COACH LARRAÑAGA: How great are those kids? Their personalities, they’re just so much fun to be around. They exude confidence in themselves, but they also believe in each other. And just listening to them, they’re enjoying this experience, taking it all in, and I’m hoping the emotions of the size of the venue, that they’ll be able to channel their emotions in the right direction, because they know this is a challenge to get to the Final Four.
There have been a lot of great players, a lot of great teams that have never reached this point in their playing career or coaching career, so you’ve got to appreciate every opportunity you get. And we’re just looking forward to playing Saturday night.
Q. We’ve seen a lot of great coaches step aside, retire over the past couple of years. What about this team, what about this sport still brings you joy?
COACH LARRAÑAGA: I might be 73 years old, but I think age is just a number. I just love doing what I’m doing. I love coaching basketball. I’ve done it for 51 years. And I hope to do it a lot longer. And what makes it so enjoyable are the players.
And I tell the players all the time, the court is my classroom. And you are my student. And I’m going to teach you as much as I can.And learn as much as you can, improve as much as you can because all these guys want to play beyond college.
They all want to be professional basketball players. And the best way to do that, no matter how good you are when you come into a college setting, is get better. Improve.
Increase your stock, they say.
But I enjoy the growth. If you look at an Isaiah Wong, see where he was as a freshman, where he is now, you can’t imagine it. The guy has gotten so much better in everything.
And Wooga Poplar is on that same track. He didn’t do as much as a freshman as he probably hoped for, but we could see his potential, and now he’s demonstrating that, and by next year he’s going to be a monster.
Q. There are a lot of people that are fed up, what have you, with the profession and things like that and don’t feel they are relevant and can stay relevant anymore. What do you think you can, and why aren’t you fed up?
COACH LARRAÑAGA: My wife and I have been married for 51 years. I was an assistant coach to Terry Holland at both Davidson and Virginia for 10 years. And my wife and I learned from Terry and Ann Holland that if you can create a family atmosphere and have a great relationship with your players, you can have a great basketball program.
And so when I got the opportunity to coach at Bowling Green and then George Mason and now Miami, my wife and I have just triedto make the players like a part of our family.
My coaches a part of our family. We have enjoyed the relationship we’ve had with them on the court and off the court. And I haven’t changed at all. I still teach the same things, the fundamentals of the game. We still adapt a lot of things. Not changing, just, okay,adapting. We’re going to play this ball screen differently or we’re going to attack this opponent differently.
And I think the players, when they come in, they think they know everything about basketball, and they quickly find out, oh, wait a minute, I didn’t know about that. So they learn. They get better. And as a result, with these guys, they’re like a sponge. They wantto learn as much as they possibly can. And by doing that, the team has just gotten better and better, from the start of the season, until today.
Q. The team success the last couple of years, and just with what the women have done this year shined a lot on Miami, too.And also just with what NIL has done and just wonder if you can characterize from your point just the importance of having somebody in this era like John Ruiz and what that’s been able to do for Miami athletics?
COACH LARRAÑAGA: You look at it a different way than I would look at it. I think the university made a decision over a year ago to provide the resources and support for all of our athletic teams. The president announced in an email that Rudy Fernandez and Joe Echevarria would take on more of a role when it came to athletics.
And that role has turned out to be hugely successful because those guys have provided the resources for me, for Katie, for our football program, and our other athletic teams. I think the transfer portal has had a far greater impact, because I don’t think any of us would be here without the transfers. And what those guys are looking for is just a better landing spot.
Some of them had — like Norchad Omier had a great two years at Arkansas State, and Nijel Pack had great two years at Kansas State. But Nijel was looking to move to the point guard position. He wasn’t going to be able to do it at Kansas State. We had Charlie Moore graduating. So he could look at our program and say, oh, I’m a really good fit I’m like Charlie Moore. He is. He can score likeCharlie. He runs the team like Charlie. He’s a great quarterback.
So he’s fit that role and made himself very valuable.
Norchad Omier, he went to high school — he went to Miami Prep. Our whole community is very — most of them are very Spanish-speaking. Not me. I don’t speak Spanish.
I’m only Cuban but I don’t speak Spanish, but my point is Norchad loved Miami when he was at Prep and it was a natural for him to come back.
But the thing that makes me enjoy it so much is that it’s not about whether a kid transferred in or we recruited him out of high school or he got an NIL deal, is my job is to coach them and make him the best basketball team they can be. And these guys have bought intoeverything that I consider to be the Miami way. This is the way we’re going to do things. And it’s never been an issue with not a single guy, not with our freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors.
Q. When you first came here I remember you going to dorms with pizzas getting people to pay attention to your program.Not a lot were paying attention, very little. What did it feel like yesterday to be like Moses parting the sea of fans? They had to have security moving people out of the way for you to get onto the bus. Could you talk a little bit about the evolution of the begging people to come and now having people pushing you over to get on the bus?
COACH LARRAÑAGA: I had the great privilege of being at the University of Virginia back in the early ‘80s with Ralph Sampson and Jeff Lamp and Rick Carlisle, great teams. We had great fan support, that watching Virginia, the way it operated was very much first class. And I thought if I could ever get a head coaching job in the ACC, that’s the way I would want to build our program and build upa fan base with the student support, with the community support.
And so when my staff and I got there, my coaching staff and I discussed, what are our steps? I said the first thing is we have to understand — we have to recruit everybody.
Not just recruits, but fans. My first week on the job I went to Sir Pizza. Remember Sir Pizza? And four young men walked in. They were like teenage years, like 12, 13, 14, and I stopped eating my pizza, went over to them and said, Hey, do you guys play basketball? And they all pointed to one young man.
I said, You play basketball? He said, Yeah.
I said, What’s your name?
He said Matthew. He said Matthew Dutch. Are you David Dutch’s son?
He said yes.
I said, Well, you tell your dad to send you to my camp.
A young lady came over to me and said, I have a son. Can he come to your camp?
I said, How old is he?
She said, Five, but he’s a great athlete.
And I said, Well, my grandson’s coming, and he’s five, so they can be kind of friends. So they did.
We tried to build the camp up, and my message was this to my staff and to the community: Look it, we want you to join us. Our players coach the kids at camp. They’re going to be friends. Come to our games. Buy season tickets.
I said that every day: Buy season tickets. Buy season tickets, come to our games.
So the players did. And I told them, very, very clearly, if we win, I want you to come down to the locker room and say hello to the guys who coached you this summer, the guys on the team that you’re watching on TV. But if we lose, go home. Nobody wants to talk to you after a loss.
And so we kept building. This year alone we invited a Category 5, The Spirit Group. There were 80 members of our law school cameto a practice. We had the band come to a practice, just to watch and get to know our guys, and we ate a meal with them afterwards.
Everything is about inclusion. So our job as coaches, I know it’s to coach the sport, but it’s really to be an ambassador for great universities. Miami’s a great university, one of the top 50 schools in the country. The city is paradise. It’s 75 degrees every day. I gofor a walk and go for a smoothie every day just so I can sit on campus and look at the beautiful venue we live in.
Did I answer your question? I don’t even remember what you asked. (Laughter.)
Q. What did it feel like getting on that bus?
COACH LARRAÑAGA: So what has happened through my 12 years is everything has grown in the right direction. We’ve got greater support for the program. We’ve got greater fans come to go the program. More people are aware of us. We’re in the great ACC. It’s a great conference. And so the students really got behind us very early. And that’s just grown and grown. And now the community of Coral Gables, we have 5,000 tickets sold to come to Houston.
12 years ago, that wasn’t even possible. But now everybody’s behind us. We’re going to have a great support come Saturday night.
Q. There was a time a year ago where Nijel was coming in and then there was a comment attributed to Isaiah that maybe hewas going into the portal. A lot of things were public. And maybe people looked at this and said, boy, this is the new world of college sports, it’s going to be a nightmare. Why hasn’t it been a nightmare for this team, and was there a point where you were worried just the public nature of all that might affect your locker room?
COACH LARRAÑAGA: Honestly, no. Even when all that stuff was going on with Isaiah, he called me said, Coach, I’m not going anywhere. He told me that. So what the public perception is, is not the reality. The reality is Nijel came on campus, went into the gym. Isaiah was there.
They became best friends overnight. They clicked immediately. Why? They love basketball. They’re gym rats. They love to compete, and they want to win. And so for me, my job was easy. I just do what I do. I go into the gym and I coach ‘em. And I don’t worry about that other stuff. I know the media makes it a bigger thing about that. And I think it’s a misperception for our program. I don’t know about otherprograms of how NIL affected them, but there’s been not a single day of negativity in our program based on NIL.
Q. Do you feel that you approached the Final Four and the event itself any differently than you did in 2006? Or is that something that stayed consistent even now, 17 years later?
COACH LARRAÑAGA: That’s a good question. I would say I’m more patient right now than I was back then. I was probably a better dancer back then.
But here’s what I would say: In life, you learn every day. I read a lot. I try to learn and try to pass that along to our players. You know, I’m always preaching the seven habits of highly effective people. We have a philosophy based on attitude, commitment, and class that I’m preaching to the players all the time.
Honestly, I feel like if all I ever did with my life was teach kids how to dribble, pass and shoot, my life would not be very worthwhile. I feel like my job is to mentor them and to help prepare them when they’re no longer playing basketball, to learn life skills, to develop their own philosophy, own values of the things that are important to them.
That’s what I learned from my high school coach, and he was my inspiration for wanting to get into coaching.
And I have a lot of guys now who have played for me or worked for me that are doing great in coaching as well. So I feel like we’re doing a good job.
Q. You went on that run in 2006. Now FAU is sort of going on their own run. How important can FAU’s run be for basketball in South Florida, and how much can it do, do you think, for the university?
COACH LARRAÑAGA: We played them last year. Dusty May and his staff have done an incredible job. We were lucky to beat them by two at their place. And they’ve just grown from there.
As far as I’m concerned, I hope every eight to 18-year-old that’s still growing and trying to find a school, I hope they follow FAU and Miami during this Final Four and decide, I’m going to play, basketball is going to be my primary sport.
Q. You made some comment sometime earlier in the tournament about how you’re old, your players are not old; they’reexperienced. In that end, even though they are maybe upperclassmen, juniors, seniors, you’re not getting any closer in age to your players and yet technology is probably making that gap a little bit more full. So how do you still relate to these guys that are 18, 19, 20? Is Wooga showing you TikTok dances? What sort of stuff helps to bridge that gap?
COACH LARRAÑAGA: I just think my relationship with my players has all been based on love. I love the guys I’ve coached. Someone was talking to a few of my former players back in my George Mason days, Tremaine Price and George Evans, and they were asked the difference.
And Tremaine said his dancing has gotten worse. So I just think when you care about people and they know you care about them, you try and help them in every way you can.
You are sharing meals with them. You’re traveling on airplanes, on buses. And me, I haven’t changed. If anything, I’ve gotten a little more patient and a little calmer. But other than that, I’m still the same guy I was when I got my first head coaching job at 36.
Q. You see that smile up there. How much fun are you having?
COACH LARRAÑAGA: For a basketball coach, the Final Four is the dream, you know? When I was a player, I dreamt about playing in the Final Four. And if we had beaten Villanova at Villanova — in my senior year, we had a player named Ernie DiGregorio, he missed a free throw when we were up one, and Villanova scored at the buzzer. We went to the NIT and Villanova went to the national championship game.
I look at that today, man, that could have been us. When I got into coaching, it was: I hope that can be us. When I got to Virginia, it was us, twice, ‘81 and ‘84.
When I got to George Mason, I was interviewing assistant coaches for a position I had open, and one of the guys who applied for the job said to him, I really want to come here because I know you help your assistants and I really want to get to the ACC or Big East so Ican get to the Final Four.
And then I told a friend of mine, well, he’s out. He said why? I said because I want him to help George Mason get to the Final Four.Two years later we did.