Dave Hyde: A campus walk with Jim Larrañaga is evidence of Miami Hurricanes’ Sweet 16 success

Tribune Content Agency

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — It’s just after noon and a soft sunshine plays across the University of Miami campus as Jim Larrañaga leaves his basketball office for his daily walk.

He wasn’t sure he’d have time for it Tuesday between the two-hour staff meeting, the nine media interviews, the private talks with various players and the general preparation for Wednesday’s trip to Kansas City for Friday’s NCAA Tournament game against top seed Houston.

“I’d have sent someone to get it for me if I couldn’t go,” he says.

Each day, Larrañaga takes this 10-minute walk across campus to get an Angel Food smoothie and enjoy where he works.

“Anyone have it better than here?” he says, stopping to look across at a small lake as a couple students pass on the sideline walk wishing him luck.

He waves at them, before returning to a story of last weekend’s wins. It began with Miami starting so tight and tense in the tournament opener against Drake he said in a time-out to loosen them up , “I don’t recognize you guys. Who are you?”

The weekend then ended last Sunday night with a celebratory family dinner after the win against Indiana. His son, Jon, attended the game with his family and everyone discussed the game afterward.

“Papi, why’d you take [center Norchad Omier] out of the game?” asked his 14-year-old grandson, also named Jon.

Grandpa explained the risk of foul trouble and Omier’s importance considering his 17 rebounds in that win.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You took him out too long!’ ” Larrañaga said, laughing, just as eight Miami students ask him to stop for a picture.

“We go to all the games!” one says.

“Where are you all from?” Larrañaga says, going down the line and shaking the students hands.

When he arrived at Miami in 2011, he delivered pizzas to dorm rooms and talked at fraternities to beg students to attend games for a lost program. Now this walk is evidence of a changed world of sellout games, ACC conference titles, a second consecutive trip to the Sweet 16 and students pulling out phones to take pictures with the 73-year-old coach.

Did he expect it to be like this when he arrived to a struggling basketball market?

“You want the truth?” he says. “Yes, absolutely.”

It wasn’t always fun. There were a few empty years amid an FBI investigation into his and other programs that went nowhere. He lost a top recruit overnight and had to rebuild what he’d built. But as he enters the Smoothie King for his daily Angel Food smoothie his world is all good again.

“We were waiting for him,” a worker behind the counter says as he poses with students for a few more pictures inside the store.

He’s a man of ritual. When the team arrived back on campus at 2 p.m. Monday, Larrañaga immediately took his walk for this strawberry and banana blend smoothie. Now, smoothie in hand, he’s ready for the simple walk back across campus.

Ahead this afternoon are more meetings, more preparation, and a short video session — “The Sneak Peek,” they call it — at Houston’s offensive and defensive set-up. There are more interviews, too. Larrañaga already has talked on a radio show with NBA legend Jerry West, for who an award is named that Miami’s Isaiah Wong is a finalist.

“We have a drill we call, ‘The Jerry West,’ ” Larrañaga says. “One dribble and a jump shot.”

“If you can get your shot off quickly in any space, that’s a key to success,” West says.

Walking back to his office with the smoothie, Larrañaga notes Miami is one of four schools with the men’s and women’s teams in the Sweet 16. He texted congratulations to women’s coach Katie Meier immediately after their win.

“What a win that was,” he says of the last-second win over top seed Indiana.

This is his favorite stretch of the year when his team is winning, there’s another big game ahead and the news is all good. He tells how at halftime of the Indiana win he huddled with assistants and it was decided Omier and Jordan Miller would switch defensive assignments.

“When I told the team, they said, ‘Yeah, we decided that’s what we should do, too,’ ” Larrañaga said. “I said, ‘Well, we’re on the same page.’ “

Some adjustments matter. Larrañaga put in a full-court press against Drake when down eight points with five minutes left to change that game. This defensive switch against Indiana was key to Miami taking charge in the second half.

“Now we go against a Houston team that was ranked No. 1 for a good stretch this season,” he says. “They’re fourth in the country in offensive rebounding, fourth in defense. We know what they can do.”

He grew up in the Bronx, inspired by his older brothers to dribble a basketball each day from home to a court that’s about the same distance as his office to his smoothie store.

“Some days as I walked I’d have to dribble on every crack in the sidewalk,” he said. “Some days I couldn’t dribble on the cracks.”

These days he’s not dribbling. He’s dancing in the tournament. As he walks in his office, his phone rings. It’s time for another radio show in a good week that only gets better.