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Larranaga was also careful to keep stress levels low. One Halloween, the coach strolled onto the court for practice with a gold chain, sunglasses, backward hat, and sagging pants. "That was probably the funniest thing I'd ever seen him do," Stacey recalls. "That's just him, though. He always did a very good job of balancing the coach aspect but letting us have fun."
The system produced steady results. In his 11 years at Bowling Green, the team went 170-144. In 1996-97, the Falcons went 22-10 and played in the NIT, only to be knocked out in the first round by West Virginia by three. After the season, Larranaga was named the Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year.
That spring, George Mason University came with an offer. The Fairfax, Virginia, school was slightly bigger than Bowling Green but had spent the past seven seasons as a bottom feeder. It was a lateral career move, but George Mason had no football and hockey programs to compete for funding. Larranaga carefully thought over the decision. "He doesn't make too many decisions quickly," Jon Larranaga says. "He thinks, analyzes, and researches."
Larranaga took the George Mason job. At the time, his younger son was also weighing a choice. Growing up in Bowling Green, Jon hadn't immediately taken to the family business like his older brother; he played ice hockey until his feet grew too big, requiring expensive custom blades. Hoops was the default. "For me, basketball was always a way to spend time with my dad and my brother," he says. "It gave us something to do together."
Though Jon had a standout high school career at St. Johns Jesuit High School in Toledo, the Larranagas weren't sure he should play for his dad. Jay, five years older, had competed for his father at Bowling Green, where Jay had felt the pressure of having family and team tied so directly. "You're mixing a lot of emotions into that relationship," Jay says. "It always felt like the lows were lower and the highs were higher."
Arriving in his father's second season, Jon became the locker-room liaison between the coach and the new players. Larranaga had simply airlifted in his entire approach — from his staff and defensive focus to Liz's team dinner menu. Jon could explain his dad's expectations. "I went in with about 20 years of experience," he quips.
The results came quickly. In his first season, Larranaga's squad bumped along at 9-18. In year two, the Patriots went 19-11, and the coach knocked off a career milestone: an appearance in the NCAA tournament. The Patriots followed up with another winning season and returned to the first round of March Madness in the coach's fourth year, only to lose to Maryland.
"When you play for your dad, you have the pressure of winning and doing the best for your team, and then when you are losing, you have the pressure that he'll lose his job," Jon says. "It's a great feeling making it to the NCAA tournament. And it's also a great feeling to know you're helping your dad's career."
Although the team never penetrated beyond the first round of tournament play, George Mason put itself on the radar as a program to watch. But nothing would prepare college hoops prognosticators for spring 2006.
After a disappointing 16-13 showing in 2004-05, Larranaga brought together the senior players and asked if they wanted their college careers to end with a bust. The team — anchored by scorers averaging in the double digits like Jai Lewis, Lamar Butler, and Tony Skinn — decided to stay on campus for summer workouts. "That was the hardest preseason, man," recalls Butler, a charismatic guard who had half-seriously predicted that the Patriots would make the Final Four in a prepractice visualization session. "There were no days off. We battled so we could take it up another notch. Coach L really didn't have to do much. For the seniors, this was our last job."
The school won 23 regular-season games and landed in USA Today's Top 25 rankings — two firsts for the program. Many analysts like CBS' Billy Packer scoffed when George Mason secured an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. As the 11th seed, the team beat Michigan State, then nailed defending national champion North Carolina, 65-60, after falling behind 16-2.
Wichita State fell next, matching the Patriots against tournament favorite University of Connecticut. When the two tipped off on March 26, 2006, Larranaga's locker room was filled with television cameras. His players were now ESPN SportsCenter material.
Larranaga preached cool to his team. "I told them that the media has a job to do and we have a job to do, and those things don't have to get in the way of each other," he recalls.
The UConn-George Mason game was one of the great nail biters in college sports history. The Patriots were down 43-34 at the half. They fought back and went ahead, but as the buzzer sounded at the end of regulation time, UConn had tied it. In the last seconds of overtime, a missed UConn jumper sealed the game for George Mason; the next stop was the Final Four. In a cover story the following week, Sports Illustrated called Larranaga's team's streak "the most improbable Final Four run in the annals of college basketball."