The University of Miami men’s basketball program has reached heights never before seen under James Joseph Larrañaga. Since his arrival at Coral Gables in April of 2011, “Jim”, also known as “Coach L”, has exceeded any and all expectations fans and university administration had of him.
Entering this season, several national pundits placed Miami’s 10-year coach on the proverbial “hot seat”. Some went as far as suggesting retirement for the 72 year-old.
The rumblings were somewhat understandable given the Hurricanes record over the last three seasons, 39-51 overall, 16-41 in conference. Or were they?
All this after Larrañaga guided the Canes to the big dance in four of his first seven seasons, including two NIT appearances (one NIT championship appearance) during the same stretch.
However, what was rarely discussed by media and disgruntled fans, was what Coach L has done to warrant writing his own ticket out of town, rather than being forced out.
Larrañaga did not forget how to coach from one year to the next. But when any program deals with what Miami had to in 2017, along with falling victim to the injury bug for two years straight, there will be setbacks.
Two major factors attributed to Miami having down years the past two seasons, the FBI and health. An FBI investigation that began September, 2017 in which Miami was eventually redacted from a year later, contributed to the staff missing out on what could have been a monstrous recruiting class in 2018.
That situation coupled with key injuries which forced Miami to play shorthanded for much of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, made for a tough stretch for the Canes.
One of the recruits to eliminate Miami for his services was 6’3’’, four-star guard Jalen Curry who signed with the Syracuse Orange. Former five-star prospect Nassir Little out of Orlando Christian Prep was perhaps the biggest loss of the class. The 6’6’’ small forward had Miami as a favorite along with the Arizona Wildcats before taking his talents to Chapel Hill.
Little, who removed Miami from consideration shortly after he got wind of their alleged involvement in the FBI’s investigation, went on to be the 25th overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft.
McDonald’s All-American Immanuel Quickley (25th pick in 2020 NBA draft) also had the Canes high on his list late in his recruitment process before eventually choosing to play for Kentucky.
Losing what had the potential to be Miami’s best class ever, caused the coaching staff to scour the transfer portal for more players than intended as Miami had zero commits for the 2018 class in February. Meanwhile, national signing day was looming in April.
What would have been if Miami was not wrongly implicated in that FBI investigation? Would the narrative about Larrañaga be the same now had it not been for playing an eight-man (sometimes seven-man) rotation on many nights over the past two years?
Whatever the case, Coach L deserves more respect than what has been shown lately. This is evidenced by his 670 career wins coming into the season. A mark which ranked him 37th all-time in wins by a men’s D1 college basketball head coach and placed him ahead of names like Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo, and the late, great, John Wooden to name a few.
The University of Miami will forever be known as a “football school” and the dissatisfaction with Canes hoops the last few seasons is somewhat confusing knowing these facts, especially when one considers how Miami is not traditionally known for being a player on the national scene.
This by no means is a slight to the basketball program and all it has accomplished, it is more of an indication of how much Canes football has staked its claim as one of the most storied and successful entities across the college football landscape since its rise to national prominence in the early 1980’s.
Literally speaking, Miami football changed the rules of the game and made “The U” one of the most recognizable brands in all of sports, not just college football.
However, for Hurricanes men’s basketball to be mentioned in the same breath as the Duke’s, UNC’s, Kentucky’s, and UCLA’s of the sport - all known as “basketball schools”, Canes hoops would have to do more than just win a few national championships.
The recent disapproval of Larrañaga is misplaced considering how he put Miami men’s basketball on the map - no disrespect to former Miami head coach, Leonard Hamilton.
Since 2011, Miami has evolved from a middle of the pack ACC program, to a team that attracts the likes of top 50 high school hoopers across the country, annually. These are relatively new waters for Canes basketball to navigate, and Coach L is the perfect navigator to sail the program through them.
Miami has never, and likely will never be thought of as a basketball school. But it has sniffed “basketball school” success under Larrañaga, which is why the soon to be most winningest coach in program history has earned the right to walk away on his own terms, not after back to back injury-plagued seasons or winning less than 40 games in a three-year span.
After the University of Miami moved on from Frank Haith in 2011, the rumored leader for the head coaching vacancy was current University of South Carolina head coach and Miami native, Frank Martin.
Although Martin seemed like the natural fit especially after his success at Miami Senior High in the mid-90’s, then Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst decided to go with Larrañaga who was fresh off leading George Mason to a second round appearance in the NCAA tournament, and possessed a far less checkered past.
In 10 seasons, Larrañaga has compiled a 220-138 record at Miami. Last Tuesday, the Hurricanes dominated in a 85-64 conference road win versus the Pittsburgh Panthers. The win tied Larrañaga for the most wins by a head coach in program history. His next victory will make him the winningest coach in Miami men’s basketball history, passing the legendary Bruce Hale.
Hale, who won 220 of the 332 games he coached, and boasts a .663 win percentage, was at helm for the Hurricanes from 1954 through 1967.
His career highlights include leading the 1959-1960 team to an NCAA tournament birth at a time when only 16 teams qualified, and coaching Miami to its first NCAA post-season win in the 1962-63 season. That team was lead by super sophomore forward, Rick Barry, the second overall selection in the 1965 NBA draft.
Prior to win 220, Larrañaga’s most recent milestone came in the form of his 100th win in the ACC when the Canes pulled away from the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in a 79-70 home victory on February 9.
Other notable accolades during Coach L’s UM tenure include claiming the ACC regular season title outright with a 24-6 (15-3) regular season record, and the ACC tournament title, both in the 2012-13 season - Larrañaga’s second at Miami. That March, the Canes made it to the NCAA sweet 16 falling to Marquette, 71-61.
Throughout his time at Miami, he has coached a total of 8 players that made it to the league. The other five are Dequan Jones, Tre McKinney Jones, Shane Larkin, Sheldon Mac (Sheldon McClellan with Miami), and Dewan Hernandez.
He boasts a 7-7 record against the Duke Blue Devils and legendary head coach Mike Kryzyzewski since he arrived at Coral Gables. One of those wins came in dominating fashion. With Miami undefeated in conference play and claiming a #25 ranking, the #1 ranked Blue Devils visited the Bank United Center in January of 2013, only to be embarrassed on national television, 90-63.
The victory was Miami’s first-ever defeat of a top-ranked team and the margin of defeat also proved to be the largest for a #1 team ever.
Respect, national recognition, consistency, and a solid cultural foundation are all elements in which Jim Larrañaga has helped Miami basketball become synonymous with. A nationally respected coach by players and fellow peers alike, he has proven to be a leader that his players love and revere.
His post game celebrations have gone viral after big wins and his overall love for the game is infectious. Further affirmation of Coach L’s influence over this program was displayed during the 2014-15 season when Miami handed out “GIVE THEM L” tank-tops to the first 400 students arriving to a mid-week game versus FSU, a contest which the Canes won.
Larrañaga’s contract runs through the 2023-24 season and with the success he has had while at The U, he has earned the right to be celebrated for as long as he calls the shots in Coral Gables, and beyond.
Coach L has a chance to win his 221st game at Miami and become the programs all-time winningest coach on Saturday at 3:00pm, as his squad hosts the Virginia Tech Hokies 17-11 (9-8) on the ACC Network.