He is a 63-year-old grandfather and walks with a stiff gait after double hip replacement. He is bald, with wispy white hair. He took his time climbing the ladders to cut the nets down after his University of Miami basketball team won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles the past few weeks.
And he’ll be wearing a conservative dark suit when his second-seeded Hurricanes (27-6) open the NCAA Tournament on Friday afternoon in Austin against 15th-seeded Pacific.
It is hard to imagine that the venerable Jim Larranaga, on Tuesday voted National Coach of the Year, was once a heck of a basketball player. He was a 6-4 shooting guard/small forward. He sported a full head of dark hair, wore long sideburns and short shorts.
“Larry,” as all his teammates called him, led Providence College in scoring his sophomore and junior seasons — 1968-69 and 1969-70. As a sophomore, he averaged 19.4 points per game. As a junior, 16.3. He scored 1,258 points over his three seasons there (freshmen didn’t play varsity back then), which ranked fifth on the school’s all-time list when he graduated.
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But the Larranaga stat that drops most jaws is this: He scored 47 points against Julius Erving’s team in the Port Chester, N.Y., tournament, a pro-am event played in a small catholic high school gym. Erving had just turned pro, and Larranaga had just graduated from Providence.
His Providence team played against UCLA with Lew Alcindor in the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden. They beat Bob Lanier’s St. Bonaventure team (rumor has it some Providence students stole his size 22 sneakers, but he had another pair). And they knocked off Calvin Murphy’s Niagara team.
Larranaga was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in the sixth round of the 1971 draft but wound up playing in Belgium and then turned to coaching.
He still ranks 13th in all-time career average, with 16.3 points per game. He also averaged six rebounds per game, 80 percent free throw shooting and 45.3 percent field goal shooting.
One might think that the coach’s extensive playing experience gives him extra credibility with the Hurricane players.
“No, not at all,” Larranaga said, smiling. “They see me as an old man, like a grandfather or something. They don’t think of me as a former player. They don’t care that I was drafted by the Pistons, played in Europe, none of that. When I was in college, my coach was 42 years old, and I thought he was an old man.”
Junie Ferro was Larranaga’s teammate at Providence and roomed with him all four years. The first year, they lived in Aquinas Dorm. Their senior year, they lived in an unnamed brand-new building. Ferro remembers their dorm room was No. 714 because that was the Joe Friday’s police badge number on the TV show Dragnet.
Ferro and Larranaga first met at a high school basketball camp in Rhode Island. “My first impression of Larry was, ‘Wow! He’s 6-4 and he handles the ball almost as well as I do,’ ” said Ferro, who was a 5-10 guard. “Nowadays, big guys are great ball-handlers, but back in the ’60s, that was unusual.”
Because of his height and versatility, Larranaga was called upon to play all five positions at times during his college career.
“Larry handled the ball well for a big guy,” said Vic Collucci, another former Providence teammate. “He also rebounded. He did it all. He was a great teammate, would do whatever was needed of him, even if it meant playing out of position, which he did a lot.”
Collucci laughs when he sees old photos of their Friar teams.
“We wore shorts hiked up our butts, we had skinny arms, skinny legs,” Collucci said. “Nobody lifted weights because everyone was afraid of pulling a muscle.
“I see the guys today like LeBron [James] and Dwyane [Wade], and I can’t even imagine playing on the court with them. The game was very different back then.”
Jim O’Brien, the former Boston College and Ohio State coach, is one of Larranaga’s oldest buddies. Larranaga grew up in The Bronx, N.Y., and O’Brien in Brooklyn. They played against each other in the high school playoffs and together on some all-star teams. They hit it off.
“I was a point guard, and Larry was an off-guard type, so we played very well together,” said O’Brien, now the coach at Division III Emerson College. “He was a very good scorer. We visited Providence together, and were going to go there as a package deal. But I had a change of heart and ended up at Boston College. We remained good friends, and still are.
“He is very bright, very analytical, but he also really knew how to play the game, and I think that makes him a great coach.”
Ferro said he saw signs that his roommate might one day become a successful coach. For one thing, he loved to run ball screens, and tell all the other players where to be on the court. He also became fascinated with statistics.
“Larry was an economics major, always interested in numbers,” he said. “The coaches started keeping stat sheets from our games, and Larry always had those scattered on his desk in our dorm room. He liked to study them.”
Larranaga said his playing experience helps him relate to his players.
“When you’re talking to a big guy and he wants to get the ball and he can’t get the ball, I’ve been there. I’m talking to a point guard and he’s under a lot of pressure to get the ball to other guys and he can’t keep everybody happy, I’ve been there.”
His former teammates all say they have kept close tabs on Larranaga and the Canes this season. They shared his joy as he whistled and waved the net in the air after clinching the ACC title in Greensboro, N.C., last Sunday.
“When I watch Larry on TV, it’s like we’re on the same team again,” said Ferro, who lives in Stuart. “I can feel his emotions, the way I did on the court. To see him on the ladder with that backwards cap on the other day, can’t tell you how proud it made me feel.”