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Milestone Moment

Milestone Moment

by Alex Schwartz

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – In over 80 years of NCAA Division I men’s college basketball, just 34 coaches have reached 700 victories.

The most recent addition to that list is Jim Larrañaga, who joined the elite group Saturday evening with a 74-64 victory over Providence at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.

In his 39th year a head coach, including his 37th at the DI level and 12th at The U, Larrañaga etched his name into the record books in yet another category with the milestone triumph.

His players celebrated him in the locker room with applause, yells and a barrage of sprayed water. It was a well-earned moment for a basketball lifer who has accomplished so much over so many years.

“I think the thing I’m most proud of is my longevity,” Larrañaga said. “It takes a lot of years in coaching, especially head coaching, to reach a milestone like 700 victories. But I’m really, really proud of all the assistant coaches that I’ve had and players that I’ve had the privilege of coaching to help me reach that milestone.”

Few people love college basketball history more than Larrañaga. He is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge—names, dates, scores, statistics and much more. His love for the game is evident in the way he soaks up the lore of the sport.

It is fitting then, that the Bronx, N.Y., native has made so much history of his own and put his name alongside so many other elite coaches in the sport he cares about so deeply.

In talking to Larrañaga, one can tell the admiration he has for the giants of his chosen profession. Saturday, he joined many of them on yet another exclusive list.

The win—and the names he put himself next to with it—allowed him a moment to reminisce, albeit briefly, on a victory that came 43 seasons prior and helped lead to so many more after.

“One of my great memories is of my first Division I win, when I was a Division II head coach [at American International],” Larrañaga recalled. “We played Northeastern at AIC and won and beat Jim Calhoun, the Northeastern coach, who would go on to have a Hall of Fame career and win national championships at the University of Connecticut. That was my first Division I win, even though I was a Division II coach.

“And then, to have competed against the Tom Izzos, the Roy Williamses and the Mike Krzyzewskis throughout my career—I’ve had the great privilege and joy of competing against the best. And on some occasions we actually won,” he wryly added. “And that’s allowed me to continue to coach because if we lost too many of those games, I’d be like so many of my coaching brethren, I’d be retired and not having the joy of continuing to do what I love.

Two of those names he mentioned form half a group that Larrañaga is now part of. The only individuals in ACC history to reach 700 victories while active ACC coaches are Krzyzewski, Williams, the late Dean Smith and, as of three days ago, Larrañaga.

When told of the company he joined in that category, Larrañaga chuckles, just as one would expect from a person with such an understanding of his sport’s history.

While Larrañaga respectfully claims he is “not in their category,” what he has done is incredibly impressive because of the way he did it. The man affectionately known as “Coach L” has never led a blueblood program or taken over an elite, win-now team. What he has achieved has been extremely difficult and equally rare.

Larrañaga has built programs, brick by brick. He impressed consistently at Bowling Green, turned George Mason into a CAA juggernaut that made one of the most famous runs in NCAA Tournament history and transformed Miami into a high-level ACC program that makes postseason runs, averages over 20 wins per year and routinely knocks off historic powerhouses.

“I’m just the kind of guy who plugged away and was able to just kind of keep moving forward, without ever winning a national championship or without having just a gazillion NBA guys,” Larrañaga shared. “…I’ve had a handful. And yet, it’s not just those guys that have brought such great memories to me. It’s the guys that were like me—just grinders. We got George Mason to the Final Four, who got the University of Miami an ACC [regular season title] and Tournament championship and got us to the Sweet 16 several times and to the Elite Eight once.”

When reflecting on the way he has elevated each and every program he has coached at, Larrañaga speaks just the one would assume.

Rather than taking any credit, he gives it to others and, in doing so, pays homage to people who came before him. That is who Larrañaga is.

“I hope what [that program building] says is that the mentors that I have had a great influence on me. I try to share the knowledge that they shared with me, with my players,” Larrañaga said. “Coaches like Jack Curran at Archbishop Molloy, Joe Mullaney and Dave Gavitt at Providence, and Terry Holland at both Davidson and Virginia—those are the guys who instilled in me the values that my staff and I try to educate our players with. We try to teach them the important values that will help them be successful long after their playing days are over.”

Providence, Larrañaga mentioned. Yes, that is his alma mater. And, yes, that is the team he defeated for his 700th win in a you-just-can’t-script-it occurrence.

He defeated the school he played for and cares greatly about for a milestone win, approximately 70 minutes from its campus, with thousands of its fans on hand.

Although Larrañaga’s focus was not on any of that, he does concede it led to some added special elements he does not usually have on gamedays. They just so happened to be for a contest that ended with a historic win.

“Well, it certainly made it memorable because it was in such a competitive environment—in a tournament, with a packed house, with a lot of my friends from college [in attendance],” Larrañaga shared. “A lot of guys from my class were there and watched and reached out to me, sent me photos and text messages. So, it’s meaningful, but the most important thing for me that day was to help my present players win. It was not about number 700 for me. It was about trying to go 4-0.”

The present. That is where Larrañaga’s attention is.

He is not looking towards No. 750 or towards a second consecutive Elite Eight run. He is not looking towards taking down Duke or North Carolina yet again, nor towards the start of ACC play or even the upcoming ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Yet, he is also not basking in the glory of Saturday’s achievement. That, if you have not gotten the gist by now, is just not who the two-time ACC Coach of the Year is.

“In all honesty, individual accolades have never been what I’m about. Whatever I’ve accomplished, I know has taken a total team effort with my coaching staff and my players and my family,” Larrañaga remarked. “They’ve all been a part of this journey. So, my focus right now is getting ready for the next game. You can’t live in the past, you can’t predict the future, but the best thing you can do is live in the present and try to be the best you can be each and every day.”