Assistant Sports Editor
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No one saw it coming. Probably not even Jim Larranaga himself.
The talks randomly showed up on the doorstep Thursday morning, then – like a flash – he was taking his talents to South Beach.
Thanks to Larranaga’s abrupt departure after 14 years at George Mason for a head coaching job at the University of Miami, critics and analysts will debate who, what, when, where and why for the next couple of years.
At 61 years of age, why leave a self-built Colonial Athletic Association power that he has taken to the NCAA tournament three out the last five years for a middling Atlantic Coast Conference school that has been once over that time span?
The answer isn’t justified by simply pointing out that it was an ACC head-coaching job awaiting a long-time mid-major coach. Or that warm and sunny South Beach sounded like a place of serenity for the approaching senior citizen to close out his career and ease into retirement with his family.
The answer can be found within the deep, dark confines of the CAA.
After taking the Patriots to five NCAA tournament appearances – including an improbable Final Four run in 2006 – for years Larranaga had built himself into the face of the CAA.
He compiled more wins than any other coach in conference history (273) and was the highest paid; he came forth as the leader of the growing CAA that had his name associated with every sentence it contained.
But that all changed this past postseason.
The attention shifted when VCU second-year head coach Shaka Smart led his team on an unimaginable run to the Final Four that not only trumped Larranaga’s earlier run in 2006, but also came with a price.
Just two days after the Rams finished their run, Smart inked a new eight-year contract with a base salary of $1.2 million a year, more than twice the amount of Larranaga’s salary at George Mason ($525,000).
Two years of success worth double the amount of 14 years of homegrown pride and honor?
That’s right. Not to mention Smart turned down a job at North Carolina State, which finished just one game under the Hurricanes at the bottom of the ACC.
The 31-year old Smart has the look, the swagger and the coaching style that contains the perfect package to move in as the new face of the CAA.
Larranaga is no longer “the guy” of the conference. He has been replaced by a younger, newer talent that is on pace to surpass his accomplishments quickly.
Think about having worked at a job for 14 years, and a new, cooler and younger dude walks in off the street and not only matches your top achievement in his second year, but receives an enormous raise immediately after.
Stings, right? It would make anyone in their right mind want to get out right away.
Larranaga knew his time was coming to an end at George Mason, and Smart’s major deal was just the icing on the cake.
That, thrown in a mixer with the fact that Miami presents a last chance at romance for Larranaga to produce on a large stage, and the decision was cake.
He was the poster child of the CAA before Smart came along.
He liked being the guy everybody (including opposing team’s fans) loved and nobody hated.
He adored being the coach that ran over to the fans with arms wide open following a win, and even the losing team’s fans would smile.
But like all good things, it had to come to an end.
Photo by: Kyle Laferriere