FAIRFAX, Va. — Jim Larranaga is a charismatic, engaging coach who knows how to motivate underdogs and take them places they’ve never been. He was the perfect coach to put George Mason on the national sports map.
Now that he’s off to the University of Miami to make a lot more money, George Mason has hit a fork in the road. Can it sustain the momentum the beloved “Coach L” created over 14 seasons, 273 wins, four NCAA tournament appearances and a magical Final Four run, or will the Patriots again become the sleepy mid-major that attracted little interest — even from its own student body — back in the pre-Larranaga days?
Athletic director Tom O’Connor obviously takes the positive view. To begin with, he says the Larranaga legacy should make the search for a top-notch coach a lot easier.
“He did so well with us, and we did so well with him,” O’Connor said Friday. “The credibility that our athletic program has with Jim is quite high. So out there in the hinterlands of the coaching fraternity, we’re a hot commodity. People are going to be very interested in our program, and it’s because of what Jim Larranaga did, quite frankly.”
Larranaga himself had been a hot commodity since leading the Patriots to the Final Four in 2006, but he turned down all suitors — including Providence, where he played from 1967-71 — to stay with George Mason in the little-engine-that-might Colonial Atlantic Association. He kept getting contract extensions, including his latest through the 2016 season, but the school decided it couldn’t keep pace with the big bucks offered by Miami, an Atlantic Coast Conference school with a mammoth football program.
“We couldn’t get into a contest with their resources,” O’Connor said.
It’s not the GMU way. O’Connor noted that Shaka Smart got “a mountain” of a raise after leading Virginia Commonwealth — another CAA school — to the Final Four this year, but he said that George Mason’s approach has been to spread its NCAA wealth throughout the athletics programs rather than invest it all in one coach.
O’Connor said Larranaga was offered a deal that, with incentives, would have been among the top five of mid-major coaches in the country “in a good year.”
“It wasn’t at the level of Shaka Smart on paper, but you probably get there in a certain time,” O’Connor said. “We were very satisfied with what we presented to Jim. The university was very open to making sure we could do the best we could do. It was Jim’s decision whether to accept it or not. The package was very, very good.”
Larranaga leaves behind a solid roster, losing only two notable players from a team that went 27-7 and won a game in the NCAA tournament. At age 61, Larranaga wasn’t going to stay much longer, anyway, so the Patriots might not miss a beat if they make the right hire and no one transfers.
Larranaga roughly doubled the average attendance during his tenure at George Mason, although it was only hovering around a meager 3,000 when he arrived. Sellouts are still the exception rather than the rule at the 10,000-seat Patriot Center on a campus that only last year completed enough dorms to finally shed its classification as a commuter school.
GMU leads the state of Virginia in student enrollment, and O’Connor emphasized the point that basketball is not its main mission.
“What happened in the ’06 season with the Final Four gave us the opportunity to tell the great story of George Mason, but we have to put everything in perspective,” O’Connor said. “Many times people say that intercollegiate athletics can never be bigger than the university, which is true. I don’t think it’s the front door. I think it’s the side door. In the department store of higher education, we’re the toys and games department.
“And the thing about it, the side door when you go into a house, it’s usually the family room or the kitchen and people are all smiling. That’s how I look at it. So it gave us great visibility for the great basketball program, but it didn’t come in the sense that it become more important than the university as a whole.”