Coach L Gets Set for Another Year of Mason Madness

Posted: October 12, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Coach Jim Larranaga with ball
Coach Jim Larranaga says the run to last spring’s NCAA Final Four was “three weeks of pure adrenaline.” But now, “Let’s get excited about this year’s team.”
Creative Services photo

By Ken Budd, BA ’88, MA ‘97

After a stunning run to the NCAA Final Four, a parade through Fairfax, a Sports Illustrated cover, major crow-eating by big-time basketball know-it-alls, two ESPY award nominations, the prestigious Claire Bee coaching award, an ABC News Person of the Week honor, a soon-to-be-announced Impact Award from AARP The Magazine and local hero status from Washingtonian magazine, Coach Jim Larranaga and his men’s basketball team face arguably the trickiest challenge in school history.

Following it all up.

If the coach is worried about high expectations and the loss of three starters to graduation – top scorers Lamar Butler, Jai Lewis and Tony Skinn – he isn’t showing it. Leaning back in his office chair, comfy in a green-and-gray sweat suit, he’s still glowing like, well, Kryptonite.

“What drives me every year and allows me to continue having the energy and enthusiasm for the job is that things change,” he says, smiling.

With the new basketball season about to begin, we asked him to talk about last season’s dream ride, this season’s challenges and just why the heck he’s got his players writing their obituaries.

Outside of, say, getting married and having kids, was the Final Four run the most joyous time of your life?

It was three weeks of pure adrenaline. When you reach middle age, and you know you’re on the back nine, you tend to appreciate the very special moments. When we beat Connecticut, I knew this was likely to be, in terms of beating the odds, a once-in-a-lifetime event. And if that was to be true, I wanted it to be the most memorable and joyous occasion, not just for me, but for everyone: my players, my coaches, their families, my family. Everybody. The whole university.

At times the run felt like basketball Beatlemania. Did it ever seem unreal? Or had you always assumed this could happen?

Before the season ever started I invited a close personal friend of mine – Dr. Bob Rotella, a sports psychologist – to talk with the team about this very thing. And he asked them to dream the biggest dream, and we dreamt that we could get to the Final Four. And so I always had in the back of my mind that one day we’d put together a team that was capable of accomplishing what we did this year. Thank goodness the [NCAA] selection committee gave us a chance to prove it.

You were only down five points at halftime to Florida, and you played them much stronger than UCLA did in the championship. How tough was it playing in a dome, and how tough was it playing Florida?

Being down five, that was fewer than the number of points we were down against Carolina or Connecticut. So at halftime we thought we were in great shape. But Florida had more experience playing in a dome. This was our first time in that environment, and our shooting was a bit off. We missed a couple of easy shots in the first half. Had they gone in, we might have led at halftime, and our confidence would have been soaring. Instead, by missing those shots, it created a little bit of doubt – just enough that when the second half began, and Florida came out on fire, and we missed a couple of times … for the first time in the tournament, we didn’t play with that incredible amount of confidence that had carried us through those first four games. Does Florida get some of the credit? Absolutely. They’re so big. Florida was a great team, and we needed to play great to stay with them.

Jim Larranaga with magazine
Having player Lamar Butler’s photo on the cover of Sports Illustrated was one of the highlights of the past season.
Creative Services photo

The Florida game is almost an afterthought because the whole experience was so magical and brought so much exposure to the university – and it made you a celebrity.

We’re all more recognizable. People see me in airports and malls and come up to me and congratulate me. We’re going to be on ESPN during the regular season four or five times – we’ve got Duke, Wichita State and Hofstra guaranteed – but there’s talk about other games being put on TV as well, not just ESPN but other television outlets are talking to our marketing team. So the university has benefited, and our admissions people are being swamped with more and more applications, and the NCAA is coming in to do a research project on how our run to the Final Four will impact the whole university.

What impact do you hope to have on your players while they’re at George Mason?

It was very interesting: I asked them to write their obituaries. They had to write them at two different times, in regard to two different experiences. The first was, what would you like people to say about you when you graduate from George Mason? And the second was, at your funeral, what would you like people to say about you as a person, a player, what your life was all about? What amazes me is, last year, not a single guy wrote about basketball. All of them talked about wanting to be well-liked, that they were hard-working, that they gave it everything I had. And to us, that’s what we’re trying to teach. That life, just like basketball, is about being the best that you can be and giving it all you have each and every day.

Let’s talk about the upcoming season. Because of the Final Four run, Mason is now the big game for a lot of teams.

We’ll have a target on our back. We’re going to get everybody’s “A” game. But that’s what it’s all about. That’s what makes you good. Success has a way of making you hungrier or making you complacent. With our team it has made us hungrier. We lose our three leading scorers, our go-to-guys, our captains for the last two seasons. The challenge for me and the team is to develop new leaders and new go-to guys on the inside and on the outside.

I’m guessing two of those go-to guys will be Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas.

Good guess [laughs]. Do you know who the leading scorer was in the tournament for us? Folarin Campbell. So he’s already advanced his game and made the progress from sophomore starter to sophomore star to now junior leader and co-captain. And Will Thomas the same way.

John Vaughn is back after missing last season with an injury. What are your expectations for him?

We’re expecting him to be back at full strength, if not in November or December, certainly by January. And we expect him to pick up where he left off, which is, he’s a great defender, he’s an outstanding three-point shooter and he’s about as hard a worker as I’ve ever seen. So I think he will have a major impact on this year’s team.

What are the strengths of the new guys: sophomore Andre Smith, junior Darryl Monroe and freshman Louis Birdsong?

Andre is a high-energy player with excellent speed and quickness – he fits very well into our style of play. He combines the athleticism of a Tony Skinn with the three-point shooting of a Lamar Butler. Darryl is a very skilled big man. At 6’7″, 260 pounds, he has a lot of the same qualities as Jai Lewis. He’s an excellent passer and low-post player and should be able to rebound well in our league. Louis is kind of a unique undersized frontcourt player. He can play with his back to the basket and can shoot the three.

Larranaga talks to the media
Coach L reached celebrity status as the Patriots moved up in the NCAA Tournament brackets.
Photo by Joe Milmoe

Is the conference as deep this year as it was last year?

I think it is. Drexel has everybody returning. If Hofstra is not the preseason favorite, Drexel might very well be. Wilmington has got T.J. Carter, the MVP of the [Colonial Athletic Association] tournament, and Todd Hendley, who transferred from Wake Forest and had a great year. Old Dominion and VCU are very talented teams. And the surprise team will probably be Towson. Towson is a much more talented team than they’ve ever been before. They have the leading returning scorer in the league and in the country in Gary Neal. So if you add in George Mason, you have seven terrific teams.

Student support was fantastic last year, particularly the last half of the season. How important is that to you?

It’s huge. We want the students to turn out in large numbers, we want them to enjoy their college experience, and part of college is feeling that you belong to something bigger than yourself. On Oct. 21, we’re having a tip-off party at Fairfax Corners Plaza, and it should be fun for the students. I’m speaking to student groups again and inviting them to get behind this year’s team. Last season is over, that was great, but now let’s get excited about this year’s team.

You just turned 57. Do you see yourself like Joe Paterno or Jim Phelan and coaching into your 70s?

I don’t look that far down the road. My whole focus is on this coming season: on this team, on this group of guys. I devote all of my energies to be sure that these young men get my best effort. And after that, I’ll do the same thing the next year and the next year, and then when it’s my time, I think I’ll know.

Ken Budd, BA ’88, MA ’97, is a features editor with AARP The Magazine, the world’s largest circulation magazine with 25 million readers. Coach Larranaga will appear at a December AARP event in New York City and in the January/February ’07 magazine issue along with Robert de Niro, David Hyde Pierce and seven other winners of the magazine’s Impact Awards.

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