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 career.

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.

21 Responses to “Larranaga to Miami Happens Every Day…”

  1. Jim Says:

    Sorry, Mike, but can’t help but think you’re contradicting yourself by citing Shaka’s deal as a “red herring” and then acknowledging that it “influences the decisions of others.”

    If you know anything about the free market economy, it was hardly an insignificant event when VCU made the Final Four and then decided to pay its second-year coach (who still hasn’t finished better than fourth in the CAA, by the way) the staggering sum of $1.2 million.

    That obviously doesn’t mean every other school has to pay its coach $1.2 million. But for a start, how about the only other team in the CAA that’s made the Final Four — you know, the same one who used to employ the winningest coach in the history of the conference?

    I don’t blame Larranaga for looking at Smart’s deal and saying, “I want — and deserve — what that guy is getting.” I blame the Mason administration for lacking the sufficient will, vision and understanding of public relations that was so expertly demonstrated by the brass at VCU, because you can’t convince me that VCU is just swimming in cash and Mason is Jethro Bodine before Ol’ Jed started shootin’ for some food.

    VCU branded itself as a school willing to step up and make a big-time commitment to its flagship athletic program. Given a similar opportunity, Mason took a pass.

    As a Mason alum, I am well and truly embarrassed.

  2. mlitos Says:

    Jim–pls email me.

    Also, perhaps it’s poorly written because I agree with your words, and I think “will” is the key thing. The university may be unwilling to make that commitment to basketball (and that’s unfortunate).

    What I mean to say is that just because Smart gets $1.2M, that doesn’t mean JL, BT, etc. suddenly get raises to that level.

    But isn’t $1M within good enough “shouting distance?” That’s why I don’t think it’s about the money. It’s about the unwillingness to do the other things (facilities, etc.). Mason would only commit to so much, and Larranaga exercised his option of choice.

    The influence is putting everyone else on notice, and everyone else needs to step up in the way that best serves them.

  3. EShine Says:

    I agree with Jim, especially on the “you can’t convince me that VCU is just swimming in cash and Mason is Jethro Bodine before Ol’ Jed started shootin’ for some food” comment.

    Mike – on its own, I agree with you on each of the individual points. However, if you take into account ALL of them together, Coach L decided it was best to move on. Did O’Connor make a decision based on “guidelines set by his Board?” Maybe, but you admit that there is a rift between the two. When it comes to getting things done, it goes through O’Connor. Its tough to imagine him fighting for someone that he doesn’t care for. Mason announced that practice facility – it didnt happen. They could have paid the assistants and HC more, but chose not to. If Coach L wasn’t getting what he felt he needed, why would he stay? That’s their choice, but it could have long-term repricussions.

    Mason will get some great candidates this time around due to what Coach L has built. What if this coach doesn’t work out? What if more mid-majors go the VCU route with better facilities / higher pay and Mason doesnt change its stance? What if the next coach also has a problem with O’Connor, and it makes other potential coaches pause to say “maybe I don’t want to work for that guy?”

    My concern isn’t with the new TBD coach, its with his replacement. The program is in an incredible position to continue excellence. I’d hate for this to be the first domino to fall…

  4. Jerry Says:

    Is that GMUJim still sucking up to Larranaga and waxing poetic about how this is all the administration’s fault? Color me shocked! Your boy went for a cash grab, proved all that bluster–yours and his–about the CAA and GMU was BS and showed to the world the kind of “character” he always had–none. Keep kissing up to Larranaga though and insisting it had to be something else. I’m sure he appreciates it.

  5. Jim Says:

    Jerry, since I know you are a fellow ink-stained wretch and also someone who has been burned (as have I) by the newspaper business, I offer you the following “what if” scenario:

    What if you were a veteran editor who had put in … oh, let’s say 14 years of dedicated service helping building a nondescript suburban newspaper into one of the nation’s best in its circulation category.

    Under your leadership, your paper was a consistent contender for prestigious journalistic awards — and in one amazing year, it broke through and shocked the NY Times, Washington Post and the like by winning its first Pulitzer.

    Now, your publisher knows you deserve a raise for such impressive performance, but he also knows you’re not as young as you once were and probably won’t be interested in relocating for just another job. So while you get a nice raise — certainly enough to live comfortably — your bosses feel fairly content that they can keep you without having to really step up and make a major financial commitment to the future success of the product.

    Then, five years later, in a perfect storm of events, your publisher (with whom you have shared a close personal relationship) decides to resign at roughly the same time a young, aggressive editor at a rival paper comes out of nowhere to snag himself a Pulitzer.

    This editor gets a gigantic raise, about 400 percent in fact. But when you go to your Executive Editor to see about negotiating a comparable contract — after all, you are far more proven in the newspaper business — and following through on the needed infrastructure projects that had been delayed indefinitely, you are told (essentially) that not only can your paper not afford to compete with the big boys, but you have to accept taking a back seat to the similarly mid-level paper that employs your young, newly rich rival.

    Initially, you think about all the good things that made you want to work at that paper in the first place. But then you remember that your publisher, the guy who’s always at least tried to have your back, is going off to retirement.

    A new paper comes along and offers to more than double your pay. It’s not a great product right now, but they clearly want you and have demonstrated a financial commitment to building a successful product.

    Do you remain loyal to your longtime paper despite instability/uncertainty in upper management and an obvious lack of resources to adequately compensate your hard-working staff?

    Or do you do what most of us would do? Do you jump at the offer, pocket the big check and walk away wishing everything would’ve happened differently?

  6. Ed Says:

    Mike, I couldn’t disagree more with this statement:

    “It would stupid for O’Connor to risk mortgaging the future of Mason athletics to pay a 61-year old man that much money…”

    Nothing has benefitted Mason athletics more than Larranaga’s success. The more he wins, the more attention the school gets, and the better it becomes (a good president like Alan Merten helps, of course). I graduated pre-Larranaga, and I remember those empty Patriot Centers. Larranaga single-handedly changed that. He, and Merten, built that school into what it is.

    And that leads us to the biggest problem: Is Mason really that attractive a prospect anymore? Why would a decent coach come here when this school couldn’t keep its own iconic head coach happy, right after the best regular season in school history?

    Furthermore, what happens if our top players transfer? Luke Hancock has the chance to transfer to a new school (oh, say, Miami) after a terrific showing in the NCAA tournament. And there’s no reason that 1 (or more) of our 3 seniors wouldn’t follow, especially because they wouldn’t lose a year of eligibility (given their head coach transferring). We lost our coach, and our players could follow. The chance to play for one year in front of national television cameras is pretty attractive, especially compared to the exposure they’ll receive in the CAA.

    Even if that doesn’t happen, we’re getting a new head coach and new assistants. That means the players have to learn a new offense and defense, and traditionally, players need at least a year to get that under their belts. We’re poised to waste three senior seasons on a learning curve.

    All I can think about is UNCW, a team that advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament one year and almost beat Maryland another. And then their head coach sparred with the AD, left, and UNCW has been bottom-feeding ever since.

    Mason Nation can quickly become a wasteland.

    And the man in charge of leading us out of that wasteland is the one who is threatening to bring us there: Tom O’Connor. We were poised to enter the season ranked in the top 25, with terrific recruits, three seniors, one of the most gifted young players (Hancock) the program has ever seen, and the winningest coach in CAA history. In a couple of weeks, that could all change, and it would be the most collosal fuck up in Mason basketball history.

  7. mlitos Says:

    Eshine–that’s part of my point. The admin made a decision, now they have to do a good enough job to keep your what ifs from occurring.

    Ed–same thing…all of your what ifs revolve around doomsday. What if TOC hires the next Anthony Grant of Blaine Taylor? UNCW made a bad hire and paid the price. O’Connor makes a good hire and what’s so different? What would’ve changed from all your doomsday scenarios in five years when Larranaga retires?

    Here’s where it all breaks down for me. So many of you are convinced there’s no life after Coach L and that’s simply an emotional response.

    He is a very good coach but he didn’t walk on water. There are better coaches and fresher approaches out there.

  8. Ed Says:

    “He is a very good coach but he didn’t walk on water. There are better coaches and fresher approaches out there.”

    GASP!

    (I’m not even kidding.)

    But, fair enough. Our responses are largely emotional, and based on the potential of reverting back to what we were. I do worry about O’Connor’s next pick, and it’s hard not to imagine a step back. But I’ll wince, watch, and wait.

  9. PiMpJoOsE Says:

    I think that a lot of folks who weren’t in the room are over-analyzing this situation.

    Coach L stated that he always wanted to try his hand in the ACC. No shame in that. Sure, NCSU and GT may be better positions right now, but was Coach L offered any of those jobs? Seems to me like he took the first spot he was offered once he was comfortable with the idea of moving on (possibly right after Merten’s reitrement announcement).

    I don’t think Coach L’s personal compensation was an issue. If he was going to bat for his assistants, then I’m perfectly fine with that. Better facilities? Cool. However, I don’t think either of those is enough reason to leave … unless there were unmet promises that had a negative impact on overall job performance. I just haven’t seen any evidence that Coach L has been limited by anything the University didn’t provide. He just kept winning. If the AD made the best offer he could, then I feel I have no reason to complain.

    Any pointing to Smart’s new deal as a new benchmark is a dolt. VCU made a big move to not lose Smart immediately. If he’s really worth the money, he’ll be gone in less than five years (and VCU won’t pay their next coach like that). By the way, what are the official numbers on the final deal? Anyone? Bueller? Throwing out the $1.2M figure withou any concrete backing is just inflammatory, at best. And where is this mythical amount of money in the Mason coffers? While I want everyone in the program to be paid competitively, I’d rather GMU keep spending money to improve the University overall. That’s what adds considerable value to my degree over any athletic program.

    Finally, Coach L has probably accomplished all he could here at GMU. I certainly have no problem with him pursuing a new challenge. We were going to lose him one day, I see no better time than now while the program is in very good shape. I can only offer my sincere thanks and well wishes for continued success.

    Signed,
    Yours Truly
    Mason Graduate of the Westhead Years, 10+ year season ticket holder, alumni donor

  10. Mason guy Says:

    Here’s whats making me laugh. Reading some of the ACC shinola that floats around the web, Laranaga is being described as a “great” coach, superb talent.., yada yada. A week ago he was a mid-major wannabe, now that he is in the pantheon he is made into the greatest, even though he hasn’t won a game in the ACC. Typical hubris.

    Anyway for me, no tears, Laranaga was good for giggles, but its time to move on. Herr Dr Litos, you are freaking me out with your predictions, just stop it, its giving me the heebee geebees.

    One word about Shaka’s contract, I’m actually glad he stayed in the league, but I do think he’s getting above the market rate. Thanks for nothing.

  11. Rosenpenis Says:

    Mike…You keep saying Mason offered $1 million. And the way you write it makes it seem like that would have been his base pay had he stayed. It’s my understanding — and please, correct me if I’m wrong — that the $1 million is the best he could do if he hits all his incentives. He made $700K this season after hitting a bunch of incentives, correct?

    From what I’ve read, Miami is paying him $1.1 or 1.2 — whichever you believe — in base pay. Again, correct me if I’m wrong.

    So….Mason offered the POTENTIAL to make $1 million total.

    Miami offered NO LESS THAN $1.1 million.

    Big difference.

  12. Shawn Says:

    http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/apr/25/snyder-gmu-right-in-drawing-line-on-coachs-salary/

    “Giving your coach $1.2 million per year – like VCU just gave Smart – doesn’t change the Atlantic Coast Conference’s built-in advantages over the Colonial Athletic Association. Arguably, the only thing VCU accomplished was screwing up the salary scale for its mid-major brethren … and temporarily delaying Smart’s inevitable departure.”

    Thoughts?

  13. EShine Says:

    Mike – I believe that there is plenty of life after Coach L. This program is as strong as it has ever been and this may actually be the perfect time for Coach L to leave. I just hope that the administration doesn’t rest on their laurels, and not allow future coaches to get frustrated the same way Coach L did. Heck, why not hire a great up-and-comer for cheap and use the money they were going to pay for Coach L (assuming he hit all incentives ~ $1M) towards the practice facility that was promised?

  14. GMUSSTN Says:

    EShine:

    That makes way too much sense for Mason to actually have it as a plan of action.

  15. frojunk Says:

    What is all this mess about a practice facility? Why have a nice arena if you are only using it for game day? Don’t you lose out on the ‘ole home court advantage? And why should my kid’s tuition keep going up for redundant facilities? OK, I don’t mind paying a bit extra to keep top coaches and up-to-date weight training equipment, etc. But millions of dollars for another building to practice in? It’s out of control, people. And Coach L accomplished 1 great thing in his what, 14 years at GMU. He deserved, and got, well compensated for that and was welcome to live large at GMU until he retired. From where I sit he got either greedy or just didn’t want to work with his AD anymore. No loyalty to GMU, and he really hadn’t done anything really “national” lately, so really, what’s the big deal?

  16. mlitos Says:

    Eshine–that’s what I’m saying. Larranaga or not, it doesn’t change the fact that decisions on how much you will spend on basketball need to be made.

    This is a critical hire for Mason, and due to its timing it’s probably a good thing for the program.

    Look at it this way: two years down the road, if nothing changes and Larranaga is still carping about facilities and TOC isn’t moving off what he and the university will provide, you are in worse shape.

    By then, ODU has a practice facility, VCU has worked out the kinks in its luxury boxes, JMUs plans may be concrete, and who knows what else other schools are planning but haven’t told us.

    And Larranaga leaves with the same disdain, only you don’t have the CAAs top team returning and all those other items in the previous paragraph are in place.

    Some of you just have to get past the end of the world mentality as it relates to Larranaga. It isn’t about him.

  17. mlitos Says:

    Shawn–my thought: as I said originally and stick by now…Smart contract didn’t screw up anything. Mason proved my point. It went as far as it felt it could, and that wasn’t enough.

    If Smart’s salary had screwed things up, Mason would’ve caved and paid Larranaga.

    What Smart’s did do is change mindset, and the cluster surrounding Larranaga leaving proves that.

  18. Shawn Says:

    Litos: Any thoughts on who Mason should hire? Or, should we all just want and see what TOC does and then state our opinions? I saw on Twitter that he has 30 possible candidates.

  19. GMUSSTN Says:

    Litos: thanks for your wisdom and positive outlook on all this. I got approached by a fellow GMU-alum coworker yesterday who just kept telling me “it’s all over…new coach, new system and our players won’t adapt.” I kept telling him he was greatly underselling our players and team if he thinks Larranaga was the only good thing about them.

    That being said most of the people who feel hopeless are just reeling from the fact that we’ve had the same guy at the helm for 14 years. For once I find myself looking to VCU fans for guidance; your program has had 5 coaches since L started at Mason and has managed to be fairly successful. In fact if you disregard Smith your last 4 coaches have kept you in the top 6 of the conference–not too shabby by my standards. We just have to be smart about who we hire.

    However if they hire Karl Hobbs I’m not renewing my season ticket package.

  20. Pro Says:

    Delaware has a $20million 50,000 sq foot practice facility(2 courts, locker rooms, offices, etc) being built and ready to open this October.

  21. GMAN Says:

    Mike:

    You are dead on. Too many chicken littles with the “sky is falling” since Larranaga left. And I assume most of them our Patriot fans from the last few years and not the past 20+ like some of us. We’ve been around long enough to see the broader picture.

    Hewitt was hired since you wrote this, and much like Larranaga….TOC made a solid hire for the program. Hewitt will run an clean, steady, competitive program. And unlike Larranaga, has his own name value for recruiting DAY 1.

    Who knows what will happen. Hewitt could end up stinking, Taylor could have a coronary, or Smart gets hits by a bus. None of it matters, what will happen will…and everyone needs to relax and enjoy the here and now.

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