As we sit back and eat a Thanksgiving meal that will leave many of us bloated and uncomfortable. We are grateful and thankful for our family and friends. I did not need to write a sports column to feature that aspect of anyone's life. The purpose of this story is not to point out the fact that we are grateful for those that are close to us and for those that we are closest to.
However, as we think of the second-tier of what we are most thankful for, the next layer of people in our lives, just below family and friends, maybe those that are involved in the University of Miami athletic program, I am particularly thankful that the Hurricanes have Jim Larranaga leading it's Men's basketball program. Larranaga has navigated the team through murky waters and has brought hope and confidence to a university that is more well known for putting players in the NFL than the NBA.
The University of Miami Men's basketball team enters Friday night's game against South Alabama with a perfect 6-0 record and is ranked in the AP poll and the Coaches' poll for the first time since 2013. There were high expectations for this team, but with two players out, one due to injury and another due to eligibility, those expectations were lowered, but the Canes still keep striving to achieve greatness and one man leads them and pumps them with energy, the will to win and the instrumental desire to build their own tradition at a school that is more know for it's five football national titles.
That man is Jim Larranaga, or as he is known in some circles, "Superman".
When Davon Reed went down with a pre-season injury and Ivan Cruz Uceda was informed that he would be ineligible for competition until January, Larranaga told everyone to temper their expectations for this young team that had a successful recruiting class and added skill and power to the lineup in the off season.
"I think that people expect too much from this group," Larranaga told me in an interview before the season started. "We have a lot of new guys that have to get used to playing with one another. They have to learn to share the basketball. That takes time."
After Miami defeated top ten-ranked Florida 69-67 earlier this month in Gainesville, the temperature of the team got hotter and the expectations for the team grew among the fan base. The Canes recently won the Gildan Charleston Classic championship.
The excitement stemming from the young group in Coral Gables is reminiscent of the sentiment last seen in 2013 when the Canes won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title and then went on to win the ACC tournament. Larranaga would also be recognized by the national media as he was awarded the AP National Coach of the Year.
The Canes are currently led by transfer guards Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan. Rodriguez transferred from Kansas State University after playing locally at Dr. Krop High School in Miami. McClellan transferred from the University of Texas, a spitting distance from where he was raised. They both sat out last season per the NCAA transfer rules and have led Miami to its fantastic start. Seven of nine scholarship players this season did not wear a Canes uniform last season.
Rodriguez drained a three-pointer at the end of the Florida game to give Miami the close victory and McClellan is averaging over 14 points a game. Miami has one of the best back courts in the ACC.
"We are definitely hearing in the right direction," Larranaga said. "We have overcome a major obstacle in recruiting due to the NCAA investigation, but we are on the right path and we are heading in the right direction."
During the time that the NCAA investigation was hovering over Coral Gables, Larranaga did not speak of any cloud hovering over the program. He did not use it as an excuse and did not use it as a crutch when times got tough. However, he did recently point out that the question did come up in recruiting visits as to whether or not Miami would even be eligible for post-season play after the NCAA ruling came down, prior to the announcement last season.
One of those players eventually transferred to Miami once the dust settled. Kamari Murphy originally signed with Oklahoma State, but transferred to Miami before this season and Larranaga said that was due to the question mark that the program faced before the NCAA ruled. Murphy will sit out this season due to the transfer.
"He did not come here originally because we were under investigation," Larranaga said. "That tells you the impact that the investigation had."
Larranaga never let the "cloud" get in his way of coaching the Hurricanes and still managed to do the best that he could with the talent that he did have. Last season, Larranaga changed his defensive philosophy and started playing a zone when it appeared as though that is what the players that he had would be better at. He changed midstream and the team had greater success as a result.
This season, Larranaga said that they are taking baby steps to rebuild the program and bring it back to the forefront of major college basketball.
"We are building a bond between the players and the coaches and we are building a philosophy that all good traditional basketball programs have. That is that defense wins championships. You look at any good coach or any great program and they all have one thing in common. They all play tough defense. That does not happen overnight."
When Larranaga graduated from Providence College in 1967 he did not think too much about putting on a suit and tie and joining the rank and file working a standard 40-hour a week job. He knew that he was destined to teach. He had a yearning to serve as an assistant basketball coach and give back to the game that he grew up loving as a child in the Bronx, New York.
Larranaga took a job as an assistant to Terry Holland at little Davidson College and started his journey up the ladder. When Holland left Davidson and took the head job at the University of Virginia, Larranaga went with him and started a journey to major college basketball coaching greatness. Holland had great success at Virginia and coached great players and great teams. Eventually, Larranaga's journey would end up at George Mason University, where he took over the program as the head coach. He would eventually lead the Patriots to the Final Four in in 2006.
The basketball world started to take notice of Larranaga at that point. A few years later, the University of Miami came calling. The program has just lost Frank Haith to Missouri and was looking for a coach that would take the program to heights that other coaches promised, but never delivered. Haith talked a good game, but did not succeed. Perry Clark did not accomplish much. Leonard Hamilton started to build a solid program, and led Miami to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, but left for Michael Jordan and the NBA before he could quench the thirst of the UM faithful and give them the national title that they desired.
On April 22, 2011, Coach Larranaga was given the keys to the biggest program that he would ever lead at a University that could actually attract players based upon the quality of the education the player would receive, the South Florida weather and the knowledge that players would face great competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Larranaga embarked on this journey at the ripe young age of 61.
"I'm crazy," Larranaga said at his introductory press conference when asked why at the age of 61 he wanted to build another program. "I love a challenge."
After the hiring of Larranaga was announced, ESPN College Basketball analyst Dick Vitale tweeted out, "Miami hit a grand slam in getting Jim Larranaga from George Mason - He is a fierce competitor and has loads of contacts. Great hire!"
At the time that he was hired, Miami President Donna Shalala boasted, "Coach Larranaga is the real deal. He's a winner, an inspirational leader, and he cares deeply about his players and staff."
It was as if Shalala new what was about to hit the Miami program. Larranaga brought his own Category Five coaching with him as there was a dawning of a new era in Miami men's basketball.
In his first season at Miami, Larranaga led Miami to a 20-13 record and a second-round appearance in the NIT. The next season, Larranaga and the Canes would pull off the unimaginable.
Miami won the 2013 ACC title with a team that featured only one player that would play professional in the NBA, point guard Shane Larkin. They played scrappy basketball with players such as Julian Gamble, Reggie Johnson and Durand Scott. They won with vim and vigor and pure intestinal fortitude that could only be taught by one man, Larranaga himself.
What Canes fan will ever forget him dancing like Muhammad Ali in the post-game speech that he delivered to his team after they defeated Illinois in the NCAA Tournament in 2013?
"We got the very best out of our players that season and that was a tremendous season for us," Larranaga said. "That started the tradition building for us and hopefully will be the beginning of us winning more ACC titles."