Red Right 88

Cleveland sports fan and sports writer

Location: Cleveland, Ohio, United States

quit my job decided to drive west

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

George Mason’s Larranaga is everything you want in a coach

Chances are good that before the NCAA tournament, you had never heard of Jim Larranaga. Today, he is the best coach in college.

Strong words. But let me define best. Jim Larranaga epitomizes everything you want in a college basketball coach.

His team, George Mason, was upset by Hofstra in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. In the final minute of the game, Larranaga's second leading scorer, Tony Skinn, unseen by Larranaga or any official, punched a Hofstra player in the groin.

Mid-majors often don't get a second bid to the Big Dance, let alone four. If a team is short-handed, the NCAA tournament selection committee often holds that against them. But Larranaga did not hesitate he suspended Skinn for the team's next game regardless of whether it was in the NCAA tournament or the NIT. He did what was right regardless of the cost.

When George Mason did receive a bid, CBS's lead basketball analysts Billy Packer and Jim Lance ripped the committee for selecting four teams from the CAA and for taking George Mason in particular. The pair showed a venom rarely seen on a network TV sports interview. A few years back, after Packer ripped another mid major team, that coach and Packer fought back and forth in the media. Larranaga just laughed and talked about how he respected Packer.

George Mason, sans Skinn, upset Michigan State in the first round of the tournament. The team's reward was a game against defending National Champion North Carolina. George Mason won that game as well, but to prove how low profile the school is, the wire story called the team the Colonials rather than the Patriots.

Many analysts predicted George Mason's ride would end in the Sweet 16. Since the Patriots would be playing less than 20 miles from campus in Washington D.C., the experts claimed the team would not handle the extra press coverage, the request for tickets and the pressure of being in the national spotlight. Instead they jumped out to a 9-0 lead in route to a 63-55 win over Wichita State.

But surely the ride was over against everyone's pre-tournament favorite Connecticut. The Huskies appeared to pull away late in the first half, but George Mason kept hanging around and took a lead with eight minutes to go.

Down the stretch, Larranaga's kids made big shot after big shot. With six seconds to go, Skinn went to the foul line, his team up two, ready to ice the game. He missed. And UCONN's Denham Brown went the length of the floor and saw his lay-up bounce high off the rim and into the basket to send the game in overtime.

It seemed a death blow to Cinderella. If you let Goliath get off the mat, after hitting him with your slingshot, that is normally bad news. You could hear the air escape from the crowd at the MCI Center.

Earlier in the game, Larranaga asked his kids if he was the only one having fun. He wasn't going to let his kids remain an almost, a feel good story. He affirmed his kids in the huddle.

"I told them there was nowhere I would rather be than right here in the MCI Center with them against UNCONN," Larranaga said in his post-game press conference. "We didn't play defense for five seconds so now we have to beat them in a five minute game."

His team did just that. When the game was over, Larranaga did not dance. He did not run around the court like a mad man, he walked over shook UNCONN coach Jim Calhoun's hand. Larranaga knew his team was an underdog, but it wasn't a miracle they won- just executing a game plan.

“It’s not who we play, but how we play,” he said.

In the press conference, a reporter suggested that George Mason couldn't beat three of the last seven National Champions in the same tournament and be called Cinderella. Larranaga refused to be baited. He knows his team and he knew that his team can beat any one in a one game format. He understands his team is still the underdog and that underdogs bring hope to people everywhere.

"We represent a group that is much larger than us. People don't understand, maybe even our own players, we touch so many more people than those who are around us or even at our games."

Larranaga said he got a letter from a man who was in a bad car accident. The man said he was in bad shape but after seeing George Mason overcome the odds of beating Michigan State and North Carolina, he wanted to be George Mason and overcome his odds and recover. Larranaga seemed humbled by that and the many other letters he has received.

Another local writer wrote on Sunday, that CBS was praying George Mason did not pull the upset over the high profile UCONN program. That just shows how out of touch some sportswriter are. America loves the Underdog. The majority of the country will be pulling for the team from the little conference named for the American Revolutionary hero. He knows what his team means to the little guy everywhere.

"And we accept that responsibility for at least one more week."

And then he added, “I can’t believe how much fun I am having.”