By Jim Weber
With every win that pushes Miami (FL) closer to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and each loss that nudges George Mason further toward mediocrity, Patriots athletic director Tom O’Connor must think to himself, “What have I done?”
Under former head coach Jim Larranaga, George Mason became a mid-major college basketball power over the last several years. The Patriots’ run to the 2006 Final Four is one of the greatest Cinderella stories in NCAA tournament history and George Mason’s basketball success didn’t end there. In Larranaga’s final six seasons just outside Washington, D.C., George Mason reached the NCAA tournament three times and averaged 22.3 victories per year.
Before Larranaga arrived in 1997, the program had exactly one NCAA tournament appearance ever.
And Larranaga’s success on the hardwood had a huge positive influence on the school as a whole. After the Final Four, George Mason received the “Flutie Effect” that turned the little-known school in Fairfax, VA, into a national brand. On top of increases in fundraising, merchandise, attendance and other financial benefits to athletics, applications for the school increased 22% the year after the Final Four run:
Despite all this, O’Connor continually short-changed Larranaga.
There was talk of a new basketball facility after the Final Four to improve recruiting that never came to fruition. Larranaga’s assistants weren’t paid to his liking. After winning 27 games last year and reaching the NCAA tournament again in 2011, Larranaga reportedly received a grand total of just $700,000 – and that’s after a bunch of rinky-dink incentives that O’Connor included in the contract.
In comparison, VCU gave Shaka Smart a contract worth $1.2 million per year after reaching the 2011 Final Four. Butler’s Brad Stevens reportedly made the same amount last year after leading the Bulldogs to the 2010 and ’11 national title games.
Despite reaching the Final Four years earlier, Larranaga made half a million dollars less than Smart and Stevens in 2011. So what did Miami (FL) do? They swooped in with a contract worth $1.3 million per year. Larranaga downplays the money aspect by saying he’s always wanted to coach in the ACC and that he thinks he can win a national title at Miami (FL).
But based on how much Larranaga loves George Mason and the big-time jobs he’d turned down in the past to stay there, I think there’s no way he would have left if he had received fair market value and the resources to contend for a national title at GMU.
O’Connor claimed George Mason was only able to pay Larranage $1 million to keep him in Fairfax. You can’t convince me the additional benefit from having a top-notch mid-major basketball program – especially for a school without a football team – isn’t worth millions of additional dollars to the university not accounted for in the athletic department’s Profit & Loss Statement. If O’Connor couldn’t come up with the money to keep Larranage through fund raising and booster donations, he needed to ask the school president for assistance in getting Larranaga and the basketball program the money it deserved.
But O’Connor let Larranaga walk, and now the George Mason AD is watching Miami (FL) play the best basketball in the nation while George Mason is slipping in Year Two under head coach Paul Hewitt; GMU is currently 14-10 and has lost three of its last five games now that Hewitt no longer has Larranaga’s best former players around. Larranaga’s work in Coral Gables is even more remarkable considering that “The U” has virtually no history of basketball success and even shut down the program in the 1970s due to lack of interest.
Just how good could have George Mason basketball been if O’Connor had upgraded the facilities and financially taken care of Larranaga and his assistants?
O’Connor will surely be asking himself that for the rest of his life.