If there is any magical pixie dust left floating around the George Mason University campus from the Patriots’ improbable run to the 2006 Final Four, Coach Jim Larrañaga hopes it rubs off on his University of Miami players.
It is the 10th anniversary of George Mason’s historic March; and Larrañaga, who coached that scrappy team, is using the occasion to inspire his 11th-ranked Hurricanes as they prepare for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament this week in Washington.
Miami, the No. 3 seed, got a double-bye into the quarterfinals, and plays at 9 p.m. Thursday against the winner of Wednesday’s game between Virginia Tech and Florida State.
As soon as Larrañaga saw last August the Hurricanes would end the regular season at Virginia Tech, he knew exactly where he wanted them to practice for the ACC tournament — at EagleBank Arena on the George Mason campus in Fairfax, Virginia.
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On Monday, Larrañaga gathered his UM players at midcourt in that building, formerly known as the Patriot Center, and told them to look up into the rafters at the Patriots’ Final Four banner.
He regaled them with stories of that team, told them of “the sacrifices and the joys.” He explained how an 11th-seeded team managed to upset No. 6 Michigan State, defending champion North Carolina, Wichita State and top-seeded UConn — silencing critics (including TV announcer Billy Packer) who said the Patriots, who had lost to Hofstra in their conference tournament, didn’t deserve an at-large bid and had no business being in the Big Dance.
Larrañaga took the team to the campus library to see a display of memorabilia from the 2006 Final Four, and to dinner at Brion’s Grille, where he and his wife, Liz, and many of his players and assistant coaches ate after every game that season.
The Jim Larrañaga Burger (which was slathered in honey mustard, jack cheese and banana peppers) was removed from the menu after he took the UM job in 2011, but the memories remain. They have come flooding back to the coach in the past few days.
“It has been very, very enjoyable to relive all of this 10 years later,” Larrañaga told reporters Monday. “We knew we had done something very, very special. The whole nation adopted us as a Cinderella. Once we did it, it opened up the eyes of other mid-major programs. They started saying, ‘If George Mason can do it, why not us?’ ”
Butler went on to make the Final Four in 2010 and 2011. Virginia Commonwealth did it in 2011, and Wichita State in 2013.
“It’s like breaking the four-minute mile barrier,’’ he said. “We did it, and other mid-majors followed.”
Larrañaga is still revered in Fairfax. He will be back on campus in June for graduation, where he is being presented the Mason Medal, the school’s highest honor.
That 2006 Final Four appearance was such a big deal that the Washington Post this week published a 10th anniversary special print and video package called: “Mason Madness: Inside the Most Unlikely Run in NCAA History.” It includes interviews with Larrañaga and his UM assistants, Chris Caputo and James Johnson, both of whom were on his George Mason staff.
It has been an emotional week for Caputo and Johnson. When they walked to center court at practice Monday, they each gravitated to the same spot on the circle that they had as Patriots coaches. They reminisced about the excitement on campus during that run, and the parade that followed.
Said Caputo: “It reminded me of A Football Life with Bill Belichick when he’s walking around Giants Stadium and said, ‘I was on that treadmill for so many hours watching film.’ I spent nine years here, and I was in my 20s, so there wasn’t much else going on in my life, no family or anything. Great memories of this place.”
Added Johnson: “Looking up at that banner brought back so many memories. I have friends who have been coaching 25 years and never coached in a Final Four, so I’m very grateful. And seeing all that memorabilia in the library was great. When Coach L talked to our UM players about having a chance to make history with this team, I had chills.”
Larrañaga will spend the next several days trying to toe the balance between getting his players prepared for intense tournament games, but keeping them loose at the same time. On Monday night, the team ate at a hibachi-style Japanese restaurant and Larrañaga got the players laughing when the chef flung shrimp across the table into the coach’s mouth. He caught all three, though one fell out.
“Better than you guys shoot free throws, baby,” he joked.
“I told my players it’s not about winning, it’s about enjoying playing,” Larrañaga said. “Handling the emotional aspect of the game at this point of the season is hugely important.”
And that is what this visit to George Mason’s campus is all about, he said..
“I want to share the George Mason experience with them, show what we were able to accomplish by being highly motivated and focused, and then I want us to be the best Miami Hurricane team we can be.”