Miami’s Jim Larrañaga: Savvy, self-aware and still dancing

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HOUSTON – The lovable granddaddy of this year’s Final Four stood in the back of the main interview room at NRG Stadium on Thursday to enjoy the waning moments of a press conference held by some of his players. Jim Larrañaga, Miami’s head coach since 2011 and a few months shy of his 74th birthday, smiled as he replaced his Hurricanes on the stand, doing so with the kind of zeal and verve that befits a patriarchal figure protégé which they just laughed at. questions about his dance moves, a series of flips and flips that have gone viral after big NCAA tournament wins each of the past two years.

“How old are these kids?” Larrañaga said he will begin his media session that day. “Their personalities, they’re so fun to be around. They exude confidence in themselves, but they also believe in each other. And just listening to them, they’re enjoying this experience, taking it all in. And I’m hoping that the emotions of the size of the venue can channel their emotions in the right direction, because they know it’s a challenge to reach the Final Four. There have been many great players, a Many great teams that have never reached this point in the his playing or coaching career. So you have to appreciate every opportunity you get. And we’re looking forward to playing Saturday night.”

In 2021-22, Larrañaga put together the best season in Miami history by guiding the program to its first Elite Eight, a blowout loss to eventual national champion Kansas that did little to dampen the excitement of the growing cachet of Hurricanes tournament. That topped those results a year later with a 13-point comeback against Texas that launched Miami into the Final Four for the first time and, in doing so, gave Larrañaga a second taste of the biggest stage of the sport after his legendary career with George. Mason in 2006: He’s shined a bright spotlight on a smart, self-aware, seriously underrated coach who loves his job and keeps getting better with age.

This means that the predominant questions posed to Larrañaga throughout this week have been countless variations of how and why. How is the coach whose career began a year after The Beatles broke up still adjusting to the ever-changing landscape of college basketball? And how does he do it at a much faster and more efficient rate than most of his peers? As in, why does this coach want to continue amid the thickets of NIL, the transfer portal and, several years ago, an FBI investigation involving, but then redacted, Miami of an accusation that still caused damage important to the program’s recruiting efforts. ? Larrañaga could easily sail off into the Florida sunset with his multiple conference championships, an AP College Coach of the Year award and more than 700 career wins.

“I think age is just a number,” said Larrañaga, who is a decade older than San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher, the next oldest coach in this year’s Final Four. “I love doing what I’m doing. I love coaching basketball. I’ve been doing it for 51 years. And I hope to do it a lot longer. And what makes it so fun is the players. And I tell the players. everything the time: the court is my classroom, and you are my student. And I will teach you as much as I can.”

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There are cardboard signs at Miami’s practice facilities that epitomize what those close to Larrañaga describe as an ethos that blurs the lines between teacher and coach. The clippings contain messages taken from one of Larrañaga’s favorite books, a perennial resource he believes can guide his players to success both on and off the court: “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R .Covey.

Every time the Hurricanes practice on a weekend, Larrañaga has the team recite the seven habits: Be proactive; Begin with the end in mind; Put first things first; Think win-win; Seek first to understand, then to be understood; Synergistic; It sharpens the saw and encourages players to read these kinds of self-help books in their entirety. Larrañaga himself is known to use Covey’s organizational planner which reinforces the author’s messages.

“He’s just a vital coach,” former Miami guard Kameron McGusty, the team’s leading scorer last year, said during an interview with FOX Sports. “It teaches you life and life lessons. If something happens on the show or we have a game, or something happens in practice, he always finds a way to relate it to, you know, your everyday life and why your habits should be better, or why you should do this if you want to see success on the court.

“And that was the biggest thing that helped me as a player, just my habits off the court: eating the right way, making sure I went to bed right, making sure I didn’t go out and hang- me. with friends all night, I’m in bed early to focus, able to visualize, meditate, all these things. And all this ends with a basketball career and also a life career. And , you know, I felt like when I was at the University of Miami I became a better person. And that’s what separates him and makes his players fall in love with his coaching style.”

In some ways, McGusty, who joined the program as a junior, represents the prototypical Hurricane during Larrañaga’s remarkable Miami career: eight 20-win seasons, two ACC regular-season titles and four Sweet 16s, after 14 years at George Mason. Larrañaga and his staff quickly realized that building a roster in Coral Gables would have a very different look and feel than what they had experienced in Washington, D.C., where the Patriots almost never brought in transfers. For them, the combination of sun-soaked skies and a gorgeous campus just south of Miami proper made the Hurricanes an ideal destination for high-level players looking for a change of scenery, even before that the transfer portal existed.

They targeted players from “large state land-grant institutions,” said Larrañaga assistant Chris Caputo, who just completed his first season as George Washington’s head coach. In particular, they stormed the Big 12. Oklahoma’s McGusty (2018-22), Kansas State guard Angel Rodriguez (2014-16), Texas shooting guard Sheldon McClellan (2013-16) and Kansas guard Nijel Pack State. (2022-present) were lured to Miami by the excitement of Larrañaga’s fluid, guard-centric offense, and then earned some sort of All-ACC recognition for the rest of their careers. Pack was a particularly high-profile pickup because of the lucrative two-year, $800,000 NIL deal he quickly inked with LifeWallet, the company founded and run by billionaire John Ruiz, which has struck deals with more than 150 athletes.

“We thought a lot of parents might not sign off on their kid coming to Miami (out of high school),” former UM assistant Eric Konkol, now Tulsa’s head coach, said during an interview with FOX Sports. “But when they get older and the decision can be a little bit more theirs, in general, we had a reputation for developing and helping guys and just being basketball people, especially (for) guys that had an off year. in Miami with great facilities and support. That could be our path.”

Added Caputo: “If you look at, you know, the four teams — two Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight and a Final Four — three of the five starters are transfers from each of those teams.”

McGusty recalls that Miami was the first school to call him after he declared his intention to transfer after two years at Oklahoma. He was quickly impressed by the attention to detail and foresight that Larrañaga and the staff put into their recruiting field. They knew enough about his playing style to accurately break down McGusty’s game, detailing exactly what kind of support he would receive off the court for things like diet, weight training, and, of course, endless supply of life lessons from Larrañaga.

One of the first things players and coaches notice about Larrañaga is his endless sense of curiosity, and then they recognize his ability to combine an inquisitive nature with a genuine sense of inclusiveness. At George Mason, where he reached five NCAA tournaments, Larrañaga brought former university president Alan Merten into almost every basketball activity. In Miami, where the Hurricanes had reached the Sweet 16 just once before Larrañaga’s arrival, he organized a meeting with coaches from every other sport in Miami shortly after he was hired because he wanted their insights on best practices for recruiting athletes in Coral Gables. This year alone, he has invited members of the law school, pep squad and pep band to attend practices, and each of those groups has shared a post-practice meal with the players. He routinely tells his assistant coaches that he’s more than happy to help them get another job if there’s an opportunity they want to pursue.

“Words couldn’t describe what kind of human being he is,” Ruiz said during an interview with FOX Sports. “He’s great to everyone around him. He’s full of energy. His wife is full of energy, his kids. I mean, it’s just a healthy, amazing family. It almost makes you feel guilty not following the team and not spend time and effort, as they do with these children.

“I can only imagine that if I was a young man like that, I would love to play for a manager like that, who you have that connection with. If you listen to the interviews when the players are around him, you can just tell the type. de relationship that they have. And when you see the game is over and the kids are kissing the coach and hugging him, it’s just a real bond that’s really, really special right now. I think as he’s over time. past, we’ve lost a little bit of that humanistic component of relationships, and I think he brings that to the table.”

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When Larrañaga returned to the stands on Friday for his second pre-match press conference, a new set of questions about his dancing awaited:

“I ask because all your men brought it up yesterday, but how would you say your dance moves have evolved over the years?” said a reporter. “And they seem very impressed with it.”

“A lot of people are asking you questions about your relevance, your relationship, your dance moves,” another reporter followed a few minutes later. “I’m just wondering, have you ever been considered cool, or is the art of your uncoolness your coolness, if you will?”

Larrañaga couldn’t help but smile. He joked about not having the flexibility to fatten up his mechanical dance moves by loosening up, a request his players continue to make. He professed his love for self-deprecating humor and reminded everyone in attendance that he is not, in fact, Michael Jackson moonwalking across the stage.

But at the end of the day, as the Hurricanes continue their final preparations for Saturday’s date with fourth-seeded Connecticut, the same team that George Mason beat to reach the Final Four in 2006, Larrañaga is just a guy who loves what he does. a life. And there’s no doubt he wants Miami to keep dancing.

“If I can entertain my players, put a smile on their face or make them laugh, that’s great because I have a thick skin,” Larranaga said. “I don’t worry about things like that.”

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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