The Man Behind March Madness' Cinderella Story

The man at the heart of what may be college basketball's biggest Cinderella story told his players their long-shot status was irrelevant. And they believed it.

George Mason University coach Jim Larranaga recited the words of famed orator William Jennings Bryan to his team, telling his players, "Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice."

And they chose to defeat half of last year's Final Four and the two previous national champions in this year's men's NCAA tournament. The Patriots face third-seeded Florida in the semi-finals Saturday.

George Mason University -- largely a commuter school in suburban Fairfax, Va. -- entered the tournament as the underdog of underdogs -- an 11th-seeded at-large selection.

But somehow it went on to stun top-seeded perennial powerhouse Connecticut with an 86-84 overtime victory to make the Final Four. It is the first team from the Colonial Athletic Association ever to make it this far during March Madness.

But if you ask Larranaga, the Huskies couldn't have known what was coming. Before Sunday's game, Larranaga reminded his players that they "know everything there is to know about Connecticut, and the Connecticut players don't know anything about us," he told ESPN's "Cold Pizza."

"So I want you guys to know that we're a part of a secret organization ... the CAA, the Connecticut Assassins Association," Larranaga said. "And then I started humming the theme song from 'Mission Impossible.'"

Keeping It Loose

The mission turned out to be quite possible, and Larranaga is credited with keeping his team loose as it knocked off its opponents and advanced beyond expectations.

"I'm a big believer in Jimmy Valvano's love of the tournament and how much he enjoyed taking his team to the national championship," he told ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike in the Morning." "I just asked my players to have more fun than any other team, and I promised them that I was going to have more fun than any other coach."

When the Connecticut game went into overtime thanks to a reverse layup by Denham Brown at the buzzer, Larranaga told ESPN he had a clear message for his players: "We're not gonna be living in the past and feel sorry for ourselves that Denham Brown made that shot."

"We didn't play defense for five seconds," he recalled telling the team. "Now, we gotta play great defense for five minutes. And you guys know that we're capable of that. We just need to do it now. And that's when I paused, and I've used this expression a number of times throughout the tournament: There is no place I'd rather be on earth than with you guys here playing Connecticut with a chance to go to the Final Four."

Long Career, Sudden Stardom

A Division 1 coach for 20 years, Larranaga, 56, has been working at the mid-major level most of his career, and he told ESPN he hopes the Patriots' story will inspire other coaches from the high school level up. "[If you have] a good attitude and work really, really hard," he said, "you hopefully are rewarded with an experience like this."

When Larranaga became George Mason's head basketball coach in 1997, he inherited a program that had fallen into disarray. The team has improved steadily since then, thanks in part to recruiting stars from the local Washington, D.C., area.

Larranaga earned his 100th victory in the 2002-03 regular season finale against Drexel University, and his 139 overall wins up until this season are the highest among all Patriot head coaches in an eight-year span.

Larranaga had similar success at Bowling Green State University, where he coached for 11 years and had a 170-144 record. He was the 1997 Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year after leading Bowling Green to a 22-10 record, a conference regular season co-championship and a berth in the National Invitation Tournament. The 22 victories were the most by a Bowling Green team in 47 years, and the 13 conference wins were the second-highest total in Falcon history.

The Bronx native has won numerous honors, including being named Coach of the Year by the CAA and in the NABC District 4, and he was selected state Coach of the Year by the Virginia Sports Information Directors and the Richmond Times-Dispatch following the 1998-1999 season.

Last week he was named one of five finalists for the Clair Bee Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The honor recognizes a Division 1 head coach for outstanding contributions during the previous season, and past winners include Duke University's Mike Krzyzewski and Indiana University's Bob Knight.