- Friday, April 22, 2011 8:03 AM
- Written By: Josh Marks
I know this is a hockey blog and I'm not supposed to be writing about college basketball. But as a George Mason University alumnus and longtime supporter of the Patriots men's basketball program, I felt compelled to write this tribute to one of the greatest coaches to ever step on the hardwood -- Jim Larranaga.
The sad news comes today that Larranaga is leaving Mason to take over the head coaching duties at the University of Miami. CAA for ACC. Northern Virginia traffic for hurricanes. Pine trees for palm trees. The Patriot mascot for Sebastian the Ibis mascot.
When I attended George Mason's suburban Fairfax campus from 1997 to 2002, it was very much a commuter school that was sorely lacking in any school spirit. I was one of the few students who lived on campus, and many nights I would walk around Patriot Circle to see the basketball team play at the Patriot Center. And on most nights it was me and a dozen foreign exchange students cheering on the home team. And that was it.
While I was an undergrad at Mason, we went to the NCAA tournament twice -- losing to the Cincinnati Bearcats in the first round in 1999 and losing by only three points to the Maryland Terrapins in the first round in 2001.
My friends and I had school spirit. We went down to Richmond both years to witness Larranaga and the team tear down the nets as Colonial Athletic Association champions. I'll never forget storming the Richmond Coliseum court both those years to celebrate.
We even went so far as to drive from Fairfax to College Park in the middle of the night to plaster Maryland's campus with Mason's colors -- Green and Gold. It was reported in the Washington Post that before the game against the Patriots, Terrapins player Juan Dixon found out that Maryland's campus was vandalized by Mason students and that he was pissed.
But our school spirit was the exception, not the rule. I graduated from Mason in 2002 and headed out to California. I was living in Los Angeles in 2006 when the Mason Miracle happened. Coach Larranaga did the improbable. He took a no-name, rinky-dink commuter school and made Mason a household name by leading the Patriots to the Final Four -- destroying powerhouses Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut before losing to eventual champion Florida.
I was doing cartwheels in my apartment in L.A. and then driving down Wilshire Boulevard honking and screaming about the Patriots going to the Final Four to anyone within earshot. It was a magical moment. And where else would I have rather been for a Hollywood ending then Hollywood itself?
Since that amazing run that shook the sports world, when I tell people in California or Canada or anywhere for that matter that I went to Mason, they immediately mention "oh yeah, that school that went to the Final Four!" So thanks, Jim Larranaga, for the 2006 Final Four run and for putting Mason on the map.
Since then Larranaga has been a tireless advocate for the school itself. He touts its construction boom and world-class faculty to anyone that will listen. And as a result the stories aren't just about the Patriot Center now being filled to the rafters with nearly 10,000 fans on a weekday night for a game, but also the spike in applications from across the country and the tougher admissions process to get into Mason. In short: George Mason is now not only a basketball powerhouse but an academic heavyweight as well. So thanks Jim Larranaga for being the best ambassador Mason has ever had.
And just this past March Madness, he made Mason Nation believe again in miracles when the Patriots beat Villanova at the buzzer for the school's first tourney win since 2006. Once again I was going crazy, but this time instead of lonely Los Angeles, I was at a downtown Washington, D.C. bar cheering on the team with my fellow Patriots.
This loss will sting for awhile. But I wish Larranaga nothing but the best at Miami. I've tried to describe some of Larranaga's enormous legacy he is leaving in Fairfax, but there is so much more he has done for this community that it is beyond words.
All I can say is thanks.