Jim Larrañaga might end up being the man who changed the world of college basketball in the state of Florida for a very long time.
After a long career of crazy success at each of his stops, including his historical and memorable Final Four run with George Mason in 2006, the coach took it upon himself to try to ignite the basketball program at Miami.
When Larrañaga took the job at the age of 61 in 2011, some felt that it was some sort of lifetime achievement award. The coach’s last chance to get a big time paycheck, as his career as a meaningful coach was coming to a close.
Well, that was some of the original speculation.
I mean, who in their right mind would go to a Miami program that has historically not cared all that much about basketball, and had even begun to stop spending money (at the time) on the college football side? If anything, it seemed like the university as a whole was trending in the wrong direction as far as collegiate athletics were concerned.
Some amazing things have happened since Larrañaga took over the basketball program.
Firstly, he has had that rather immediate on-the-court type of success which honestly didn’t seem plausible.
Larrañaga, in a short period of time, has managed to give Miami its first and only conference tournament championship in 2013, only its second regular season conference title in the same year, and managed to take the Hurricanes to their second Sweet Sixteen for only — again — the second time in the history of their program.
Since all of that happened in 2013, it might seem like an isolated incident.
Except for the fact that his overall record as a coach at the school is an incredible 99–50 (.664), with a respectable in-conference record of 41–29 (.586).
While his other seasons with the program, primarily last season when Miami was the NIT runner-up, might seem like disappointments, Larrañaga has kept his basketball program good and consistent enough to trend in the direction of a place where it would once be absurd to consider it could reach…
The Hurricanes are in a prime position — given the timing and context of everything — to become the best basketball program in the state of Florida.
There are currently 13 Division I college basketball teams in the entire state, most of which aren’t very good or in positions to make a run at this fictional throne I just invented.
We can go ahead and hurl Stetson, North Florida, Jacksonville, Florida Atlantic, Florida A&M, FIU and Bethune-Cookman out the window to start.
After that, there are a few other programs which might seem a little trendier, but Florida Gulf Coast (goodbye, Dunk City), South Florida, and UCF are honestly not the types of programs that could have the sort of sustainability to overtake the entire state.
That leaves us with the Florida State Seminoles, Miami Hurricanes, and Florida Gators.
Florida State isn’t going to be that program. While it’s by no means an abomination of a college basketball school, few signs have been shown in recent history to expect the Seminoles to do anything other than bubble up every few years before going back to being bottom-feeders in the ACC.
It’s the Florida Gators, on the other hand, that have had a long stranglehold on all things state-related.
Except there’s a huge difference with that basketball program right now. You know, Billy Donovan is off coaching the pros and in his place is a very capable—but still NOT Billy Donovan—Michael White.
If anything, if ever, Miami’s chance to overthrow Florida as the destination school in the state for top prospects is now.
With the Hurricanes recently beating the Gators, 66-55, it continues to give Larrañaga more ammunition when it comes to the recruiting trail.
We could go on and on about what he has done with Miami so far, and how Florida is going through a transition phase (worth noting: White is a very good coach, and Florida will continue to be good), but it will be on the recruiting trail where Miami will make its bones.
Thanks to Larrañaga turning everything he touches into gold, Miami is a season away from getting legitimate dynamic talent to their program. We are not even talking some well-thought of prospects, either. It’s more like the type of prospects who can alter a program’s history.
As of today, Miami has two ESPN Top 100 recruits coming to the team in 2016 and one 4-star prospect. The arrivals of those players — Dewan Huell (21st ranked prospect), Bruce Brown (30th), and Rodney Miller (6th highest rated recruit in the state of Florida) — mark an unofficial signature moment of the Larrañaga era at Miami, and one that signals that potential prized recruits are recognizing the program for being on the upswing.
It’s a big deal.
Moments like those, tangible ones, not only help paint a clear picture to project with, but provide a program with proof that it’s headed in the right direction, and it isn’t some sort of fad.
It should also help continue the momentum Larrañaga has built since he joined the program.
While acknowledging that Miami isn’t yet a yearly dancer in the month of March, with the Hurricanes looking like their destined to go to the NCAA Tournament this season coupled with the incoming recruiting class putting Miami in a lock and reload mode instead of rebuilding mode, it looks as if they’re about to become a program thats name is annually called by the selection committee on a cold Sunday in March.
The naysayers will point to Larrañaga’s age. They will have some merit to their points, too.
Currently 66, it is not as if he’s a spring chicken. When you directly compare that to the coach who he’s competing against for the right to dominate the state — White is only 38 — there could be concerns that the long-term isn’t as bright as being alluded to.
That’s mostly hogwash, though, as many college basketball coaches know no age. Some even age gracefully as wine — getting better with age. Even with that being said, the worst case scenario calls for him to finish out his contract, which runs through 2022.
That is seven years away.
Seven more years of Larrañaga putting his stamp on the University of Miami and its basketball program.
Seven years of hurling out all the program’s less fun history, building up a new aura surrounding it and building a foundation of a program that will make it appealing to other coaches whenever he decides to hang up the whistle.
Finally, let’s acknowledge the very most important aspect of all of this.
All sporting success at the college level — money sports, that is — hinges on a school’s willingness to spend money. Not only on coaches, but facilities as well.
And while some may have rightfully called Miami shrewd over the last decade or so, the term doesn’t seem to apply as much as it once did.
With Miami giving Mark Richt adult-college football money and not opting for its usual route of trying to make a coach instead of the other way around—as well as adding a $15 million indoor practice facility, and the $120 million medical building on campus (which it hope gives it a competitive edge)— it seems as if things are changing in the right (financial direction) for the university’s programs.
We won’t know for sure how good Miami will be in the long-term. Until hindsight is afforded to us, only speculation can be spewed from our mouths.
Until then, though, there’s little reason to think that the Hurricanes won’t be anything but special over the next few seasons, light-years ahead of the perception of the old regimes and eras of U-basketball.
And if not the best program in the entire state, at least no longer the Gator’s little basketball buddy.
Seriously, it happens from time to time. UConn wasn’t UConn until Jim Calhoun made it so. He helped turn that program into such a college basketball darling that it hasn’t lost much steam — if any — under Kevin Ollie.
Mark Few turned Gonzaga into a yearly program of consequence despite playing in a non-power league.
Duke wasn’t all that special until Mike Krzyzewski implemented his vampire techniques. There are honestly a plethora of other examples.
Really, stranger things have happened than the University of Miami becoming an annual program of worth in college basketball.
I mean, if Calhoun and Ollie could convince kids over the years to play in Storrs during the winter, I’m sure Larrañaga can ride his current success and the state’s nice weather into something special.