Thursday, March 23, 2006
Larranaga's career year too late to catch UVa's attention
Timing never good for ex-aide and Cavaliers
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Having covered each of the Virginia men’s basketball coaching searches since 1990, I honestly cannot remember Jim Larranaga’s name ever being mentioned, either by the people conducting the search or by the media.
In considering his body of work, maybe he should have been.
That’s not to say that Virginia made a poor choice with any of its last three hires Jeff Jones, Pete Gillen and Dave Leitao although Jones, then 29, was the youngest head coach in the country at the time of his selection in the spring of 1990.
That was the year that then-athletic director Jim Copeland thought he had lured Rick Barnes from Providence and gave second and third choices Mike Montgomery (Stanford) and Bruce Parkhill (Penn State) the courtesy of removing their names from consideration.
When Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt laid a major guilt trip on Barnes, Copeland had to settle for Jones in what looked like a fiasco at the time, but nobody was complaining when the Cavaliers went 105-57 in Jones’ first five seasons. They had four 20-win seasons over that time, compared to one 20-win season in 11 subsequent seasons (three under Jones).
Unlike Jones, Gillen and Leitao had been established head coaches at so-called high-major programs and their selections were widely praised. Gillen enjoyed some early success and Leitao’s first team showed potential, so it’s not as if UVa’s selection teams made any huge mistakes.
But, when you think about Larranaga taking George Mason to the Sweet 16 of this year’s NCAA Tournament and defeating Michigan State and North Carolina along the way, it does make you wonder why he never got a sniff from Virginia.
Or, so we think.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Larranaga was on a short list, along with Boston University’s Dennis Wolff, if Virginia's athletic director Craig Littlepage had been unable to persuade Leitao to take the job.
Littlepage actually requested permission to speak to Wolff, who had been a popular UVa assistant in the early 1990s and a major factor in Jones’ early success. Littlepage also may have asked to speak to Larranaga, but nobody really bothered to find out.
Larranaga actually had a longer tenure as a Virginia assistant (1979-1986) than Wolff and those UVa teams were the most successful in UVa history, making two Final Four appearances. At the end of the 1986 season, Larranaga took the head-coaching position at Bowling Green, where he had a 170-144 record over 11 seasons.
Larranaga had ties to former Virginia athletic director Terry Holland going back to Holland’s head-coaching tenure at Davidson, when Larranaga was a Wildcats assistant, but when Holland tried to arrange a line of succession at Virginia, it was another UVa assistant, Dave Odom, whom he pushed with Copeland.
That was the spring of 1989, when Odom was being courted by Wake Forest, but Holland wasn’t ready to step down and Copeland wasn’t willing to promise a job that wouldn’t open for at least another year.
Larranaga and Odom had served as co-coaches in 1986 when Holland took a short leave to deal with stomach problem, with Larranaga technically serving as spokesman, although the media was quick to turn to Odom. It was Odom who single-handedly had taken an adversarial relationship between Holland and the media and turned it into a viable working relationship.
Larranaga was a little more standoffish with the media and it took a while for fans to forgive him for the technical foul he received late in the 1983 ACC championship game, in which North Carolina State beat the Cavaliers 81-78.
The most important variable in coaching searches is timing, however, and you’d have to believe, if Larranaga had been 25-7 and won two NCAA games last year, that UVa fans would have been clamoring for him.
Instead, when the UVa job came open last year, Larranaga was coming off a 16-13 season that was his worst, percentage-wise, in six years.
Besides, there is an element at UVa that wants no part of the Holland coaching tree and, therefore, did not want to hear about Larranaga or Odom, who is approaching his mid-60s, another issue. Larranaga is younger than you might think after 20 years as a Division I head coach, having turned 56 in October.
As bad as the timing was for Larranaga last year, it was even worse in 1997-98, when Virginia was looking for a replacement for Jones after an 11-19 season. At the time, Larranaga had just completed his first year at George Mason, whose eighth consecutive losing season ended with a 7-19 record.
That was followed by three straight 19-win seasons, but by then Virginia had moved on. Who knows if UVa would have looked at him anyway? It’s not as if a lot of big-time programs have been knocking on his door and it’s hard to tell if anybody is looking at him now.
One school that might have an interest is Cincinnati, whose athletic director, Mike Thomas, spent time at Virginia but not while Larranaga was there. If Holland or anybody else with Virginia ties were to call with a recommendation, Thomas might be inclined to listen.
In all likelihood, the closest Larranaga will get to Virginia is George Mason, located 100 miles from Charlottesville, but never has Larranaga’s coaching acumen been so widely respected. There’s a lot to be said for that.