GREENSBORO, N.C. — Jim Larranaga’s last memory of the Greensboro Coliseum, site of Friday’s quarterfinal round of the ACC Tournament, wasn’t a good one. Then an assistant on Terry Holland’s Virginia coaching staff, the Cavaliers lost to DePaul in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Obviously, he hopes his No. 1 seed Miami team, which opens play against Boston College at noon, will be a more pleasant memory.
It has been a long and winding road for Larranaga since his days as one of Holland’s most trusted assistants during the most glorious time in UVa hoops history. Larranaga left UVa to become head coach at Bowling Green, then moved to George Mason, where during a 14-year stint, became the first mid-major coach to take his team to the NCAA Final Four in 27 years.
In only his second season at Miami, he has put the Hurricanes on the collegiate basketball map. Who would have thought that The “U” would win an ACC basketball title before it would in football?
Larranaga was a natural for the Miami job. Unbeknownst to most, Jim’s grandfather was from Cuba and produced the Larranaga cigar. Jim’s father was raised in Key West before moving to The Bronx, N.Y., where Jim was born and raised.
The fact that he has created basketball excitement in Coral Gables, where Miami’s smallish arena had hardly ever been filled before, is almost shocking. The fact that he led the Hurricanes to the ACC regular season title in only his second season on the job is perhaps even more so.
For his reward, media that cover the ACC voted him as a landslide choice for its coach of the year honors, joining the likes of Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and others, including Holland, his own boss.
“I write down a lot of goals before each season and I’ve written down ‘win coach of the year’ I think 27 times,” Larranaga cracked after a practice session. “It’s nice every once in a while when that actually happens.”
He’s not the same guy he was back in the ‘80s on UVa’s staff and even afterward when he became a head coach. He’s not the raving, maniacal nut running up and down in front of his bench, screaming at players, chewing out the officials, ranting, raving. It must have been exhausting.
“How am I different?” Larranaga answered a scribe’s question. “I’m a hell of a lot older.”
True, but that’s not the major change.
“I’ve had a lot more experiences, good and bad, that have shaped my philosophy and decision making, and style of coaching,” Larranaga said.
He credits a long-time Charlottesville friend for helping him make those changes into a more mature, trusting coach. He credits famed sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who is known more for helping build confidence in professional golfers, but who helps athletes and coaches from all sports.
“Bob has been a tremendous influence on me in a very positive way to help me achieve some of the success that we enjoyed at Bowling Green, George Mason and now at Miami,” said Larranaga, who speaks with Rotella two or three times weekly.
Virginia fans will remember Rotella first helping Cavalier teams during the Holland years when Larranaga was on the staff, prior to Rotella’s meteoric rise both nationally and internationally on the golf scene.
“I ask [Rotella] some of the most ridiculous questions you can possibly imagine,” Larranaga said. “But it’s with the help of guys like him and other friends of mine in the coaching profession that has transformed me from a maniac when I was in my 30s and a coach whose wife [Liz], who told him, ‘You coach every dribble, every pass, every shot, every defensive possession, like you’re in the game playing it.’”
Larranaga doesn’t do that any more. Instead, he subscribes to Rotella’s theory of train and trust. Do all your work in practice and trust the players to have learned and execute during game conditions.
He no longer rants and raves and roams the sidelines. He says he’s more of a cheerleader. Seems to have worked. Miami is 24-6, 15-3 in the ACC and is in the envious position of the tournament’s top seed.
He’s learned valuable lessons along the way, lessons that keep popping up in value everywhere he goes. When his Hurricanes didn’t lose a game from Jan. 23 (beating Duke) until a month later, they went from the hunter to the hunted. Larranaga drew on experiences from his days with Virginia, when the Cavaliers went to two Final Fours, won three ACC regular season championships and finished in the top five rankings.
He used another lesson from those old Wahoo teams to help his George Mason squad during its run to the Final Four in 2006.
“The week before Selection Sunday [in ’06], I talked to the team about our [Virginia] march to the Final Four in ’84,” Larranaga said. “Having been on the staff coaching Ralph Sampson and being a No. 1 seed, there’s a lot of pressure on the higher seeds. I told our [Mason] guys that we were probably going to be an 11 or 12 seed and that when we do, know this: all the pressure is on our opponent. Play as loose as you can.”
That wasn’t the only thing Larranaga told his team about the UVa ’84 run. He told his Mason team they might play some zone in the NCAA Tournament if the situation called for it, just as Holland had done 22 years prior.
The Cavaliers had to face Arkansas in the second round that season, a Razorbacks team that featured big man Joe Kline and guard Alvin Robertson. The Cavaliers didn’t play zone but decided to do so against Kline, just like UVa opponents did against Sampson. The strategy worked and helped the Cavs advance to the Final Four.
“I told our [Mason] team that if we played somebody like Carolina (in the tournament), we’ll use some zone,” Larranaga said. “Our players said, ‘No, we don’t want to play zone. We stink at zone.’”
But after Mason upset Michigan State, next up in the tournament was Carolina. True to his word, Larranaga decided to go zone.
“We trailed [UNC] 16-2,” Larranaga said. “My normal tendency would have been to press. Instead we went zone, totally against my coaching philosophy. If I had not learned that from the 1984 Terry Holland team, we would not have made it to the Final Four.”
Obviously the zone helped Mason upset the Tar Heels, creating a memory George Mason fans will never forget.
So, don’t be surprised if Larranaga has some tricks up his sleeve in this tournament as Miami tries to make basketball history.