Unconventional wisdom

Offbeat teachings of coach Larranaga guide George Mason

Ncaa Men

March 31, 2006|By HEATHER A. DINICH | HEATHER A. DINICH,SUN REPORTER

FAIRFAX, VA. — Fairfax, Va.-- --The sign outside the Patriot Center on the George Mason campus has been temporarily switched to "Larranaga Center." Inside the dank, 10,000-seat arena, a tiny rubber ball whizzed past basketball coach Jim Larranaga.

Cheers echoed to the rafters as guard Gabe Norwood's fly ball ricocheted off the green seats in the third row, and senior guard Tony Skinn high-stepped across an imaginary home plate under one of the baskets.

"New teams!" yelled one player.

"Mercy rule!" shouted another.

Above the spectacle Larranaga has dubbed "unity ball," the words FINAL FOUR glittered in white lights on the scoreboard, the only indication of why this basketball team was still practicing Tuesday.

Playing a pickup game of baseball less than a week before facing Florida in the Final Four - with a horde of media and autograph-seeking fans permitted inside practice to witness it - might seem a little odd. It's not, though, to anyone familiar with Larranaga before he led this once-obscure program to school history with an unprecedented run in the NCAA tournament.

It's just how he is.

Larranaga's unorthodox approach to coaching and creative ways of connecting with his team are staples of the 56-year-old's philosophy, and extensions of his gregarious, sometimes goofy personality. His tactics are a major reason the team is having so much fun, staying loose and why the Patriots have been able to knock off some of the most storied programs in college basketball to get to Indianapolis this weekend.

"Everybody in the country I've either heard from - voicemail, e-mails - has recognized a significant difference in our approach," said Larranaga, whose team beat Michigan State to win the school's first NCAA tournament game March 17, and then knocked off defending national champion North Carolina, Wichita State and No. 1 seed Connecticut. "Almost 100 percent has been very positive. They like it. We've always been this way, but it's just now maybe something other people are recognizing and wondering, is that a good way to be?

"Whether it is or not, I'm not judging that for other programs," he said. "We just judge it for ourselves, and we like who we are."

Room for everyone

Larranaga's office is modest, his desk cluttered with books, papers, knickknacks and a bottle of Chloraseptic, probably to relieve his throat from the oodles of media requests he has recently obliged (He fell asleep during his interview with Sports Illustrated last weekend).

A Jimmy V collage, signed by Dick Vitale, hangs on the wall. Next to it is a Pyramid of Success, signed by John Wooden. The most prominent picture is of the Patriots' game against Maryland in the 2001 NCAA tournament, when Mason lost, 83-80, to the Terps in the final minute. Until now, that loss was their best performance in the NCAA tournament.

There are no windows in Larranaga's office, but the door is always open.

"The kids come by and talk to him about everything," said assistant coach James Johnson, who lived with Larranaga and his wife, Liz, for more than a month when he was first hired. (The three of them ate breakfast together every morning.) "He looks at it like a family."

Liz Larranaga, the coach's wife of 35 years, knows the 6,500-square foot home they bought just 6.5 miles from campus is too much for the two of them.

They didn't buy it, though, for themselves.

The ceilings are nine-feet high so the players can walk around comfortably, but they spend most of their time downstairs, in the Mason Room. The entire room is green, and the walls are covered with pictures of everyone who has played for Larranaga in the nine seasons he's coached at George Mason, and their awards.

There is a pool table, a ping-pong table, video games and a big-screen TV.

"That's what that house is for," Liz Larranaga said. "They come, they know where the refrigerator is. It's their home, and they take good care of it."

Master motivator

Senior guard Lamar Butler said he will never forget the butterfly ceremony, which took place outside the Patriot Center his sophomore year. Larranaga led the team outside, and each player was told to release his butterfly, which was symbolic of their individual journeys and metamorphasis - or something like that.

"They were magic butterflies or something like that," Butler said, shaking his head with a smile. "He was so serious. We were laughing. He was trying to get us to be serious. I just couldn't be serious."

This is the same coach, who, with his team leading 67-65 over the No. 1 seed and a frenzied 4:02 left to play Sunday, politely told the official, "I want to take a timeout, please."

After George Mason's win against Wichita State at Verizon Center, Larranaga climbed into the stands, crawled over a few fans and sat down next to his wife.

"Next thing I know, he's eating a hot dog," athletic director Tom O'Connor said. "There's nothing about him that's pretentious. He won't change."

Ahmad Dorsett, who graduated from George Mason in 2000, said Larranaga hasn't changed a bit.

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