Miami Hurricanes Basketball Moves to NCAA Championship

At tip-off, Jim Larranaga is on his feet, watching the first ugly minutes unroll from the sideline.

It's a Wednesday night in Tallahassee, the stage for a Rivalry Week hoops battle between Florida State and the University of Miami. Turnout is good. Red-faced frat boys war-whoop as ESPN2 cameras pan the crowd. Older alumni quietly sit courtside in Seminole gear, eyes hooked on cheerleaders shaking golden pom-poms. A 2011-12 Atlantic Coast Conference championship banner dangles from the rafters, although few people probably expect this year's Seminole squad to do much against the visiting competition.

FSU is anchored by underclassmen — thin, reedy guys with little experience — except for senior standout Michael Snaer, a long-range danger with sure NBA potential. The Hurricanes, by contrast, start four veteran seniors tonight. At point for UM is Shane Larkin. With pro-athlete genes from his dad, baseball Hall of Famer Barry, the sophomore is an all-around talent, equally adept at pulling off highlight-reel showbiz as playbook maneuvers. That combination of finesse and experience works for UM — the team is currently 20-3 for the season. When the Canes first met FSU a month earlier, Miami came out on top 71-47.

In his second season at UM, Larranaga steered the Hurricanes on a 14-game winning streak.
George Martinez
In his second season at UM, Larranaga steered the Hurricanes on a 14-game winning streak.
At six-foot-11, Kenny Kadji has become key to the Hurricanes' defense.
George Martinez
At six-foot-11, Kenny Kadji has become key to the Hurricanes' defense.
Shane Larkin, son of MLB star Barry, anchors the offense.
George Martinez
Shane Larkin, son of MLB star Barry, anchors the offense.
Larranaga has a track record of turning ignored basketball programs into campus darlings.
George Martinez
Larranaga has a track record of turning ignored basketball programs into campus darlings.
The UM fan base, hungry for good news after the Shapiro scandal, has embraced the basketball team.
Jessica Daly
The UM fan base, hungry for good news after the Shapiro scandal, has embraced the basketball team.

But as play begins, it becomes clear UM is rusty. The first stabs at FSU's basket all backfire, with three turnovers in six possessions. Two minutes in, the Hurricanes are down 7-2. They look nothing like the team that dismantled the University of North Carolina 87-61 five days earlier and is currently in the middle of a perfect ACC campaign.

Larranaga stays planted near the end of the bench. At age 63, the coach still carries his six-foot-five frame with the straight-backed poise of a former athlete. Not a clipboard-basher, he quietly takes in the action, his competitive fire fenced off behind professorial calm. Neatly trimmed hair still holds onto some color, and scant wisps of white reach over the top of his head. Worry lines worm across his forehead as he watches, his arms either folded across his dark suit or clasped behind his back.

Suddenly, Snaer knifes through the defense on the run and receives the ball at the top of the key. Before Larkin can get his hands up, Snaer sails the ball over the UM point guard's head to an open man below the basket. FSU is up 9-2.

On the next possession, FSU's defense chokes off approaches to the basket. After swinging along the perimeter, the ball lands with Kenny Kadji, an easy-smiling forward with a gym-cut six-foot-11 frame. He plants his feet, dips his knees low, and arcs the ball to the basket. It thunks against the backboard before flying up and out of bounds.

"Miami knows how this feels, because they just did it to North Carolina, this kind of start," ESPN's Dave O'Brien chortles on air as a timeout freezes play with FSU leading by nine.

Initially unranked, UM crashed the party of college contenders after upsetting Duke, 90-63, in late January. It was the first time the team had beaten a number-one-ranked team, and it put the Hurricanes in the Associated Press's Top 25 list for the first time since 2010. Each subsequent win nudged the Hurricanes higher. Before the February 13 tip-off, they had reached number three — a program record.

The wins shifted attention onto Larranaga, now in his second year at UM. Although his name isn't marbled in the college pantheon, over a three-decade career, he's put together a unique reputation. Equal parts playground grit and New Agey corporate-speak, his coaching style turned a no-name program into a contender in 2006, when he led 11th-seed George Mason to the Final Four. It was one of the great Cinderella runs in the NCAA annals.

Now, easing into his career’s last act, Larranaga may or may not have the tools to take the Hurricanes deep into the postseason. Last Saturday, the Hurricanes lost a hyped rematch with Duke, showing that the ACC championship won’t be an easy grab. And in future years, Larranaga’s team will face not only a 128-team bracket but fallout from the worst scandal outside of Joe Paterno’s Penn State. Although Larranaga was never on campus while corrupt booster Nevin Shapiro was cutting checks, he may have to deal with sanctions for the rest of his Miami career.

To understand what this means for South Florida's newly minted, second-most-loved franchise, you have to look deep into not only Larranaga's past but his present. The coach's quirky approach has been able to push teams far beyond the usual expectations, but Miami presents its own obstacles.


Larranaga was born in the Bronx in 1949. His family lived in Parkchester, a massive square of 171 matching red-brick buildings planted in the south-central part of the borough. His Cuban-American father, John, was an insurance adjuster who worked in the Empire State Building. His Irish mother, Eileen, raised six kids in the family's three-bedroom apartment.

The postwar baby boom filled Parkchester with children, and basketball was the main event on the playground. Younger kids grew up watching from behind the chainlink, waiting for their chance. "If you were mediocre, you'd be sitting," recalls John Carey, a Parkchester native who grew up with Larranaga. "When you got out there, you'd try to absorb everything. It would teach you the subtleties of the game."

Both of Jim's older brothers — Bob and Greg — played, and the future Hurricanes coach was throwing around the ball by age 8. He attended St. Helena's School, but mostly he was chained to the court. "It was a time before drinking; it was a time before doing anything like that," says Bill Foley, another Parkchester friend. "We were all straight arrows. The only thing that mattered to us was playing basketball. We would play four, five, six hours a day."

A growth spurt, a mean jumper, and sharp court radar landed Larranaga a scholarship at Archbishop Molloy, a jacket-tie-and-crewcut all-boys school in Queens. The basketball team was coached by Jack Curran, known around town as a guy who lined up summer jobs for the kids and ferried them to doctors for injuries.

The coach ran a tight, yes-sir, no-sir squad. A disciplined Catholic who went to mass every day, Curran would eventually tally more wins with his basketball and baseball teams than any other coach in New York City history. Each practice was a strict litany of drills: hand work, backboard jumpers, driving layups, back to the basket — then repeat. "By just following the routines, you got good without even knowing it," Larranaga says.

Larranaga was as regimented as his coach. Up by 6:30, the teen downed the same breakfast each day: a sandwich and a milk shake spiked with an egg. By 7 a.m., he had started the hourlong bus ride to school, and at lunch, he gobbled down ten Reese's Pieces. Every day, he played 1.5 hours of chess.

In Larranaga's junior and senior years, Curran often trucked his big man home. During the car trips, the coach unfurled tales about clinching buzzer shots and big-time high school matchups. "That really made me think that this is what I want to do with my life," Larranaga says. "I wanted to be a player and a coach."

Larranaga was All-City at Molloy, his play sharpened during summers on the playground with future NBA players Dean Meminger and Charlie Yelverton. At a dance at the Bronx Irish Center, he met a neighborhood girl named Liz Lynch, half the baller's height but his equal in wit. The two kept running into each other around the neighborhood and eventually began dating, keeping up the romance while Larranaga attended Providence College, a perennial basketball power.

As a senior, he captained a 20-3 squad anchored by future NBA Rookie of the Year Ernie DiGregorio. By the end of Larranaga's college career, he was the fifth all-time scorer in the program's history. In 1971, he not only was snagged by the Detroit Pistons in the sixth round of the draft but he put a ring on Liz's finger.

He failed to make the Pistons team — which he contends wasn't much of a disappointment — and took a job as an assistant at Davidson College, a small, well-regarded basketball school in North Carolina. His boss was Terry Holland, the honey-talking Southerner who'd been a shooting standout at Davidson in the early '60s. The Larranagas spent two years there, and a son, Jay, was born in 1975.

When Holland left the school, Larranaga was let go. He ended up with a gig as a player-coach in Belgium ­— "a unique experience," he says.

By 1979, Holland had moved to the University of Virginia, where he tapped Larranaga again as an assistant. The program was a considerable jump up in stature. Holland had just recruited Ralph Sampson, a seven-foot-four local center who would become NBA Rookie of the Year for the Houston Rockets. With Larranaga as copilot, the Cavaliers would make two Final Four appearances and win a National Invitational Tournament title.

Under Holland, Larranaga absorbed more than court smarts. The head coach opened his family life to his players and staff. Sampson lived with Holland for a semester; future Dallas Mavericks Head Coach Rick Carlisle regularly stopped over to play the family's piano. Holland even taught Larranaga to water-ski before the city boy could swim.

Larranaga also learned to do his homework on recruits, drilling down into the basics: what the guy's family was like, his favorite foods, the girls he chased.

In 1986, after seven seasons at Virginia, Larranaga took a head-coaching job at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The team had made only two appearances in the NIT in the previous 20 years. The program trailed third behind football and ice hockey for fans and funding.

During his first few seasons at Bowling Green, Larranaga's teams hovered around .500, and his coaching staff was a revolving door. Clarity was needed. He dove into self-help libraries for management tips; Deepak Chopra and Stephen Covey were favorites.

He also put his coaching philosophy into writing, coming up with a 108-page inventory of possible plays and scenarios. The book became the program's bible.

But in the early '90s, Larranaga received sage advice from Dick Bennett, then the coach at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. "He told me, 'You are not going to be happy until you reduce that notebook down to a simple page,' " Larranaga recalls.

After hacking through his system, the coach was left with a strategy as tidy as a Zen garden. All that players really needed to think about was the perfectly executed defensive possession. "If you look at a game, let's say you play 60 to 80 possessions," he explains. "But we look at one possession and say, 'What would be the one way to play it?' "

Larranaga came up with ten points that characterized a perfect possession. "It all starts with defense," the coach explains. "You get back, you're in a stance, you're seeing ball and seeing man."

Now he had his own style.


Antonio Daniels was sleeping off a win from the night before against Central Michigan when he blinked awake to see Larranaga standing in his cramped dorm room. The cold night was still pressing in at the windows of Offenhauer Tower. It was February 8, 1996.

Dizzy with sleep, the Bowling Green point guard shot his coach a puzzled look. "Antonio," the older man said in a level tone. "Your phone is about to ring, and it's going to be your mother."

The call came right then. The 20-year-old's mom quickly broke the news: Chris, Daniels' older brother and a standout NBA prospect at the University of Dayton, had died in his sleep from a freak heart ailment. Daniels collapsed weeping into Larranaga's arms.

Daniels remembers getting dressed and dragging himself into the coach's car. They drove two hours south to Dayton so he could be with his family. When Chris was buried later that week in Columbus, the entire Bowling Green basketball team showed up. Daniels, wearing his brother's number 33, returned to the court later that month and scored a last-minute layup that beat Eastern Michigan.

During the following summer, Larranaga recalls handing Daniels a key to the Bowling Green gym. A lanky six-foot-four with an impressive 80-inch wingspan and flashbulb smile, Daniels worked his grief out on the court. By his senior year, Daniels' field-goal percentage went from 47.8 to 54.7, and he became the fourth pick in the 1997 NBA draft.

"I've been through heaven and hell with Coach L," Daniels says today. "For me, it was important to have Coach L there, period. I remember when I got drafted — you can have ten people at your table. Outside of my family members, I had Coach L there."

That kind of connection was all a part of the environment Larranaga built throughout the early and mid-'90s at Bowling Green. Central to that was knocking down the boundary between work and home. Liz Larranaga understood this. "He once said to me that if you just measured a life by wins and losses, it would be pretty empty," she says today.

As they were growing up, Jay and his younger brother, Jon, were always running around the locker room or traveling with their father on recruiting trips. Jay got an early glimpse of his dad defying the odds when the middle-schooler tagged along for the December 1988 University of Kentucky Christmas tournament. The Falcons nailed the nationally ranked Wildcats 56-54 before a hometown crowd.

The Larranagas lived near campus. The team would hang out in the finished basement. "They had a big-screen TV, they had a big huge couch, they had a pool table, and one of the assistant coaches [Keith Noftz] would always do card tricks for us," recalls Anthony Stacey, a power forward on Larranaga's later BGSU teams. "Those are the times you never forget."

Dinner invitations came often, particularly when Larranaga got wind players had blown through their food stipends. The menu was always filet mig­non, rice, rolls, and freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies. "At Bowling Green, he wasn't making what he's making now, but he went all out for his team," Daniels says. "As a player, you think, 'He's a guy I want to be on the front lines for.' "

The players were so comfortable stopping over at the Larranaga house that once, when the coach was putting up a coaching staff job applicant overnight, some guys knocked on the door at 11 p.m., asking to meet the new guy. Larranaga invited them in but told them he wasn't going to wake his houseguest.

Keeping the door open for his players meant Larranaga was there with life advice when needed. In the winter of 1995, Larranaga called a stocky freshman guard named DeMar Moore into his office. Poor classroom performance meant the player was academically ineligible. The news came at a bad time. Moore had just found out that his girlfriend back in Sandusky, Ohio, was pregnant.

"I think he was a little disappointed, [but] we talked, and he put things in perspective about what I needed to do," Moore says now. "I never really had a male figure in my life, and he showed me the ropes. He said to use it as a lesson."

Each day before practices and games, the coach offered a "Thought of the Day," anything from the Bible to Sun Tzu's The Art of War. "If you asked 100 of my players what their favorite thought was, probably 90 of them would say: 'Begin with the end in mind,' " Larranaga says, referring to a Stephen Covey quote.

Sometimes he'd cut the lights in the locker room, ask his players to close their eyes, and walk the team through visualizing victories. Each game day, a different player was assigned to pick a song for the locker room. On court, his trademark whistle meant authority.

"Whenever he whistled, we'd automatically look over and know he wasn't happy with us," Stacey says. "I don't know how he does it. It's the loudest thing I've ever heard."

Larranaga was also careful to keep stress levels low. One Halloween, the coach strolled onto the court for practice with a gold chain, sunglasses, backward hat, and sagging pants. "That was probably the funniest thing I'd ever seen him do," Stacey recalls. "That's just him, though. He always did a very good job of balancing the coach aspect but letting us have fun."

The system produced steady results. In his 11 years at Bowling Green, the team went 170-144. In 1996-97, the Falcons went 22-10 and played in the NIT, only to be knocked out in the first round by West Virginia by three. After the season, Larranaga was named the Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year.

That spring, George Mason University came with an offer. The Fairfax, Virginia, school was slightly bigger than Bowling Green but had spent the past seven seasons as a bottom feeder. It was a lateral career move, but George Mason had no football and hockey programs to compete for funding. Larranaga carefully thought over the decision. "He doesn't make too many decisions quickly," Jon Larranaga says. "He thinks, analyzes, and researches."

Larranaga took the George Mason job. At the time, his younger son was also weighing a choice. Growing up in Bowling Green, Jon hadn't immediately taken to the family business like his older brother; he played ice hockey until his feet grew too big, requiring expensive custom blades. Hoops was the default. "For me, basketball was always a way to spend time with my dad and my brother," he says. "It gave us something to do together."

Though Jon had a standout high school career at St. Johns Jesuit High School in Toledo, the Larranagas weren't sure he should play for his dad. Jay, five years older, had competed for his father at Bowling Green, where Jay had felt the pressure of having family and team tied so directly. "You're mixing a lot of emotions into that relationship," Jay says. "It always felt like the lows were lower and the highs were higher."

Arriving in his father's second season, Jon became the locker-room liaison between the coach and the new players. Larranaga had simply airlifted in his entire approach — from his staff and defensive focus to Liz's team dinner menu. Jon could explain his dad's expectations. "I went in with about 20 years of experience," he quips.

The results came quickly. In his first season, Larranaga's squad bumped along at 9-18. In year two, the Patriots went 19-11, and the coach knocked off a career milestone: an appearance in the NCAA tournament. The Patriots followed up with another winning season and returned to the first round of March Madness in the coach's fourth year, only to lose to Maryland.

"When you play for your dad, you have the pressure of winning and doing the best for your team, and then when you are losing, you have the pressure that he'll lose his job," Jon says. "It's a great feeling making it to the NCAA tournament. And it's also a great feeling to know you're helping your dad's career."

Although the team never penetrated beyond the first round of tournament play, George Mason put itself on the radar as a program to watch. But nothing would prepare college hoops prognosticators for spring 2006.

After a disappointing 16-13 showing in 2004-05, Larranaga brought together the senior players and asked if they wanted their college careers to end with a bust. The team — anchored by scorers averaging in the double digits like Jai Lewis, Lamar Butler, and Tony Skinn — decided to stay on campus for summer workouts. "That was the hardest preseason, man," recalls Butler, a charismatic guard who had half-seriously predicted that the Patriots would make the Final Four in a prepractice visualization session. "There were no days off. We battled so we could take it up another notch. Coach L really didn't have to do much. For the seniors, this was our last job."

The school won 23 regular-season games and landed in USA Today's Top 25 rankings — two firsts for the program. Many analysts like CBS' Billy Packer scoffed when George Mason secured an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. As the 11th seed, the team beat Michigan State, then nailed defending national champion North Carolina, 65-60, after falling behind 16-2.

Wichita State fell next, matching the Patriots against tournament favorite University of Connecticut. When the two tipped off on March 26, 2006, Larranaga's locker room was filled with television cameras. His players were now ESPN SportsCenter material.

Larranaga preached cool to his team. "I told them that the media has a job to do and we have a job to do, and those things don't have to get in the way of each other," he recalls.

The UConn-George Mason game was one of the great nail biters in college sports history. The Patriots were down 43-34 at the half. They fought back and went ahead, but as the buzzer sounded at the end of regulation time, UConn had tied it. In the last seconds of overtime, a missed UConn jumper sealed the game for George Mason; the next stop was the Final Four. In a cover story the following week, Sports Illustrated called Larranaga's team's streak "the most improbable Final Four run in the annals of college basketball."

Although the Patriots lost their next game against eventual tournament champion Florida, Larranaga had been catapulted into the upper ranks of college coaches.


It's February 13 at the FSU game with 18:60 left on the clock in the second half, and Larranaga's face remains pinched in a scowl as he watches the Hurricanes fight to pull momentum away from the Seminoles.

The Hurricanes are holding off their cross-state rivals 38-31. UM point guard Larkin's pass finds Kadji open out beyond the curve of the three-point line. The forward bends down with the ball in both hands, eyeing his teammates as they tangle with coverage.

Usually spot-on from the field, Kadji and other Hurricane long-ballers have been grounded all game by aggressive pressure. Soon Kadji's man is moving in; after a beat, the forward jackknifes, launching the ball over a swinging arm as he tumbles backward. The shot is good.

But with ten minutes left on the clock, the Seminoles have evened the score. "Miami is on upset alert now," ESPN's O'Brien shouts over the crowd, sound going tidal in the background. Despite the seesawing score, the Hurricanes remain poised. Larranaga throws his arms as if he's conducting traffic from the sidelines, spotlighting open spaces and lanes. Suddenly the Hurricanes' offensive runs begin clicking. Larkin goes airborne on a pair of lay­ups before knocking in a three to put Miami up 68-56. By the time the game buzzes to a finish, the score is 78-64.

Those last minutes in Tallahassee showcased UM's ability to lock down control. Big shots from Kadji were critical.

By all accounts, Kadji is playing the best basketball of his life. By midseason, he'll average 12.6 points a game, shooting .625 from the field and hitting one of every three tosses in three-point territory.

The stats are particularly surprising given that Kadji's four-year run has included a transfer, surgery, and coaching changes. Like almost all the seniors Larranaga inherited when he took the Miami job in 2011, Kadji came with a last-chance mentality that played well with the coach's idiosyncratic style.

Born in Cameroon, Kadji grew up bouncing among Africa, France, and Florida. His basketball odyssey began auspiciously in 2001. On vacation in Miami, Kadji and his mother were shopping in Coconut Grove when they spotted the Miami Heat's Alonzo Mourning on the sidewalk by the GreenStreet Cafe. The 13-year-old always carried an autograph book at the time, and he approached the NBA star. Looking over the height and hands of the kid before him, Mourning told Kadji's mother her son should play basketball.

"It always makes me smile," Kadji says, referring to the story.

The Kadjis took the advice seriously. They enrolled their son in IMG Academy in Bradenton, a sports mecca that his younger brother, Oliver, was also attending, as a soccer player. Kadji arrived on campus as a six-foot-five high school junior with a natural gift. By his senior year, he averaged 28 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocked shots per game. Both rivals.com and scout.com listed Kadji as the fifth-ranked center in the class of 2008 nationwide.

"Kenny always loved to play; he always loved to be in the gym," says Dan Barto, a coach at IMG. "In high school, he obviously blocked a lot of shots, and he was a ferocious dunker."

His high school and Amateur Athletic Union performance with the Florida Rams were enough to get Kadji a scholarship at the University of Florida in fall 2008. But that was the year after the Gators had won the national championship, and the team was strong. His minutes were low. As a sophomore, he played only eight games before requiring back surgery. "At Florida, I really expected to contribute right away and play and help the team," he recalls now. "Obviously, it didn't turn out how I wanted it to be."

Kadji decided to transfer to UM, then coached by Frank Haith. He redshirted his first season in Miami. The two years of inactivity shot a hole through his confidence, and he returned to IMG to basically relearn his skills. Then Haith left in April 2011 for the University of Missouri.

When Larranaga took over the position, Kadji had no idea what to expect. "It was my last chance," he says. "I didn't want to be in a bad situation again."

The 2011-12 Hurricane team under Larranaga went 20-13 as the new coach felt out his players. In addition to Kadji, there were two other big men, but both struggled: Six-foot-ten center Julian Gamble sat out the season after tearing his ACL, and Reggie Johnson came back slowly from knee surgery. The Hurricanes finished tied for fourth in the ACC.

"We've come from a long way," Johnson says. "It was depressing to play at home. I hated playing at home. When I came here and saw an empty gym, there's nothing to play for. You play to win, but the crowd ain't behind you. But when you go to Duke and North Carolina, those fans are standing up, cheering, cussing at us. That's what college basketball is."

The seniors lining up for the 2012-13 schedule were all joined by the fact that the upcoming schedule really would be their last opportunity at the college level. If they didn't do something in Larranaga's second season, their careers were likely done.

This proved to be a motivator. At a spring team meeting, Larranaga pressed the squad about what they wanted out of the following season. An NCAA tournament appearance was the consensus. Channeling the dedication of his George Mason players, Larranaga replied that the whole team would have to stay on campus all summer for weight and conditioning work.

"Most of the people on the team, we really haven't had success," Kadji says. "Reggie Johnson is a fifth-year senior. Julian Gamble is a sixth-year senior. These people have been through injuries, so we can all relate to each other. We know how hard it's been for each other to get to this point, so I think that brought us closer together."


UM's hot streak hung like a target on the team's back, with each opponent looking to dim the Hurricanes' glow. It happened on the road with a blowout loss to Wake Forest in late February, 80-65. Before that, the Hurricanes occupied the number-two position in the Associated Press poll. Following the loss, the squad fell to number five. Many analysts still predict that UM will go to the NCAA tournament as a first or second seed.

Last Saturday, UM traveled to Duke for a rematch. With the most obnoxious fan base in sports raining down abuse, the Hurricanes led for most the first half. UM’s defense muzzled Duke’s lineup save for Ryan Kelly, who put up 36 points. Had a buzzer-beating three from UM’s Rion Brown been an inch over, the Hurricanes would have tied the game for overtime.

Despite the loss, the Hurricanes’ close road performance against Duke still won admiration from analysts. Many predict the team will go to the NCAA tournament as a first or second seed, although a poor performance in the ACC tournament could shadow its prospects.

All season, Larranaga has tried to keep his players focused on each upcoming game. The coach, however, is fixated on recruiting.

Besides Larkin, only one other underclassman sees significant playing time on the current squad. Regardless of the 2012-13 team's fate, he'll have to rebuild the entire program after March.

And standing in the way of arming up with new talent is the ongoing NCAA investigation into UM's athletic program.

Word about corruption in UM's football and basketball programs hadn't surfaced when Larranaga accepted the position in spring 2011. But in August 2011, Yahoo! Sports published a damning report recounting the allegations of former UM booster Nevin Shapiro. Serving 20 years in federal prison for his part in a Ponzi scheme, Shapiro detailed a decade of rule violations, including cash payments, nightclub and restaurant trips, and travel expenses.

Larranaga first heard about the allegations a day before the report was published. "My initial thought was this is bad timing for recruiting." The next week, UM's top five basketball recruits all eliminated the school from consideration.

The UM football program is the main culprit in the Shapiro allegations, although the basketball program is involved. The convicted con man claims he passed along $10,000 to a Frank Haith assistant to secure recruit DeQuan Jones for the program in 2008 — a payment the head coach allegedly knew about. The Yahoo! report also asserted that Haith assistant coaches had paid travel expenses for family members of two of Larranaga's players — Johnson and Durand Scott. The university benched both voluntarily for a time. Later, the school determined that the players didn't know about the travel at the time.

A program with a spotty record seems a complete mismatch with Larranaga, still very much the straight-arrow Catholic-school grinder. But he backs away from commenting on what went on before he took over at UM. "Whoever was here and what they did — no one knows what decisions someone else makes, what the reasons are," he explains. "It's not my place to pass judgment."

A week before the Wake loss, the NCAA delivered the official notice of allegations, bashing the school for a "lack of institutional control." Two former basketball assistants were among those charged; Haith faces a lesser charge. UM has promised to fight the sanctions.

It's generally assumed that when the NCAA officially swings, the UM football program will take a serious bruising. But there's been no sign of what awaits Larranaga. His iPhone is constantly buzzing with text messages from high school talent with words of encouragement about the current Hurricanes.

They also have tough questions. "Recruits want to know, 'How will it impact the program when I'm there?' " he says. "And there's no answer to that. We don't know."

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