HOUSTON — The loveable grandfather of this year’s Final Four stood in the rear of the main interview room at NRG Stadium on Thursday to soak in the waning moments of a news conference conducted by some of his players. Jim Larrañaga, head coach at Miami since 2011 and a few months shy of his 74th birthday, grinned as he replaced his Hurricanes on the dais, doing so with the kind of zeal and verve befitting a patriarchal figure whose proteges had just laughed their way through questions about his dance moves, a stiffening array of lurches and twists that have gone viral after huge NCAA Tournament wins each of the last two years.
“How great are those kids?” Larrañaga said to begin his media session that day. “Their personalities, they’re just so much fun to be around. They exude confidence in themselves, but they also believe in each other. And just listening to them, they’re enjoying this experience, taking it all in. And I’m hoping the emotions of the size of the venue, that they’ll be able to channel their emotions in the right direction, because they know this is a challenge to get to the Final Four. There have been a lot of great players, a lot of great teams that have never reached this point in their playing career or coaching career. So you’ve got to appreciate every opportunity you get. And we’re just looking forward to playing Saturday night.”
In 2021-22, Larrañaga put together the greatest season in Miami history by guiding the program to its first Elite Eight, a blowout loss to eventual national champion Kansas doing little to quell the excitement of the Hurricanes’ burgeoning tournament cachet. That he bested those results a year later with a 13-point comeback against Texas that launched Miami to the Final Four for the first time — and, in doing so, gave Larrañaga a second taste of the sport’s grandest stage after his mythical run with George Mason in 2006 — has cast a glowing spotlight on a savvy, self-aware and seriously underrated coach who adores his job and keeps getting better with age.
This means the prevailing questions posed to Larrañaga throughout this week have been countless variations of how and why. As in, how is the coach whose career began a year after The Beatles disbanded still adapting to the ever-changing landscape of college basketball? And how is he doing it at a rate that is much faster and more effective than most of his peers? As in, why does that coach want to keep going amid the brambles of NIL, the transfer portal and, several years ago, an FBI investigation that included — but later redacted — Miami from an indictment that still caused significant damage to the program’s recruiting efforts? Larrañaga could easily just sail off into the Florida sunset with his multiple conference championships, an AP College Coach of the Year award and more than 700 career wins.
“I think age is just a number,” said Larrañaga, who is a decade older than Brian Dutcher of San Diego State, the next-eldest coach at this year’s Final Four. “I just love doing what I’m doing. I love coaching basketball. I’ve done it for 51 years. And I hope to do it a lot longer. And what makes it so enjoyable are the players. And I tell the players all the time: The court is my classroom, and you are my student. And I’m going to teach you as much as I can.”
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There are cardboard posters in the Miami practice facility that personify what those close to Larrañaga describe as an ethos blurring the lines between teacher and coach. The cutouts house messages drawn from one of Larrañaga’s favorite books, an evergreen resource he believes can guide his players toward success both on and off the court: “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey.
Every time the Hurricanes practice on a weekend, Larrañaga makes the team recite all seven habits — Be proactive; Begin with the end in mind; Put first things first; Think win-win; Seek first to understand, then to be understood; Synergize; Sharpen the saw — and he encourages players to read these kinds of self-help books in their entirety. Larrañaga himself has been known to use Covey’s organizational planner that reinforces the author’s messages.
“He’s just a life coach,” said former Miami shooting guard Kameron McGusty, the leading scorer on last year’s team, during an interview with FOX Sports. “He teaches you about life and life lessons. If something happens in the program or we have a game, or something happens at practice, he always finds a way to relate it to, you know, your everyday life and why your habits should be better, or why you should do this if you want to see success on the court.
“And that was the biggest thing that I felt like helped me as a player there is just my off-the-court habits: eating the right way, making sure I got to bed properly, making sure I’m not going out and hanging out with friends all night, I’m in bed early getting focused, able to visualize, meditating, all that stuff. And that all comes full circle in a basketball career and also a career of life. And, you know, I felt like when I was at the University of Miami, I became a better person. And that’s what separates him and makes his players fall in love with his coaching style.”
In some respects, McGusty, who joined the program as a junior, represents the prototypical Hurricane during Larrañaga’s remarkable run at Miami — eight 20-win seasons, two regular season ACC titles and four Sweet 16s — after 14 years at George Mason. Larrañaga and his staff quickly realized that building a roster in Coral Gables would look and feel far different than what they’d experienced in Washington, D.C., where the Patriots almost never incorporated transfers. To them, the combination of sun-soaked skies and a gorgeous campus tucked just south of Miami proper made the Hurricanes an ideal destination for high-level players searching for a change of scenery — even before the transfer portal came into existence.
They targeted players from “big, land-grant, state institutions,” said longtime Larrañaga assistant Chris Caputo, who just completed his first season as the head coach at George Washington. In particular, they raided the Big 12. McGusty from Oklahoma (2018-22), point guard Angel Rodriguez from Kansas State (2014-16), shooting guard Sheldon McClellan from Texas (2013-16) and point guard Nijel Pack from Kansas State (2022-present) were all lured to Miami by the excitement of Larrañaga’s free-flowing, guard-focused offense, and then went on to earn some form of All-ACC recognition over the remainder of their careers. Pack was a particularly high-profile pickup because of the lucrative two-year, $800,000 NIL deal he quickly signed with LifeWallet, the company founded and run by the Hurricanes’ billionaire booster John Ruiz, who’s done deals with more than 150 athletes.
“We thought that a lot of parents may not sign off on having their kid come to Miami (out of high school),” said former U-M assistant Eric Konkol, now the head coach at Tulsa, during an interview with FOX Sports. “But when they’re older and the decision may be a little bit more theirs — this is generally speaking — we had a reputation for development and helping guys and just being basketball people, especially (for) guys that had a sit-out year in Miami with great facilities and support. That could be our way.”
Added Caputo: “If you look at, you know, the four teams — two Sweet 16s, one Elite Eight and one Final Four — three of the five starters are transfers on each of those teams.”
McGusty remembers Miami being the first school to call him after he declared his intention to transfer following two years at Oklahoma. He was quickly impressed by the attention to detail and forethought Larrañaga and the staff put into their recruiting pitch. They knew enough about his playing style to accurately break down McGusty’s game, and they outlined exactly what kind of support he’d receive off the court for things like diet, weight training and, of course, Larrañaga’s endless supply of life lessons.
One of the first things players and coaches notice about Larrañaga is his boundless sense of curiosity, and then they recognize his knack for pairing an inquisitive nature with a genuine sense of inclusion. At George Mason, where he reached five NCAA Tournaments, Larrañaga incorporated former university president Alan Merten into nearly every basketball activity. At Miami, where the Hurricanes had reached the Sweet 16 just once before Larrañaga’s arrival, he arranged a meeting with coaches from all the other sports at Miami shortly after getting hired because he wanted their insight on best practices for recruiting athletes to Coral Gables. This year alone he’s invited members of the law school, spirit squad and pep band to attend practices, and each of those groups has shared a post-workout meal with the players. He routinely tells his assistant coaches that he’s more than happy to help them secure another job if there’s an opportunity they wish to pursue.
“Words couldn’t describe what type of a human being he is,” Ruiz said during an interview with FOX Sports. “He’s just great to everybody around them. He’s full of energy. His wife is full of energy, their kids. I mean, it’s just a wholesome, amazing family. It almost makes you feel guilty not following the team and not putting in time and effort, just like they do into these kids.
“I can only imagine if I was a youngster like that, I would love to play for a coach like that, that you have that connection with. If you listen to the interviews when the players are around him, you can just tell the kind of relationship that they have. And when you see that the game is over and the kids are kissing the coach and hugging him, it’s just a true bond that in today’s day and age is something very, very special. I think that as time has gone by, we’ve kind of lost that humanistic component to relationships, and I think he kind of brings that to the table.”
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When Larrañaga returned to the dais on Friday for his second pre-game news conference, a fresh set of questions about his dancing awaited:
“I’m asking you this because all your guys brought it up yesterday, but how would you say your dance moves have evolved over the years?” one reporter said. “And they seem very impressed with it.”
“A lot of people asking you questions about your relevance, your relatability, your dance moves,” another reporter followed up a few minutes later. “I’m just wondering, have you ever been considered cool, or is the art of your un-coolness your coolness, if you will?”
Larrañaga couldn’t help but smile. He cracked a joke about lacking the requisite flexibility to grease his mechanical dance moves by loosening up, a request his players continue to make. He professed his love for self-deprecating humor and reminded everyone in attendance that he’s not, in fact, Michael Jackson moon walking across the stage.
But at the end of the day, as the Hurricanes continue with their final preparations for Saturday’s date with fourth-seeded Connecticut, the same team George Mason beat to reach the Final Four in 2006, Larrañaga is just a guy who loves what he does for a living. And there’s no question he wants Miami to keep dancing.
“If I can entertain my players, bring a smile to their face or have them laugh, that’s great because I got thick skin,” Larranaga said. “I don’t worry about stuff like that.”
Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.
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