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Miami’s Larranaga beats the odds in getting to 600 wins

January 15, 2017 Columns No Comments

It came a day-and-a-half later than was hoped for, but Jim Larranaga reached the 600-win level when his Miami team put a 72-46 whipping on Pittsburgh early Saturday afternoon after he was denied that milestone less than 48 hours earlier when the Hurricanes had failed to hold onto a late lead and lost to Notre Dame on Thursday night.

The school put out a release noting the 600 wins (against 395 losses in 33 seasons) place him 47th all-time and 14th among active coaches, five of whom are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with four of those five among his colleagues in the Atlantic Coast Conference (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Louisville’s Rick Pitino).

For a Miami coach to be in such elite company is remarkable. After all, this is a school that gave up its basketball program following the 1970-71 season and didn’t revive it until the 1985-86 campaign.

Miami has never won more than two games in any one NCAA Tournament with a trio of Sweet 16 appearances marking its deepest runs in the event. The 2015 run to the NIT final, where they lost in overtime to Stanford without their starting point guard) was the first time the Hurricanes had won more than two games in 12 appearances in that event.

A basketball hotbed Miami is not. Put up aside the aforementioned programs of Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, and Louisville, and a sing-song routine from Sesame Street comes to mind: “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things doesn’t belong.”

That’s what makes the Larranaga’s achievement all the more remarkable.

No, not all of Larranaga’s victories have come with the Hurricanes. He had 27 wins at American International, 170 at Bowling Green, and 273 at George Mason (which included a well-documented Final Four run) before coming to Coral Gables. He now has 170 wins with the Hurricanes in 5 1/2 seasons.

While the expanded schedules of recent seasons provide coaches with the opportunity to compile more wins in a year than than their predecessors had in the past, Larranaga did not get where he is by beating up on a bunch of patsies. His Hurricanes are 7-4 against rival Florida State and 4-2 against Duke, 4-4 against North Carolina, and 3-3 against Notre Dame among other notable ACC opponents. Among out-of-conference foes, he is 2-1 vs. Florida, 2-0 vs. Illinois, 1-0 vs. Michigan State, and 1-1 vs. Stanford.

In 2013, in just his second season, he coached the Hurricanes to their first outright conference championship in program history as they became the first school outside of the state of North Carolina to win the ACC tourney after capturing an outright regular-season title. Nobody, believe me, nobody, thought that when Miami joined the ACC in 2004 that it would win a conference title in basketball before it would capture one in football (which it has yet to do).

Only once have Larranaga’s Hurricanes failed to win at least 20 games. That was in 2013-14, when they were 17-16 the year following the school-record 29-win season the year before. They bounced back with a 25-13 record in 2014-15, and last season’s Hurricanes were 27-8. No other coach in program history has had three seasons of at least 25 wins. This campaign they are 12-4 after their win at Pittsburgh.

And the success since Larranaga’s arrival has injected new life into the football-dominated athletic program (five national titles), making the game mean something in South Florida.

Though they still rarely fill it, the Hurricanes’ Watsco Center (formerly BankUnited Center) home has been sold out the last two seasons. In September of 2013 he was appointed an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences at the university, and last November he was inducted into the Iron Arrow Honor Society, the highest honor the school can bestow on an individual.

And the future?

It couldn’t be brighter.

Larranaga had his best recruiting class with the current freshman, bringing in just the fourth McDonald’s All-American in forward Dewan Huell and a top guard out of New England in Bruce Brown. Already, he has signed three ESPN Top-100 players in guard Lonnie Walker (19), guard Chris Lykes (52), and forward Deng Gak (93). New Zealander Sam Waardenburg already has joined the team and is practicing, though not playing games, this season.

At 67 years old as of last October 2, Larranaga, a 1971 graduate of Providence College, likely isn’t going to coach long enough to challenge the coaching leaders when it comes to wins. He joked on TV after the win over Pitt he might have a shot at Duke’s Krzyzewski (1,057 and holding) if he coached until he was 114.

But a shot at the top 30, where Louisville’s Denny Crum currently sits with 675 victories, would seem to be a realistic target or even the top 25 (UTEP’s Don Haskins 719).

Few in the past would have given a University of Miami basketball coach much of a chance to climb to such heights. But with Larranaga pretty much anything looks possible.

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