When you think about it, the swiftness of Jim Larranaga’s departure from Mason to Miami is the most jarring reality of the entire situation.
It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. It was supposed to be a protracted romance–frothy-mouthed media leaks about overtures spurned, and a week’s worth of speculation and overanalysis of every word written and spoken. Fans would be calling up that website where charter flights are tracked and posting wild rumor. The man is the CAAs alltime winningest coach, for crying out loud.
In the end, Larranaga was supposed to make the crippling yet credible decision to move on, choke up but not cry at a sendaway presser, and we could all feel good about the whole thing.
In the end, we got the equivalent of a one-night stand. Thursday evening phone calls became a Friday press conference and there was nothing more. (For the record, I don’t for one minute believe this began on April 11.)
As we wrote last week, this day was coming anyway. Larranaga is 61 years old and his body is beginning to give out on him. Though nobody openly discussed “that day,” they did discuss finalities like court-naming. Though the day arrived unexpected and in a harsh manner, it doesn’t change reality. Larranaga, at 273-164 at Mason, will coach there no more.
Here’s the kicker: when you factor out the celerity and the emotion of the “how,” Larranaga leaving town isn’t exactly fried-egg-eyes shocking.
First, the fact that Larranaga and Tom O’Connor weren’t best friends was never much a secret. There may have been increasingly tense discussions (or non-discussions) but that really doesn’t matter. The instructive point is that Larranaga and O’Connor didn’t see eye-to-eye on certain things.
Here’s why that matters. While college basketball can be a romantic notion for fans who are passionate about their schools and extremely protective of the heroic men who lead their team, you need to remember to the coaches it’s also a job.
A college basketball head coach is prone to the same pressures and expectations you and I face every day in our jobs. Bosses promise things that sometimes never materialize. The same outside forces that dictate how you approach your job dictate theirs. The market itself changes. There are budgets and struggles and wins and losses. The “industry” is college basketball and the “company” is Mason Athletics, but the composition of the managerial influences are similar.
Look, Jim Larranaga wanted a practice facility. Upgrades to the Patriot Center. There were likely a multitude of other initiatives we don’t know about. He asked his boss for those things, probably multiple times, and many of those things didn’t happen.
You probably need a new laptop to do your job better; need to go to that conference, buy that new piece of software or obtain something that will help you land a new client. If you could just get a junior-level employee, the work could get done. Your budget may dictate none of those are happening. That’s life.
Here’s what I blame Tom O’Connor for in this situation–nothing. He is running his athletics department under guidelines set by his Board. It would stupid for O’Connor to risk mortgaging the future of Mason athletics to pay a 61-year old man that much money, so close to retirement. Nobody is disrespecting the volume of wins and notoriety Larranaga brought to the university, but that doesn’t mean it’s responsible to reward that at the expense of the entire future of Mason athletics.
It isn’t like O’Connor didn’t do his best to give Larranaga what he could. In the end, it wasn’t enough. This isn’t to say Larranaga is to be blamed. He was provided working conditions, he didn’t like them, and the market dictated he had other opportunities. He took one of those opportunities.
Pay attention to that, because you’ve read and heard a lot that isn’t central to the point.
This isn’t about personal compensation. Larranaga’s getting a reported, $1.2M from Miami. He also had the opportunity to make $1M from Mason. You cannot tell me “he did this for the money” was about $200,000. I’m not buying that, especially when the decision was made that quickly.
He wasn’t involved at Georgia Tech or NC State, two other ACC schools with similar compensation plans–both are better jobs.
Don’t bring the money for the assistants angle into this. Hooey. The Mason assistants being underpaid relative to CAA peers is not an April 2011 issue. They’ve had multiple chances over the years to take care of that, if it had been important.
Mason could’ve paid the assistants after 2006, or taken that buy game budget from $150,000 to $100,000 and earmark the money for the assistant coaches.
It’s a simple matter, despite what anybody will publicly say: Larranaga wanted things, O’Connor said no but “here’s the best we can do,” and Larranaga chose his option of going elsewhere.
Getting hung up in who said what is fruitless, anyway. You should focus on tomorrow. Like players, coaches will come and go.
VCU has done it twice and upgraded each time. Towson and Georgia State made a commitment this year, as did UNCW last year. Hofstra faced it last year, twice.
In fact, Hofstra is the perfect case study. The Pride had to replace an enormously popular coach in Tom Pecora who had taken the program to new heights. Pecora didn’t leave for Fordham because of on-court or off-court failings. Rather, it was the tried and true “philosophical differences” with his boss and the university.
The Pride faithful gnashed their teeth and held their breath and cursed and hoped it would work out. They were rightfully nervous about the future of their flagship program. In the end, the hiring of Mo Cassara appears to be ideal for them–a young, energetic coach who can connect to and motivate the fan base, as well as win basketball games.
Like Larranaga and Mason, the Hofstra situation was uncomfortable. That alone didn’t make it wrong, and Jack Hayes proved that by hiring the right guy.
And this is where O’Connor is challenged to do his job well. O’Connor has to identify “that guy” and hire him.
The fit is the most important part, and O’Connor should take his time. College basketball is about programs, not individuals. “The man” who will lead your program must represent it in the manner you want. UNCW, Towson, and Georgia State recently found out what that means, and they all are rebuilding under head coaches whose strengths are exactly what each school needs. Northeastern gave Bill Coen a big raise and improved Matthews Arena because they believe they have their guy.
If Mason has a facilities ceiling (or whatever you want to call it), then that needs to be taken into consideration in the hire. “A good coach” is a given, but should he be a grumpy proven winner or a young energetic guy fans that makes fans swoon (and open up their checkbooks)? Those criteria are far more important than Shaka Smart’s salary, which is another red herring in all this.
It didn’t actually change anything but perception. If you think that just because Shaka Smart is making $1.2M per year means Larranaga and Blaine Taylor and anybody else immediately deserve “that kind of” raise, you are mistaken.
What the Smart contract–and those of his assistants–did was create a mindset. Smart’s contract and salary is an outlier, done for a specific school’s specific needs. It only influences the decisions of others. However what it does say is that you’d better be willing to join the arms race, or hire intelligently.
Preferably for Your Team: both.