Three weeks ago, most of the pundits and experts agreed that Jim Larranaga and his George Mason University Patriots had no business competing in college basketball's equivalent of the Super Bowl. Today this unknown team from Virginia has become one of the great Cinderella stories in sports history.
"I tell the guys, if we're going to be Cinderella, you've got to remember that Cinderella was a beautiful young lady that turned into a princess," Larranaga says. "And I don't think our guys want to be referred to as princesses, but you know it's kind of like us."
The 11th-seeded Patriots logged an amazing string of upsets to make it to the NCAA Final Four -- deafeating powerhouses like Michigan State, then North Carolina and Wichita State. And then in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history, the patriots beat Connecticut, the No. 1 team in the country.
"I don't know if words can describe how I feel receiving e-mails from soldiers in Iraq saying how much this has meant to them," he says. "I'm like, oh, Christmas, we're transcending the game of basketball."
Larranaga, 56, has been a Division I head coach for nearly 20 years. His professional life has always been defined by focus, he says. He insists that each player demonstrate persistence, resilience and a positive attitude at all times.
"We have three principals that we really believe in and live by. No. 1, everyone associated with us has to have a positive attitude. Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react," he says.
His players respect him and his rules. "I've never met anybody like coach L.," says Patriot Lamar Bulter. "He told me how to be first-class in every way. I thank him every day, every chance I get."
Relax, Have Fun
Practice often ends with a game of baseball. And he's been known to sing the "Mission Impossible" theme at pep rallies from time to time.
"This is a blast. I've asked my team to do the same thing, to relax, have fun with the process not to feel like, oh, my goodness we're here," Larranga says. "If we were to do that and change our whole game mode we'd be making a mistake."
There's also the Larranaga trademark whistle, which reverberates across the court. He says it comes from growing up in a rough neighborhood in the Bronx.
"When I walked by our apartment window I could whistle and my mom would come to the door and shut off the alarms so that I could get in easily. My whistle is very distinctive," he says.
With two more victories, the George Mason University Patriots will be national champions. But win or lose, Cinderella is already the belle of the ball.
"It's not just about our basketball, it's not just about our university, our region," Larranga says. "It's about people identifying with the idea of a group of young kids overachieving when everybody says you can't do it. And yet we have."