Back for More: Coach Jim Larranaga Discusses His Decision to Stay in Fairfax

Posted: May 5, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Jim Larranaga at NCAA press conference
After the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament appearance this past season, head coach Jim Larranaga faced a dilemma: take a “dream job” at his alma mater or continue coaching at Mason?
Mason Athletics photo

By Ken Budd, BA ’88, MA ’97

April 2, 2008, may go down as the most eventful uneventful day in the history of George Mason sports. It ended the way it began — with Jim Larranaga as head coach of Mason’s men’s basketball team — and rarely has the status quo seemed so satisfying.

After days of pondering what he calls “a complicated decision,” Larranaga turned down an emotionally and economically enticing offer to coach his alma mater, Providence College, and signed an extension that will keep him at George Mason through 2015.

Call it the whew heard around Fairfax.

Larranaga was coming off his 10th straight winning season at Mason, a 23-win campaign that included a victory over nationally ranked Kansas State, career win number 400, his third Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) championship, and his fourth appearance in the NCAA tournament.

As Larranaga and his assistants prepared for a series of recruiting trips, the Mason Gazette caught up with the coach in his office to talk about last season, next season, and his decision to stay at Mason.

Coaching at Providence was a longtime goal of yours. How difficult was this decision for you?

I interviewed for the job in 1985, but I didn’t get it. It went to Rick Pitino, and obviously he did a fantastic job and he’s had a Hall of Fame career. But the athletic director had told me I wasn’t quite ready because I didn’t have any head coaching experience at the Division I level.

Jim Larranaga
Jim Larranaga revels in the moment: at a news conference before the Patriots faced Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament this past season.
Mason Athletics photo

So I became the head coach at Bowling Green, and the opportunity to coach at Providence was always in the back of my mind. And then, when the opportunity finally came, I hesitated. So much during that 23-year-period had changed. Basically, my wife and I had fallen in love with George Mason University, the Fairfax community, and developed a lot of friendships. We’ve made a great life for ourselves here.

Did your old friends from Providence lobby you to take the job?

I got a lot of calls and e-mails from Providence College people — my roommates, my teammates, my classmates — all of whom were encouraging me to return and lead the Friars back to the glory days. And that was exciting because it had been in my mind for so long.

So I sat down with the athletic director and the president of Providence College. They made me a very lucrative offer, and then I sat down with [Mason] President [Alan] Merten and had a long conversation with him about what we’ve accomplished so far and how enjoyable it’s been to work together.

I knew it was going to be very, very difficult to turn down my alma mater. So I sought advice from several different sources, and eventually, on a Wednesday morning, I just made the decision: that this is home. Providence College had always been my dream job. But I realized at that moment that maybe George Mason is my dream job. That all the things I ever wanted in coaching I already have here.

You talked about how you’ve built something special at Mason. How big of a factor was that, knowing that you’d be facing some rebuilding at Providence?

It was more about the people here. Dr. Merten was a huge factor in the decision-making process. In fact, Dr. Merten drove me around campus and gave me a tour and showed me the new buildings, and he talked about the direction we’re going in, and how great our faculty are.

One reason I feel so good about my role at the university is that I’m included in a lot of things that interest me. I’m an adjunct faculty member for the School of Management. I’m an honorary member of the faculty of the Geography Department. I do a lot in the community. And these things are important because I’ve always seen myself more as an educator than just a basketball coach, someone who is very interested in higher education and in trying to help our players succeed, not just on the court but very specifically off the court.

So I felt I could stay and continue to do these things or leave and reproduce them at Providence. But it would have meant leaving so many people behind, and once you leave, everything changes, and those relationships are hard to maintain. You don’t have those same associations. For me, I think this was the right thing to do.

You said you were getting contacted by people at Providence. Were you aware of how many people here at Mason were hoping you would stay?

I got a lot of nice e-mails. I got some phone calls. One in particular was very satisfying to me: I got a call from [Virginia] Gov. [Timothy] Kaine. He told me he knew what was going on, and he wanted me to know he was following it, that he had great interest, and that he was very hopeful that I would decide to stay and that I had made a nice contribution not just to George Mason, but to the state of Virginia. That was very nice, and made me and my wife feel that the role that we play is not only recognized within the community, but outside the community.

Let’s talk about this past season. Which game stands out the most for you?

I would say the most significant game of the year was the semifinal game in the CAA tournament against UNC Wilmington, a team that had beaten us twice during the regular season. I was upset with our performance in both games. Down there, we let them off the hook, and back here we let them off the hook. I don’t like losing. I certainly don’t like losing to someone twice. And I definitely don’t want to lose to them three times in a season, especially the way we lost the two games, right down to the wire.

The adjustments we made in the tournament were decided that morning: to put John Vaughn on [freshman guard] Chad Tomko, and to front the low post and not let [6′ 10″ senior center] Vladimir Kuljanin catch the ball very often. You don’t know at the time if those decisions will pay off, but they paid off big-time. Wilmington had scored 84 points the night before. We held them to 41.

When you cut down the nets at the CAA tournament you looked as excited as a guy who’d never won it before. Are you at a point in your career where these moments take on more meaning?

Anybody who knows me knows I get very excited about things. Not just the winning. My number one passion, something that I absolutely love to do, is work with our players. I knew they were going to be so happy to represent the CAA in the NCAA tournament. That really, really had me pumped. The excitement of knowing that our players will always have “champions” behind their names for the 2007-08 season, because it’s been awhile: 2001 was the last time we cut down the nets in Richmond. So it doesn’t happen every year. And the longer it goes, the more you appreciate how difficult it is.

Speaking of difficult, you’re losing some key players next season.

Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell are irreplaceable. We’re losing a major portion of our offense, a major portion of our defense, a major part of our leadership. We lose almost 15 rebounds a game — that’s a lot when you average 30 rebounds as a team. They put the university on the map with their performance as sophomores in the NCAA tournament.

You have a highly touted group of freshman coming in. Is this your best recruiting class?

I don’t want to create unfair expectations for them. But in terms of their high school credentials, they are the most talented class as a whole. They cover each of the areas you need: Andre Cornelius is a point guard who can handle the ball and who can score, and in the front court — Michael Morrison and Kevin Foster and Ryan Pearson — can all defend and rebound and score. Whether they can do it as freshmen remains to be seen.

They’re awfully thin, and college basketball right now, the game is very physical. I think it’ll take them half a season, or even a full year, to learn how physical the game is and how to play physically without fouling. But in terms of having the skills in the areas we need the most help in, they definitely have it.

You’ve said many times that you love being at George Mason. What is it that you love the most?

It’s the way people treat each other. I’ve always felt that I’m a part of something much bigger here than our basketball program. I’m part of the whole George Mason community. The faculty, the administration, the people who I’ve gotten to know who are associated with George Mason in some capacity have all been wonderful. This place is very, very special. It changes every day for the better. We’ve built a tremendous basketball program with great support, we’ve accomplished an awful lot — and I still feel like there’s more we can do.

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