IN MY OPINION

Greg Cote: Jim Larranaga lands in dream job with Miami Hurricanes

 

gcote@MiamiHerald.com

The University of Miami men’s basketball team climbed as high as it ever has Monday — to a No. 8 national ranking in The Associated Press poll — and the man who made that magic ladder appear, Jim Larranaga, had just heard the news when we spoke.

“It feels great. I’m excited,” the coach said. “It represents a major step forward.”

I asked Larranaga if he planned to break the news to his team. He smiled.

“Those guys know everything before I do,” he said. “By now someone has texted it, tweeted it, Facebooked it or instant messaged it.”

Nothing stays a secret for long anymore, and so these Hurricanes haven’t.

Less than a month ago they were off the national grid, and barely making South Florida pay attention. Now they are one of the sweet stories in all of college basketball, rocketing up in the polls from nowhere to 25th to 14th to eighth in three heady weeks.

A signature 90-63 pasting of No. 1 Duke on Jan. 23 in Coral Gables made America take notice. Reggie Johnson’s miracle last-second tip-in to win at No. 19 North Carolina State on Saturday made you wonder if this team wasn’t charmed.

Football is done now. You ready to pay attention to something besides the Heat?

This is your team. This is the time.

Larranaga’s guys have won nine in a row entering Tuesday night’s home game vs. Boston College. They are 17-3. They are 8-0 in the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference — the first ACC team other than Duke or North Carolina to do that since 1981.

The only other time the UM men ranked No. 8 was in March 1960, even before Rick Barry arrived. The Canes have never finished a season ranked higher than 10th.

This year, though, you get the idea anything is possible. You get the feeling March Madness will very much include this team as a major player.

A couple of weeks ago there was speculation about this being a Sweet 16 team. Then came the stunning whipping of Duke. Then came the top 10. Now if you’re talking Sweet 16 you seem to under-selling UM’s potential.

Elite Eight, anyone? Final Four, even?

This is Larranaga’s problem at the moment. Well, his challenge, at least. The excitement of possibility nourishing this program is all good, but it also raises the stakes on the coach making sure his players keep their focus.

“Our point of view is to get ready for Boston College,” he said Monday. “At any time, circumstances can change. We are not looking two weeks or a month down the road. The only thing [being ranked No. 8] does is fire up your opponent. The whole reason we are enjoying success is that we have prepared one day at a time. We do not get too full of ourselves just because somebody else has decided we’re good.”

The even keel is easier because five of UM’s top six scorers are seniors — Johnson, Durand Scott, Kenny Kadji, Trey McKinney Jones and Julian Gamble — itself unusual (and pleasantly so) in the one-and-done NCAA.

That is also why this season figures to be Miami’s best opportunity, although Larranaga, 63, in his second season here, has earned the faith that he can recruit and win with his own guys, not just with the talent inherited.

This coach took a long time to get to his dream job, but he has arrived at it.

He is best known for coaching mid-major George Mason to the Final Four in 2006, but that was just part of the climb.

“I’m very goal-oriented. I was an assistant in the ACC at Virginia [1979-86], and when I left I wrote down that one of my goals was to become a head coach in the ACC,” Larranaga said. “So when the Miami job opened up I was very interested.”

He did his research. He always loved the talent pool in Florida, and he found more than half the teams in the ACC had changed coaches recently.

“I saw a league going through a transition period,” he said. “If we were able to recruit well, we could do some damage in this conference. It seemed like an opportunity to come in and succeed very quickly.”

Larranaga had a very small inner circle of family and friends he consulted about the Miami job: his wife, two adult sons, Celtics coach Doc Rivers and sports psychologist Bob Rotella.

The conduit for Larranaga coming here was Jose Mas, whom he had met while coaching at a Michael Jordan fantasy camp. Mas, the son of Jorge Mas Canosa, the former Miami business leader and Cuban exile fixture, called Larranaga and invited him to forward his résumé to UM.

Larranaga was traveling and had no access to his résumé so, at a son’s suggestion, he copy-and-pasted his Wikipedia page and sent it to UM. An interview was set up. His hiring didn’t take long thereafter.

(Speaking of Mas Canosa, it happens that Larranaga is part Cuban. His father’s father was Cuban, emigrating to Key West in the early 1900s.)

Larranaga knew he was coming here to not just coach a team, but to grow a program in a city that hardly is a college hoops hotbed.

“I want everyone in this community to be dying to get a ticket to watch us play,” he said. “At Bowling Green and George Mason everybody also told me we couldn’t draw, but by the time I left the place was packed every night.”

Coaching in the ACC had been Larranaga’s “ultimate goal to really test yourself.” Now he is finding out the league isn’t too big for him. He’s big enough for the league.

I asked him if the satisfaction he feels is different now.

“Don’t know yet. We are still in the process of competing,” he said. Then he added something that should make Canes fans smile as much as that No. 8 ranking: “My career here at Miami has really just begun.”

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