King's Court: Coaches raising the bar
Jason King [ARCHIVE]
February 20, 2013
t Facebook t Twitter

When Jim Larranaga arrived at Miami nearly two years ago, he didn't spend much time giving rah-rah speeches or playing get-to-know-you games with his new players.

"He walked in and introduced himself one afternoon," forward Julian Gamble said, "and the very next day we were on the practice court."

It was a fitting start for Larranaga's tenure in Coral Gables, where things are progressing at warp speed.

With Larranaga leading the way, a Miami program that has appeared in the NCAA tournament just once over the past decade is 22-3 overall and 13-0 in the ACC.

Barring a monumental collapse, the second-ranked Hurricanes will win their second conference title in school history. The only other championship came under Leonard Hamilton in 1999-2000.

"Coach L has achieved this kind of success before," Gamble said, "so we buy into everything he tells us. Everything he says ends up coming true."

Larranaga is most widely known for leading George Mason to the Final Four in 2006. His accomplishments at Miami thus far are equally impressive, mainly because of the short time frame it has taken him to turn the Hurricanes into a national power.

Larranaga is hardly the only coach in recent years to achieve success so quickly after taking over a new job.

New Kansas State coach Bruce Weber currently has the Wildcats in position to win a conference title for the first time since 1977. In his inaugural season at Colorado State, Larry Eustachy has helped propel the Rams into the Top 25 rankings for the first time since 1954.

North Carolina State reached the Sweet 16 last spring in Mark Gottfried's debut season while Missouri went 30-5 under first-year coach Frank Haith. Ironically, Haith was at Miami prior to Larranaga. There's a good chance they could be named national coach of the year in back-to-back seasons.

"Whenever you take over a program," Weber said, "there's a fine line between totally trying to change everything or just slowly adding and tweaking stuff as you get to know the kids. There's also nothing wrong with keeping some stuff the same, especially if it's worked for those players in the past.

"That's what we've been able to do."

Indeed, Weber, Larranaga and Eustachy all inherited unique situations. Instead of walking into programs that needed to be rebuilt, all three coaches took over teams that were far from broken or downtrodden.

K-State and Colorado State both reached the NCAA tournament last spring under previous coaches Frank Martin and Tim Miles. Miami fell short of greatness during Haith's tenure, but it's not as if the Hurricanes were bad. They had averaged 20.7 wins the previous three seasons before Larranaga was hired.

Ideal as the scenarios may seem, coaches said inheriting semi-healthy teams and getting them to show improvement from the get-go is far from easy.

"The expectations are extremely high and sometimes false," Eustachy said. "That's the worst scenario, when you have huge expectations and they can't be met. Even if you were the resurrection of John Wooden, they couldn't be met."

Weber agrees.

When he became the coach at Southern Illinois in 1998, he said folks in Carbondale joked that winning five games in his first season would make fans happy.

"We ended up winning 15," Weber said, "but the pressure wasn't there. In other jobs I've had [at Illinois and K-State] people immediately say, 'Are you going to get us back to the NCAA tournament this year? Are you going to take us back to the Sweet 16?'

"It's not an easy thing to do. It's a different dynamic. People don't appreciate coaches that come in and take over teams that are expected to win."

And even when success is achieved, coaches don't always get the credit.

Weber guided Illinois to a 37-2 record and an appearance in the 2005 NCAA title game just two seasons after replacing Bill Self after Self left for Kansas. But instead of praising Weber for the accomplishment, the common refrain among basketball fans is that he "won with Self's players."

"If you said that," Weber said, "then you could also say, 'Bill went to Kansas and won with Roy's players. And Roy went to North Carolina and won with Matt Doherty's players.'

"After a while they become your players. You might not have recruited them, but when you're with them more than the previous coach … it's part of it. It just happens. It has to happen."

Eustachy knows folks probably credit Miles as much as him for Colorado State's success.

"It's tough following a good coach and even tougher following a popular coach," Eustachy said. "But think about it: If a guy like Bruce Weber just showed up at Kansas State and rolled the balls out and said, 'OK, you guys know how to do it, see you at the game,' they wouldn't be very good."

Difficult as dealing with outside pressure can be, new coaches also must handle the delicate situation that exists within their own locker room. It's tough to tell a team to do things a certain way when it already has had success in a completely different style.

That's why wholesale change isn't always the answer -- at least not all at once.

Colorado State, for instance, was an efficient offensive team under Miles, and Eustachy said he couldn't have been more impressed with the Rams' work ethic and their willingness to follow instructions and accept coaching. But he also wanted the group to get mentally and physically tougher, because rebounding was an obvious weak point.

After placing an added emphasis on offseason conditioning, Colorado State now ranks first in the country in rebounding (42.3 RPG).

At Kansas State, the Wildcats always had been known for their defensive intensity and physicality in the paint under Martin. Weber encouraged his players to embrace those traits while becoming a more structured, disciplined team on offense.

Even though they'd won a bunch of games under Haith at Miami, the Hurricanes couldn't seem to get things done in crunch time, as evidenced by only one NCAA tournament appearance in seven years. That's where Larranaga came in.

"He's very poised in all situations, because he's been through these situations before," Gamble said. "It trickles down throughout the team and the rest of our staff.

"He just taught us to be more consistent and to not let the frustrations of a big game get to us. We've had plenty of days in practice where we run things over and over again until it becomes second nature to us. Difficult situations in practice make games a lot easier."

So, too, does a raucous home crowd, which is exactly what Miami has been drawing in the wake of its recent success. Even Miami Heat stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have taken interest. The duo sat courtside for a Feb. 9 win over North...
Next >

t Facebook t Twitter
Back to Top
ESPN Mobile Web Home
En Español
ABC News Headlines
Help and Feedback
Terms of Use
Interest-Based Ads
Privacy Policy/Your California Privacy Rights