Patriot success highlights a program done right

Updated: March 29, 2006, 11:09 AM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tom O'Connor has never had to be one of those athletic directors needing the crutch of a search firm to find a basketball coach, as though one of those dummy outfits could uncover a true coach, a true educator, beyond the bright lights of an NCAA Tournament stage.

Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesGeorge Mason coach Jim Larranaga has done more with less.

Bowling Green had never gone to the NCAA Tournament under Jim Larranaga, but they had reached the NIT a few times and had marvelous regular seasons in the Mid-American Conference. They had done everything but get hot one weekend in March. They had a program there, where kids developed on the floor, walked on graduation day and found a molder of men in Larranaga.

George Mason was a mess, the way St. Bonaventure had been when O'Connor took over in Olean, N.Y. Back in the early 1990s, O'Connor hired Jim Baron for the Bonnies, but left before Baron brought the Bonnies back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 22 years.

O'Connor was on his way to Fairfax, Va., where the most improbable Final Four run in NCAA history hasn't been born out of an overnight sensation. No, O'Connor didn't go chasing a hot-shot kid a decade ago, a flavor-of-the-month coach, but a grown-up with staying power.

Mid-majors are forever forgetting who they are, trying to be something they could never be and getting lost along the way. This had been George Mason pre-O'Connor, a basketball program belonging to Paul Westhead. It was a lost cause running a fool offense, as big a loser on the court as it had been in the classroom there. O'Connor had turned into the ultimate mid-major fixer AD, the man you hire when your program needs an overhaul.

So he came to George Mason.

"I would always tell my coach in the first year, 'I don't really care if you go 0-26 in the first year, just put the program in the proper direction, do it the right way,' " O'Connor said by phone the other day. "I want something that sustains itself, not a quick hit-and-miss. I rarely ever talk about winning. What we try to achieve is quality and balance."

This is a forever team at George Mason now, but, make no mistake, this is a program. This didn't happen overnight with some wonderboy coach, but rather over a decade of diligence. Here's the best part of the Final Four story of a generation: In every way, George Mason is a phenomenon worthy of emulation.

Everyone ought to take a good, long look at George Mason's program and see the truth of the matter. This historic story isn't so much about budgets and facilities and fancy recruiting classes, but a relentless resolve to do it right. Perhaps people who wanted to believe that the mid-major that finally broke through to the Final Four would have to be a band of outlaws will reconsider their beliefs. In this copycat world, people need to understand that they could well by mimicking George Mason.

O'Connor, the AD, is an old basketball coach with an eye for teachers. His deputy, Kevin McNamee, was an accomplished swimming coach at St. Bonaventure, beating bigger schools with far fewer resources and scholarships. O'Connor should be in the Big East, and McNamee ought to be running his own department, but somehow, they've stayed at Mason. Together with Larranaga and his crackerjack staff, they've always done more with less.

"We all want to go to the game, have a good time," O'Connor said. "You smile when you have success at the end of the game, but you should want what's best for these kids. What's happening sometimes in this business is too often adults using kids. And I just think that's wrong."

You smile when you have success at the end of the game, but you should want what's best for these kids. What's happening sometimes in this business is too often adults using kids. And I just think that's wrong.
Tom O'Connor

Which is why George Mason was willing to sacrifice its opening-round NCAA Tournament game to suspend Tony Skinn for punching a Hofstra player in the groin, a decision that took "less than 10 seconds" in a quick conference between O'Connor and Larranaga. "It never came up that it could cost us a game," the AD said. "He was dead wrong."

Skinn never stopped apologizing for his momentary insanity, and the Patriots survived his absence against Michigan State and lived to teach a lesson without the price turning out to be NCAA history.

"Part of the reason we've been successful is because there are certain standards of how we're going to behave that go with everything we do," George Mason assistant coach Chris Caputo said. "If you don't meet those standards, there are going to be consequences. Coach always talks about attitude, commitment and first-class. And punching someone in the nuts is not a first-class way of doing things."

Caputo loves recruiting for Larranaga. Never do you have to compromise yourself. Never do you get sent out with the mandate to just "get it done." They're taught to never bad-mouth another program on the road and never cross even the most minimal of lines to win the devotion of a recruit. At George Mason, if the rule says you can see a recruit play only five times, you have to bite your lip when the high school coach tells you that your rival has been in to see the kid three times more than that in the season.

They're taught to treat the little rules like the big rules: Never cross the line. Never.

All the way through the Final Four and beyond, everyone will be studying George Mason now, carefully inspecting the program and trying to figure out the biggest question of all: How did they do it?

Take a good, close look, America, and try it that way yourselves. Only then does college basketball get to be a little smarter, a little better place.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His new book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, is available nationwide.