When he took over in 2011, he read an interview with outgoing coach Frank Haith. One thing Haith mentioned sticks with Larranaga today.
“He said no one knew him, not even the people in his own building, meaning the BankUnited Center,” Larranaga said. “They didn’t recognize him. He thought people didn’t care about basketball, that no one knew he was the basketball coach. I interpreted that as, well, he must not be out in the community much. Everywhere I’ve been, people recognize me.”
That’s not an accident, and it didn’t happen overnight.
As he detailed in a conversation with the Post last month at the ACC spring meetings in Amelia Island, Larranaga set out to speak to board of trustee meetings, faculty functions, corporate events, chamber of commerce meetings, basketball clinics, community centers. His fantasy camp for adults, his youth camps for young players, serving food in the dorms and greeting students waiting in line for a game — everything is an opportunity to connect, to “make them feel a part of your program,” he said.
Grabbing people’s attention in Miami, getting them to come to games, is more than winning.
It’s talking shop with high school coaches, including those who may never produce a Miami-caliber player. It’s taking a few minutes to chat in the hallway when noticing a familiar face (or 90 minutes over two days when an inquiring reporter shows up). It’s doing lunch, as Larranaga recently did, with a friend of a friend, a local builder worth “in the neighborhood of $3-4 billion,” sharing stories with him, inviting him to a game.
“That’s work,” said Larranaga, 66. “It’s fun for me – I enjoy getting to know people – but I also see it as part of my responsibility as head coach of the University of Miami to cultivate people to support the program.
“Some schools look at it very differently. Some coaches don’t feel like it’s their responsibility to generate enthusiasm for their home games because they’ve got a built-in fanbase that’s been there for decades. There are teams in our league that have been selling out since the ‘60s. Not us.”
Last year, they did. Season tickets sold out for the first time in UM’s history – any sport, not just basketball.
Support from the athletics department — UM has upgraded the BUC and greatly improved the technology as well as the recruiting and operating budgets available to the basketball team — is a major part of that. Winning of course, is another. The Hurricanes have been to the Sweet 16 twice in the last four seasons. But part of it is Larranaga allowing national TV’s cameras into his locker room, and having no problem hamming it up if the setting allows, showing his personality.
“I get emails,” he said, smiling as he recalled one received after UM lost to Villanova in the Sweet 16. “I got one from a fan who has hamsters as his pets. He names them after his favorite sports figures.” One of them hamsters, light brown in color, is named Coach L.
The Larranagas don’t have any pets themselves (their Schnauzer/Poodle mix, Simon, died 20 years ago at age 14). They live in a gated Coral Gables community, and when they moved there they felt at home “immediately.” That wasn’t the case when Larranaga took his first head coaching job at Bowling Green in 1986.
“We were Yankees,” he said. “We were outsiders. We weren’t from the Midwest. It took us a long while before I felt like we were accepted. I felt like when we left, there were still a lot of people who didn’t accept us.”
He found acceptance — and success — at George Mason, where he integrated into the community long before he became a national figure during their 2006 Final Four run. Like Richt, who was beloved in Athens, Ga., Larranaga was wary of leaving it behind. “I didn’t want to give that up. The people were so nice,” he said.
But “even in the first months” at Miami, “everyone was so friendly and nice we felt like we belonged.”