saved himself yet another thanks-but-no-thanks note from the Washington Speakers Bureau.

“This spring, they contacted me,” Larranaga says. “I felt like one of my lifelong goals could be accomplished.”

Larranaga suddenly was a hot commodity as a motivational speaker. The 57-year-old delivered about 30 speeches to corporations and trade groups from Seattle to Salt Lake City to Dallas to Chicago, as well as the Washington area.

Those talks — the fees can run well into five figures — are in addition to the about 30 speeches he does for free for community and religious groups, such as his visit to the National Jewish Federation on Monday.

“In a usual spring, summer and fall, I might do 20 or 30 speeches,” he says. “Almost all of those were things I was doing pro bono.”

That is just the beginning of the marketing done by the tireless coach, who sleeps about five hours a night, routinely works the phone until 11 p.m. and is on his computer until the wee hours.

“It is like the Final Four is still going on,” says Larranaga’s wife, Liz. “He is wise enough to enjoy it. It is something he always wanted to do. He really enjoys telling his story. And I think he thinks it is helping a lot of people.”

Speaking engagements were only the beginning.

Larranaga also coached at the Michael Jordan Senior Flight School in Las Vegas, where wealthy businessmen paid $17,500 for a week of instruction from hoops greats like Larry Brown, Lenny Wilkens, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo and Jim Calhoun. He is working with National Geographic magazine on promoting another one of his passions and creating a globe on a basketball. A “Coach L” geography bee also soon could be on the Internet.

Larranaga attended the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles (George Mason was nominated for two) and received numerous other honors. He was, for example, inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame last week. Still more is on the way. Larranaga is working on a book deal and commercial endorsements with the powerful D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly.

“The Final Four can take a total unknown and make that person a well-known value and valuable,” says Marc Ganis, who runs the Chicago-based sports marketing consulting firm Sportscorp. “It is not the first time it happened. Jim Valvano made a career out of one NCAA victory. He went on to be well-known through ESPN and became a celebrity.”

It has been a lucrative offseason for Larranaga, who signed a new contract that nearly doubled his base salary to $375,000 and includes many bonus incentives — including $75,000 simply for coming back each season. He also earns extra money from his basketball camp, which sold out all six weeks.

“Still with all those things said, my number one priority is, was and will continue to be our recruiting and the basketball program,” he says.

In fact, Larranaga turned down numerous speaking opportunities, particularly during the recruiting-heavy month of July. The Patriots received two commitments for next season — DeMatha’s sharpshooting guard Isaiah Tate, and Cameron Long, a 6-foot-3 guard from Freedom High in Woodbridge.

When he is not recruiting or running offseason workouts, Larranaga is on a one-man crusade to promote his school and his program.

“One of my major goals and our major goals as a department is to get more and more people into the seats of the Patriot Center for our home game,” he says. “We have a great product. We have a great product to sell. But sometimes people don’t know how good you are.”

He uses three speeches: “The magic carpet ride,” a talk about reaching the Final Four as a prohibitive underdog; “The George Mason philosophy and our formula for success,” which deals with turning around a program; and “Teamwork and leadership: the four levels of commitment and how to achieve them.”

One tale he tells is of Nik Mirich, a player Larranaga inherited at George Mason from the previous coach, Paul Westhead.

Mirich, an Australian, wore long hair and a scraggly beard until Larranaga took over. Larranaga told him that Jesus Christ looked like that and was a great man, but that the Patriots no longer would tolerate sloppy grooming because “success has a look.” Mirich cleaned up and became a productive player.

Larranaga told that story to a software company in Dallas, and he was such a hit they invited him back. Curious, Larranaga asked whether anything in particular prompted the return invitation.

“They said, ‘Yeah, one of our executives who was pretty much a free spirit listened to your Nik Mirich story,” Larranaga says. “After you told the story — it was lunchtime — he went up to his room at the hotel, showered and shaved, groomed his hair and put on a shirt and tie. And everybody said to him, ‘Hey, you look great. Why the big change? He said, ‘Coach Larranaga was right.’”

He also likes to tell family stories. His son Jay was a ballboy when Larranaga served as an assistant to Terry Holland at Virginia and Ralph Sampson was the Cavaliers’ big star. Larranaga remembers coming home from a recruiting trip on the night the Cavaliers played host to North Carolina and Michael Jordan. Jay, now 31 and playing professionally in Italy, was rebounding for Sampson when Jim arrived.

“My wife and I had established a personal philosophy that prioritized the things in our sons’ lives. The top priority for both boys was education comes first, then extracurricular,” he says. “I went to Jay and said, ‘How are you doing?’ He said, ‘Man, am I pumped. No. 1 versus No. 2. Jordan versus Sampson. This is so exciting.’ I said, ‘How was school today?” He said, ‘Great.’ I said, ‘Did you get your homework done?’ He said, ‘No, I am going to do it after the game.’ And I said, ‘No, Jay, you are not. And I took him home. …

“My message to the audiences is this: Once you establish your values on the things that are important, you can’t compromise them every time something big comes up. So he missed that game, but he learned a very valuable lesson.”

A lesson Larranaga is happy to repeat time and again. The passion he displays to his players now has a much wider audience. The man who became an overnight sensation in his 20th season as a head coach is just soaking it all in.

“I don’t really distinguish which invitations are paid and which ones are pro bono,” Larranaga says. “I just go to tell my story. I just enjoy doing it to any audience that is willing to listen.”

Right now, plenty are.

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