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Miami Hurricanes present, future bright under Jim Larranaga

Together, the first weekend of March Madness and the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day create one delicious cocktail.

So let us raise a toast: Miami keeps coming back to this party, and no one is surprised anymore.

Jim Larranaga has made the Hurricanes relevant, regardless of a win or loss in Friday’s late-night date with Michigan State. They are here, and it can be the expectation annually.

“What I really enjoyed,” Larranaga said Thursday, “was walking out on the (practice) court with our University of Miami band playing a Gloria Estefan song, ‘Rhythm is Gonna Get You,’ because as soon as I heard that … knowing our team is representing our university and city, and competing against Tom Izzo and the great tradition he’s built at Michigan State, it’s very exciting.”

It’s a fun bandwagon to climb aboard, and Larranaga’s glad to have you.

But to truly appreciate his era of Canes basketball is to know the history, to understand why Miami’s so lucky to have him.

He weathered off-the-court issues not of his doing, built a program off transfers and intelligent recruiting, and has taken Miami to places it has never been. That’s the short version of a remarkable job. In his first season, 2011-12, players were missing games because of NCAA trouble. The next year, he won the program’s first ACC title and made the Sweet 16. Then it lost three scholarships because of the Nevin Shapiro scandal, which hung over the UM athletic department for five years. Larranaga and his staff — organized, structured and disciplined — created another Sweet 16 squad last March.

Now, supposedly rebuilding, the Hurricanes earned a No. 8 NCAA seed after winning 10 games in the brutal ACC and going 21-11 overall. Most of this group, bolstered by the most heralded recruiting class in program history, will be back next year.

He hopes that will help him in his quest to consistently fill the 7,972-seat Watsco Center. That is one of his major remaining challenges. UM lags behind other ACC schools in atmosphere, but it has been packed several nights this season. This is a team that played in high school gyms in the 1940s, an airplane hangar in the 1960s and went dark for 14 years. What would the late Bill Foster say about the delirious crowds that saw Miami beat Duke and North Carolina this year?

By the time of the Hurricanes’ 1985 revival from that dormant period, college basketball had hit the big time. Foster coached while working out of a converted storage closet in UM’s sports information department. His team practiced on an outdoor patio. He got a practice facility, but UM played its games at the James L. Knight Center, a converted auditorium in a downtown Hyatt hotel. It had velvet-covered seats and looked like a theater, not a basketball gym.

By 1990, they were playing in the 17,000-seat Miami Arena, and Foster left for Virginia Tech. UM hired 41-year-old Leonard Hamilton, who oversaw the move to the Big East. In 1999-2000, he brought UM to the Sweet 16 for the first time, and the NBA came calling. He left for the Washington Wizards, creating one of the juiciest what-if scenarios in program history.

In June 2000, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge, UM had a handshake deal with Rick Pitino, then coach of the Boston Celtics and part-time Miami resident. It was to stay hush-hush until Pitino could negotiate out of his deal, which had some $15 million remaining. The news leaked a day later. Pitino publicly confirmed his meeting with UM, but said he was merely advising friends.

After striking out on Pitino, a two-time national champion who has been at Louisville since 2001, Miami hired Perry Clark. Hamilton left behind future NBA players John Salmons and James Jones and recruits like McDonald’s All-American Darius Rice. In four years, Clark managed a first-round exit as a 5-seed in his only tournament appearance, disappointing scarce crowds at UM’s new on-campus arena.

The frustration mounted under Frank Haith, who went 43-69 in ACC play and bolted for Missouri amid heat from the NCAA.

UM then found an energetic 61-year-old with a booming voice known for taking little George Mason, which had never won an NCAA Tournament game before his arrival, to the Final Four.

Now his Canes are in Tulsa, 5 miles east of the university where Haith now toils after his rocky stint at Mizzou. This week, Haith’s program (15-17 this season) isn’t much of a presence downtown, where the BOK Center sits, splashed with March Madness branding for these first- and second-round games. Friends from South Florida who checked in with Haith this week say he’s doing well.

Not as well as Larranaga, 67 and still going strong. Whenever this is over, he will be remembered with Ron Fraser, Howard Schnellenberger, Sam Jankovich and Foster among the key figures in advancing UM athletics.

Cheers to that.

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