CORAL GABLES, Fla. – The audience of more than 100 for Jim Larranaga's first news conference as the Miami Hurricanes' basketball coach included most of the team, cheerleaders, the school mascot, university officials and even one player from his Final Four team.
Good turnouts are a rarity for the program, but Larranaga expects to change that.
He accepted the Hurricanes job after 14 years at George Mason, including an improbable run to the Final Four in 2006. Larranaga met with his George Mason players Friday to say goodbye, then flew to Miami.
Larranaga, 61, said he decided to make the move because of the chance to coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which he considers the best basketball league in the country.
"I am very excited to be here," he shouted with pep-rally enthusiasm at the start of his news conference. "It's kind of like the last piece in a coaching career to finalize what I hope to be about."
Another lure was that three of Larranaga's siblings live in Florida. Their father grew up in Key West, and their grandfather was from Cuba. Larranaga spent summers in Florida growing up, and he and his wife have a second home in Sarasota.
"I feel like I'm back home at the University of Miami," he said.
Larranaga replaces Frank Haith, who went 43-69 in the ACC in his seven seasons at Miami. With such mediocre teams, small crowds persisted for the Hurricanes, who are perennially overshadowed in a market that includes all four major professional sports.
"Our challenge," Larranaga said, "is going to be to build a program that can sustain success over an extended period of time, so that everyone in this community is going to be dying to get a ticket to watch us play. You may say, `That ain't happening here.' But I've heard all that stuff before."
Larranaga inherited similar apathy at George Mason, where average attendance was 3,192 the season before he arrived. It climbed to 6,834 the year after the Final Four appearance, and was 5,896 this past year.
Among those attending the news conference was Sammy Hernandez, who played on George Mason's Final Four team and works in Miami. Hernandez acknowledged the difficulties in making Hurricanes basketball popular.
"It's going to be hard," he said. "But when I played at George Mason as a freshman, the stadium was like you guys have — empty seats pretty much. By 2007 we had full crowds. It was unbelievable."
The 2006 Final Four team was one of five Larranaga led to the NCAA tournament at George Mason, where he went 273-164 to set a school record for victories. This season the Patriots went 27-7 and reached the third round of the tournament before losing to overall No. 1 seed Ohio State.
"The last 14 years of my life have been absolutely wonderful," Larranaga said.
He helped the Patriots win three titles in the Colonial Athletic Association. It will be tougher in the ACC.
"Jim can coach at any level," George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor said. "He could probably coach the Los Angeles Lakers if he wanted to."
Larranaga has coached in the ACC before. As an assistant to Terry Holland, he helped Virginia reach the Final Four in 1981 and 1984.
"Coach Larranaga is the real deal," Miami president Donna Shalala said in a statement.
The hiring was made by Shawn Eichorst only 10 days after he became Miami's athletic director. He predicted better days ahead for Hurricanes basketball.
"It's a program that has opportunities," Eichorst said. "It just takes the right people at the right time to turn those opportunities into achievements."
Larranaga's age wasn't an issue in the interview process, Eichorst said.
"This guy has so much passion, it's like he's 40," the new AD said. "It never entered my mind."
Larranaga said he'll focus recruiting efforts on Florida, noting that two starters on his most recent George Mason team came from the state.
"Florida is a hotbed of basketball," he said.
A native New Yorker, Larranaga coached at Bowling Green for 11 seasons and at Division II American International for two seasons.
Haith left for Missouri after going 129-101 at Miami, including 21-15 this past season, and Larranaga said he approached Miami about the vacancy.
Now he's ready to start building a bigger fan base.
"My staff and I will be in the dormitories recruiting students," he said.
The hiring completes a revamping of the athletic department. Al Golden replaced Randy Shannon in December as football coach, and Eichorst replaced Kirby Hocutt, who became athletic director at Texas Tech.
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