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Larranaga accepts latest challenge, hopes to mirror past

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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While he is sure to hear from the NCAA, Jim Larranaga will try to focus on only what he can control. (US Presswire)  
While he is sure to hear from the NCAA, Jim Larranaga will try to focus on only what he can control. (US Presswire)  

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- While the focus of the negative backlash throughout the nation continues to be directed squarely at the oft-maligned University of Miami football program, 61-year-old Hurricanes basketball coach Jim Larranaga can only sit and watch the firestorm that surrounds the famed U.

This is the last hurrah for Larranaga, admittedly the final job before retirement, the one he left the ultimate job security at George Mason in order to get a shot at going up against Coach K and Roy Williams in what's deemed big-boy basketball: the ACC.

But this wasn't what he signed up for.

As the football program already begins to suffer the consequences of the NCAA and Yahoo Sports investigations as active players are hit with suspensions, Larranaga remains in the dark as the hoops program also gets picked and prodded by the NCAA.

"We have no idea what people will decide about our program," Larranaga said. "Whatever happens, it's not going to impact how we do things."

Larranaga built a level of equity that few coaches earn when he led George Mason to an improbable Final Four berth back in 2006.

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Larranaga could have remained in Fairfax, Va., until ... well, whenever he wanted. He spurned his alma mater, Providence, three years ago and that all but cemented his legacy to conclude his days at George Mason.

Then Miami came calling after determining that the logical pick, homegrown Kansas State coach Frank Martin, wasn't its guy. Larranaga had always wanted to get back into the ACC after leaving Virginia in 1986 to take the Bowling Green head job -- and he had some concerns about George Mason with his best friend, school president Alan Merten, announcing his retirement this past April.

Larranaga slid into an ideal spot. Miami's previous coach, Frank Haith, had assembled a talented roster that included two of the league's top players: big man Reggie Johnson and versatile guard Durand Scott. Haith's reputation in the industry, dating to his days as an assistant at Texas, was as a dogged recruiter.

Now the Hurricanes had a guy that could really coach 'em up.

Then it began when Johnson, one of the true legitimate and proven big men in the entire country, suffered a serious knee injury in late June that will put him on the mend likely until after the new year and maybe even deeper into league play. Reserve forward Julian Gamble is also done for the season after tearing his ACL.

"It's a different team than we anticipated," Larranaga admitted.

And maybe a different program, depending on what shakes out of Nevin Shapiro's allegations that Haith was aware of a $10,000 payment former Miami assistant Jake Morton made in order to secure the commitment of current Hurricane DeQuan Jones.

"I can tell you in our first meeting after all of this: I told them we have no control of what people are saying," Larranaga said. "We have no input in what happens. The only thing we can control is ourselves and how hard we're willing to work and the type of attitude we bring to work."

Jones, a former Top 50 recruit who hasn't done much in Coral Gables to justify his ranking, has participated in every individual workout over the past couple weeks.

"He's just like every other player," Larranaga said. "He's a player on our team who is working extremely hard, whether it be in conditioning, the weight room and skill development."

Larranaga wasn't immune to the skeptics as soon as he took the job at Miami, guys like myself who wondered whether he'll be able to go up against the heavy hitters in recruiting circles. He brought all three of his assistants -- a highly regarded group -- with him from George Mason, but this is different.

It's a different world.

"It's a fair question," he admitted.

And if Larranaga needed evidence of the new universe he was stepping into, it came when Yahoo came out with the bombshell about two weeks ago detailing all of Shapiro's allegations.

Now Larranaga will also have to deal with all the negativity from opposing programs that'll come with trying to secure virtually every recruit. The 'Canes are an easy target now.

This isn't an easy job under ideal circumstances. Fan support is slim because it's a pro sports town. The program has been to the NCAA tournament on only a half-dozen occasions, three of them coming consecutively in Leonard Hamilton's final seasons from 1997-2000. Haith went to the Big Dance only once in his seven seasons.

The positive through all of this is that Larranaga's hands are clean. He just arrived and both he and his wife love it in Miami.

He has immersed himself in the community, far more so than the previous guy, living a mile from campus and speaking to just about anyone and everyone who'll listen about Miami basketball.

That'll help -- but Larranaga is a smart man. He understands the only way he'll be able to fill up the arena is to mirror what he did at George Mason.

Win.

"If we do that, they'll come," Larranaga said. "We believe people follow winners -- whether that's individual players or teams."

"It is what it is," Larranaga added with a smile. "There's nothing we can do about it. What we're dealing with now will make us stronger and tougher in the long run. Whenever you take over a job, there's adversity."

And then there's this.

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