- The Washington Times - Monday, April 25, 2011

Many George Mason fans are upset that the school didn’t do more to keep men’s basketball coach Jim Larranaga, who last week resigned to accept the job at Miami.

What’s really upsetting is the level of hypocrisy surrounding college sports, like buzzards circling road kill.

Folks complain that the money is out of hand. Priorities are misplaced. Athletic departments have run amok. But when a school like George Mason has the nerve to draw the line on expenditures for coaches, assistants and facilities - and in the process loses a well-respected figure, such as Larranaga - folks howl that the school blew it.

We can’t have it both ways, fussing about coaches’ multimillion-dollar contracts, yet grumbling about schools not upping the ante to keep coaches. Each individual school determines its comfort level regarding compensation with only one certainty: There will be claims that it’s too much money or not enough.

According to published reports, Larranaga made about $700,000 last season after reaching a number of incentives, and George Mason athletic director Tom O’Connor said the salary could rise to about $1 million next season if all incentives were met. Miami offered a reported $1.3 million guaranteed annually, for five years.

“In all honesty, the university can only go so far with finances,” O’Connor told the Associated Press. “We think we put together a very, very attractive financial-compensation package. We couldn’t compete with an ACC school, a big football school with its budget.”

They “shouldn’t” compete at that level, on principle.

For all the talk about changed landscapes and new world orders since Larranaga led George Mason to the 2006 Final Four - and the recent success of Brad Stevens at Butler and Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth University - mid-majors are just that. In terms of visibility, image, size and resources, they’re firmly entrenched between Division II and the Six Major Conferences.

Giving your coach $1.2 million per year - like VCU just gave Smart - doesn’t change the Atlantic Coast Conference’s built-in advantages over the Colonial Athletic Association. Arguably, the only thing VCU accomplished was screwing up the salary scale for its mid-major brethren … and temporarily delaying Smart’s inevitable departure.

That’s not to say any job in a major conference is better than any job in a mid-major. Larranaga turned down an offer from Providence in 2008, opting instead for a three-year extension at George Mason. Providence is one of the worst jobs in one of the best conferences, making it no better than a push - if that - compared to George Mason, VCU or Butler at this moment.

But we know how these dances go: Mid-major coach reaches NCAA tournament; he wins a game or three; big-boy school comes calling; coach bolts or signs an extension. Repeat.

VCU has become so good at the routine during the last decade, it can perform the steps blindfolded. The Rams hired Jeff Capel in 2002, who left for Oklahoma in 2006, creating an opening for Anthony Grant, who left for Alabama in 2009, creating an opening for Smart, who’ll leave for (fill-in-the-blank) in (fill-in-the-blank).

Larranaga spent 14 years at George Mason, which can’t be blamed for thinking the 61-year-old coach might be content to finish his career in Fairfax. He doesn’t fit the mode of the prototypical “hotshot” populating the mids-to-majors pipeline. And far from a glamorous job in a prestigious conference, Miami is more like the unfinished basement in a stately mansion: It has potential, but requires a ton of work and will never match the splendor of the upper floors.

However, money talks, and we shouldn’t play deaf. There’s nothing wrong with Larranaga or other mid-major coaches choosing bigger paychecks at bigger schools. They can always return to the lower level if things don’t work out.

But it’s harder for a mid-major school to reverse course after blowing up its salary structure. It’s better to let the in-demand coach move on once he becomes too expensive. Then go out and find the next coach, hoping he succeeds to the point of being pursued by other schools.

It’s the circle of life in college sports. No matter how hard the George Masons and VCUs might try, they can’t change their station.

Attempting to do so only makes them look foolish.

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