Jim Larranaga hadn't exactly grown tired of the comparisons between the Butler team that reached the national championship game two weekends ago, and the George Mason team he coached to the Final Four in 2006. As he pointed out when asked, it's hard to tag a No. 5 tournament seed with recent previous Sweet 16 trips a "Cinderella,'' the way you could the 11th-seeded George Mason squad that had never won an NCAA tournament game before.
Still, there was one connection between Larranaga's success four years earlier and Butler's this season -- and the connection goes back to before either Larranaga or Brad Stevens, the coach who guided Butler to the final game, ever got to their current jobs. It was when Butler athletic director Barry Collier, the man who hired Stevens in 2007 -- and the man who gave him his 12-year contract extension last week -- was a coach himself, and when Larranaga was in the middle of his 11-year run at Bowling Green. Also involved is a coach who also later made an unlikely run to the Final Four, with Wisconsin -- Dick Bennett, at the time head coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay.
The meeting, Larranaga said this week (and also wrote about in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post the day Butler played Michigan State in the national semifinals), laid the foundation for how a college team -- especially a mid-major -- could succeed. The core philosophy bears a striking resemblance to the now-famous "Butler Way'' (already in place for decades by then), as well as to the basis of the groundbreaking George Mason team Larranaga constructed that went on to defeat three recent national champs on the way to the 2006 semifinals.
At Bowling Green in the early 1990s, Larranaga recalled -- he coached there from 1986 until departing for Mason in '97 -- "I'd gotten to the point where I was certain I was missing something, and I wasn't sure what it was. I had spent a significant amount of time with my staff, coaching and working with the players, and felt that we weren't getting where we wanted to go.'' So, he said, he decided to visit Bennett, who already had managed to get Wisconsin-Green Bay into the NCAA tournament, to "pick his brain; he's figured out a way to succeed somehow without McDonald's All-Americans.''
He asked Collier , who was coaching against Bennett in the same conference (now the Horizon League), to come with him. Larranaga and Collier met in Chicago and hit Green Bay from there, with Larranaga lugging a 107-page binder that was, essentially, the directory to how he was running the Bowling Green program.
Bennett's reaction to their arrival, and the sight of the thick binder, changed Larranaga's coaching life forever. Bennett, he said, never looked at the binder; he told him, "You won't be happy with yourself as a coach until you reduce those 107 pages down to one page ... Instead, we should just sit down and discuss your philosophy, your values.''
And Bennett boiled those down to five words that had nothing to do with basketball technique or strategy. "Humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness,'' Larranaga said he and Collier were told. Fleshed out somewhat, that meant, for the program, coaches and players, being humble enough to know who you were without thinking you were better than anyone else; loving what you do and putting your totality into it, thinking, doing, aspiring to and achieving goals together; being willing to give to a teammate, sacrificing so that you can make him better and vice versa; and being appreciative of the opportunity given and taking full advantage of it rather than wasting it or taking it for granted.
When he and Collier left after a long conversation with Bennett, Larranaga said, "it was something that created a whole new vision of what our programs would be like. Barry went back and implemented Dick's philosophy, and I implemented it in mine. It then became more about intangibles than about how many points and how many rebounds a kid got.''
They all recruited and coached accordingly, recognizing that it was the best way to succeed without the blue-chip recruits the bigger schools got. The elite players they did draw tended to have the mindset of sacrificing personal goals to win. Those were hallmarks of the 2006 George Mason team -- which was outstanding defensively and utterly unselfish offensively, even though the players had been regional stars who had been recruited by larger schools -- and of this year's Butler team, which was comprised of players who had won as the centerpieces of their high school teams but blended in as Bulldogs.
"Butler was able to advance to the national championship game, beating Michigan State, even though they shot around 31 percent from the field,'' Larranaga noted, pointing out that in similar circumstances four years earlier, his team had also beaten Michigan State, in the second round, by outrebounding a team that hardly any opponent ever outrebounded.
It also had worked when he returned to Bowling Green -- .500 overall through his first seven seasons, he went 70-44 the next four years and won a conference title. Collier, meanwhile, went 196-132 overall in 11 seasons coaching Butler, reaching the NCAA tournament three times. After going to Nebraska for six years, he returned as AD -- the season after Mason's Final Four trip, coincidentally -- and was the man who hired Stevens to replace Todd Lickliter, after Lickliter parlayed a 2007 Sweet 16 trip into the head coaching job at Iowa. (Which, Larranaga wrote in his Post op-ed, is only a reminder that Butler had hardly come out of nowhere: it was "not just a good team, but a great program ... with a winning tradition that began long before this season.'')
"He could have easily chosen a national search for a bigger-name coach from a larger program,'' Larranaga said. "Instead, he felt very strongly that the foundation had been laid, and what they had put down was really starting to pay dividends. The players have clearly bought into it. That is the most difficult part -- you can have that philosophy, but it means nothing if you do not have the players buy into it.'' Butler had it this year, he added, and the 2006 Mason team did too.
In a sense, even though Butler was highly-regarded by the basketball people if not highly-recognized by the public, Larranaga sees how his team did clear a path for Butler to make its run this year: "It showed a lot of smaller schools like ours, 'Hey, if George Mason can do that, why can't we?''
And that, in turn, can be traced back to Larranaga and Collier wondering, "If Dick Bennett and Wisconsin-Green Bay can do that, why can't we?''