GREENSBORO, N.C. — Jim Larranaga is 63 years old, was born in the Bronx of New York, and turned the college basketball world on its head when he guided little ole George Mason to the Final Four in 2006.
But deep down within, there’s a lot of ACC in Larranaga’s basketball DNA, and his team, Miami, beating North Carolina 87-77 on Sunday afternoon to win the ACC championship just may be the most personally rewarding moment of his long, distinguished career.
You won’t hear him say so, though. It just isn’t his style.
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Larranaga deflected any mention of the personal meaning Sunday, yet that he was a rare coach to win an ACC Tournament and then don a championship t-shirt and hat for the press conference may have said more than the coach’s words.
Instead of openly embracing praise and accomplishments, Larranaga views success through the experiences of those who get it done on the court, just like his mentor did.
Before attending Providence and a brief professional career overseas, Larranaga played for Jack Curran at Archbishop Molloy High school. He later followed in Curran’s steps because he wanted to affect young lives in the way Curran helped him.
Curran passed away at 82 last Thursday, and his pupil spoke with pride about the man who most inspired him in the sport. Curran wanted success for his players, and so does Larranaga.
“I am very goal-oriented, but almost all of my goals are team oriented, what I want for my team and what I want for my coaches,” Larranaga said in a hallway outside of his team’s locker room Sunday. “Helping the players achieve what they have is very satisfying to me.”
Larranaga’s players know that deep down this is satisfying for their coach, too.
“I shared a moment after the game, I told I loved him,” said senior center Julian Gamble. “He’s definitely changed me and he’s changed us as a team not just when it comes to basketball but on and off the court. He’s really been a father-figure for us, and for him to have an opportunity to do this is terrific. I am so happy for him. He deserves it.”
Larranaga was an assistant at Virginia when the Cavaliers came up short in this very same building in 1982, though before its renovation that increased seating from 16,000 to the 23,000 seats it now houses. North Carolina with Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins beat Ralph Sampson, Othell Wilson and UVA 47-45 for the coveted championship that day.
A year later in Atlanta, NC State beat Virginia 81-78 in the title game. Both the Tar Heels and Wolfpack went on to win national championships in those seasons. For Larranaga, Sunday was his third time coaching in the ACC championship, and this time his team came through.
He spent seven seasons under Terry Holland at Virginia. The Cavaliers won an NIT title and reached two Final Fours during that period. They were one of the best programs in the ACC but didn’t capture a conference tournament title. And back in those days, that was as big along Tobacco Road to some as reaching a Final Four. It also might have been more difficult in many years.
So while Larranaga might be a bit uncomfortable going to such an emotional place, it’s pretty obvious what this means. And again, his players know what this means to their coach.
“Coach has been here before,” senior Reggie Johnson said. “He didn’t just get to the ACC, he just returned to the ACC. This is big for him. I am very happy.”
Even when informed about what the players said, Larranaga still wouldn’t go there.
“It’s what I tell these guys all the time, you’ve got to live in the moment,” he said. “I don’t live in the past very much, I don’t live in the future. I try to live in the moment and the present, and help these guys as much as I can.”
Again, selfless. And that’s exactly what his team has been like all season. Miami improved to 27-6 with the victory and a rare double-double as ACC regular season and tournament champions.
The coach praised his seniors, saying them buying into his philosophies and embracing his approach two years ago were the only reason something like this could have happened so quickly.
Senior guard Durand Scott couldn’t help heaping praise on his coach.
“He just is a fantastic person before he’s a fantastic coach,” Scott said. “He knows how to talk to us. He just knows how to be a friend first and that’s the best way to get to somebody, I believe. It just makes it so much easier for us on the court.”
Miami has a chance to continue its dream season in the NCAA Tournament because the Hurricanes are capable of winning the national championship. They have everything required to cut down the nets. If that happens, that will trump Sunday’s accomplishment.
But sometime down the road when Larranaga can sit back, exhale and reflect on his career, there’s no doubt that beating the ACC’s benchmark program, North Carolina, in the ACC Tournament in the historic Greensboro Coliseum will take him to a satisfying yet emotional place. And then it might be okay to smile for himself.