WASHINGTON -- Being right in the thick of preparing his team for the NCAA Tournament was no excuse, Jim Larranaga realized. The Miami coach simply had to fly to New York last Tuesday to attend the wake of his high school coach Jack Curran. Without Curran, Larranaga figures, he wouldn't be in Miami, the tournament or the business at all.
Curran, the late basketball and baseball coach at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, always was worth going out of his way for. "He recruited me in 1963. I accepted the scholarship and the 1.5-hour ride out to Molloy, in each direction," said the 63-year-old coach who was born in the Bronx.
"I passed St. Helena's, which would have been my natural stop, in the first 15 minutes, went over the Whitestone Bridge and out to Flushing, Queens and Jamaica. And it was the best decision of my life," said the man who will coach the Atlantic Coast Conference champion Hurricanes against Marquette here Thursday night in an East Regional Sweet 16 game.
Those years with Curran, including a few days when the coach gave his star player a ride home, allowed Larranaga, in his words, "an opportunity to spend time with the man who I wanted to be just like."
Miami's players are not allowed to curse during practice, the way Curran's players weren't. They are taught a certain way to tie the laces on their sneakers, as the Molloy players always were. They also learn from a one-of-a-kind character, as Larranaga did in high school.
"To them I'm kind of wacky, you know? I say a lot of things to them and initially they don't understand," he said Wednesday.
Larranaga never will have the longevity or iconic status as did Curran, who was still an active coach at the time of his death two weeks ago. It is enough that his career, which featured a trip to the Final Four with mid-major George Mason and the revival of Miami's basketball program, is a tribute to Curran (who left Larranaga's wedding for a trip to Davidson, where he recommended his former player for the assistant coaching job that began his career).
It also says much about Larranaga, the 2013 Henry Iba Award winner as national coach of the year.
"He was a senior when I was a sophomore. He was the best player on the team, a great guy," said Long Islander Kevin Joyce, who went on from Molloy to star at South Carolina, captain the 1972 U.S. Olympic team and play pro ball.
Fordham coach Tom Pecora, whose Hofstra teams beat George Mason twice right before the Final Four, said Larranaga didn't stop with that great run in 2006. George Mason built on that season, then at Miami the coach recruited Shane Larkin. "He was the missing piece," Pecora said. "I don't know that there's a better point guard in the tournament, in terms of reading what his team needs."
Miami will not have top rebounder Reggie Johnson, who has a knee injury. That will hurt, but Larranaga has dealt with absence before. At George Mason, the coach suspended point guard Tony Skinn for the start of the 2006 NCAA Tournament for having punched Hofstra's Loren Stokes. It was a potential season killer, but Larranaga wanted to do what was right because that's how he was taught by Curran.
"The last time we had a basketball conversation was after my Miami team lost to Duke by three at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He said, 'Larry, I watched your Duke game. You guys don't play any defense,' " he said, imitating Curran's gravelly voice. "I laughed with him the whole time I was on the phone with him.
"He was just an incredible human being, and he meant a lot to me."