Look no further than a 24-hour mid-March snapshot to see the glaring differences between two in-repair teams; the title-rich (and mojo-less as-of-late) Miami Hurricanes baseball program and a men’s basketball squad hellbent on becoming a true contender.
As a rebuilding season rolls down the stretch for the Jim Larranaga-led men’s basketball program, Miami topped a feisty Syracuse squad in New York last Wednesday at the ACC Tournament.
The Canes would ultimately fall to top-seeded North Carolina the morning after—but a statement had already been made. Despite losing some key starters, this squad won enough quality games—in the sport’s toughest conference—to be deemed NCAA Tournament-worthy. Days later the Canes earned an eight-seed and will take on ninth-seeded Michigan State in Friday’s opening round; a date with top-seeded Kansas looming as a consolation prize on Sunday if surviving the Spartans.
A dozen hours prior to basketball’s conference tourney victory, the Jim Morris-led Miami baseball squad was on the wrong end of a 12-1 home shellacking courtesy of crosstown rival Florida International, who the Canes would also lose to Wednesday evening, 3-2, in a make-up game. This latest setback came on the heels of losing a home series to Dartmouth, getting swept at Florida the weekend prior and a head-scratching Sunday loss to Rutgers opening weekend, 17-6, after Miami took the first two games against the Scarlet Knights.
To the Canes’ credit, bats came alive at home against Georgia Tech last weekend; a 17-7 rubber-match victory after an extra innings loss on Saturday after holding on 10-8 on Friday night at The Light—and before over-praising any hardwood success, Larranaga’s kids did drop road games at Virginia Tech and Syracuse the final week of the regular season, hurting conference tourney seeding and a more favorable path match-up wise at the Barclays Center.
Still, one would be remised to not acknowledge the vastly different trajectories Miami baseball and basketball are on as one rebuilding season is ending successfully and another is just getting underway, albeit to a rocky start.
A year ago, a completely different story for both.
IT’S ALL ABOUT U BEING BUILT POST-SEASON TOUGH
Morris’ squad rose to number one in the nation last April—29-5 at that point in the season after taking a road series against Duke. A week later, some backsliding to No. 4 following a mid-week loss to Florida Atlantic and dropping a home series to Virginia.
Still, Miami rolled to a regular season ACC title before losing to Florida State in the conference championship game late-May.
The third-ranked Canes then topped Stetson in the Coral Gables Regional opener and knocked off Long Beach State in back-to-back games—followed by a break in the Super Regionals when host Ole Miss lost in Oxford, sending Boston College south; a familiar conference rival Miami disposed of in three games.
While there’s little knocking the Canes regular season success—the ongoing narrative regarding a lack of next-level post-season play held true. Miami face planted on the main stage—again—getting rolled by Arizona in the opener, followed by a lifeless loser’s bracket showdown where UC Santa Barbara prevailed.
Over the years the Canes always had fun at Florida State’s expense—ball-busting long-time Seminoles’ head coach Mike Martin and his 0-and-2-and-a-BBQ track record—yet the Jekyll and Hyde regular season versus post-season personas have since become Miamiesque.
The Canes reached Omaha in 2015, as well—after a six-year drought—the result even more limp-dicked as Miami was trounced by Florida, 15-3 in the opener, barely survived Arkansas in the loser’s bracket and was the Gators’ bitch once again—falling 10-2 in a do-or-die match for both teams.
Unfortunately, the issue with Florida is proving to be the new norm, opposed to an aberration. Despite the fact that the Gators remain title-less, there’s no denying their ascension as the Sunshine State’s baseball power—even amassing an 8-1 record against Florida State the past two seasons; beating the Noles in back-to-back Super Regional appearances with Omaha on the line, as well.
Miami’s record against Florida is even uglier. Going all the way back to the 2009 post-season—where the Canes were outscored by the Gators 27-4 over two losses in the Gainesville Regional—UM went on to drop 14-0f-15 to UF over the coming years and are now 6-26 since against a hated arch-rival, including this season’s recent road sweep.
Losing to a talented Florida program is understandable, but seeing the Canes suffering from a Gators-fueled inferiority complex is a much deeper-rooted problem—one which starts at the top leadership-wise. Where did Miami baseball lose its grit—especially in the post-season where it was once clutch and tough as nails? Two years ago the Canes made their first trek back to Omaha six tries and was outscored by the Gators, 25-5 over two games sandwiched between a do-or-die win over Arkansas.
Last season, the regular-season ACC champs saw bats go ice cold in a 5-1 opening loss to Arizona and an all-too-familiar loser’s bracket match-up against UC Santa Barbara, 5-3—making for a 2-6 record at the College World Series in three tries for Miami, since dropping the 2008 opener to Georgia as the tourney’s top seed.
A TIRELESS LEADER VERSUS ONE WHO LOOKS JUST PLAIN TIRED
Compare and contrast all of that to what Larranaga has done with his magic touch since falling into the Canes’ lap back in 2011 in truly serendipitous fashion. Known then for a Cinderella-like NCAA Tourney run in 2005—11th-seeded George Mason rolling all the way to the Final Four, taking down Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and top-seeded Connecticut in the process.
While Larranaga spent 15 seasons in Fairfax, Virginia leading the Patriots—Miami lost an entire decade trying to rebuild in the post-Leonard Hamilton era; setting the bar with a Sweet 16 appearance his final season in Coral Gables. Hamilton’s stint with the Washington Wizards—featuring the return of Michael Jordan—only lasted two seasons before insult to injury; the former Canes coach winding up in Tallahassee while Hamilton’s former assistant Perry Clark took over at UM.
Clark amassed a 65-54 record before back-t0-back losing seasons earned him a pink slip. Next up; Frank Haith, who last seven seasons, reached the NCAA Tournament once, earned four NIT bids and never finished higher than T-5th in the Atlantic Coast Conference—as well as 12th and 9th his final two seasons with the Canes, before inexplicably being hired away by Missouri when all signs pointed to a Miami dismissal.
Haith was later disciplined as the Tigers’ head coach for Nevin Shapiro-related infractions that happened on his watch at “The U”. In 2016—two years after Haith agreed to leave Missouri for Tulsa—an internal investigation uncovered violations throughout the head coach’s tenure in Columbia; the Tigers self-imposing and vacating all wins from the 2013-14 season.
Where Morris replaced a legend in Ron Fraser—widely-know as The Wizard of College Baseball and a pioneer for the sport—Larranaga walked into a busted culture and program riding a decade-plus of mediocrity; the only thing perfect was the timing.
Three years prior, Larranaga turned down his dream job at Providence to stay at George Mason—a close friendship with then-university president Alan G. Merten a big reasons why. Merten’s decision to step down at the end of the 2012 school year set off a chain of events that inevitably turned the University of Miami into a budding basketball power.
Less than two weeks after Merten announced his retirement, Haith left Miami for Missouri. A coaching search was underway and the on-vacation, interested-in-The-U Larranaga didn’t have a resume ready to go—so at the advice of a friend in South Florida, copied his Wikipedia page and emailed it in. An hour later, he got a call for an interview.
Lost in that feel-good story about Larranaga the man—his behind-the-scenes efforts as a visionary and leader. On the flight home fresh after coming up short in the Final Four, Larranaga spoke with George Mason athletic director Tom O’Connor about the future—his contract, the contracts of assistants the program couldn’t afford to lose and upgrades to facilities.
That type of thinking, aggressiveness and approach—a reminder that the job never ends and that it’s takes a fire, passion and little something extra to go from good to great. Throw smarts and the embracing of technology in there, as well.
Despite being 63 years old in 2013 when the Canes made their first Sweet 16 run under their second-year leader, Larranaga was one of the sport’s earliest adopters of Kenpom.com—a college basketball analytics program—as well as Synergy Sports’ video-scouting software that compiled detailed data on every team in just about every game-time situation.
“The thing with Coach is, as long as he’s been doing this, he’s never stopped learning,” Chris Caputo, a long time Larranaga assistant said regarding the obsession with stats and tech analytic tools. “You’re looking, searching for things that will give you a bit of an edge. I think it was just word of mouth—there’s no great story.”
While it’s unfair to hold everyone to the same standards, Larranaga and his success-by-way-of-process at Miami have inevitably raised the bar for his 67-year old counterpart, Morris—the basketball coach only a few months older than the baseball skipper.
There’s no ignoring or discrediting Morris’ out-the-gate and long-running success at Miami, two national championships or recently-strong regular season play over the past two years—but you can’t praise the good without hammering the bad and questions the long-time leader’s current passion for the game, a lack of connection with players and the inability to find another gear in the post-season.
PLAYING NICE IN THE PRESENT IS IMPACTING MIAMI’S FUTURE
Where Larranaga is a proven leader among men—both with his players and assistants—the past few years have shown that Morris is presently unable to run a top-notch program without his right-hand man, head-coach-in-waiting Gino DiMare.
DiMare is a Miami product out of Westminster Christian who played his college ball for the Canes and has spent 17 seasons on and off under Morris. A three-year break between 2008 and 2011 saw the program backsliding without DiMare—throttled by Florida in the 2009 post-season, dropped in the Gainesville Super Regional the following year and a repeat of that failure in the 2011 Gainesville Regional.
Upon DiMare’s return in July 2011, Miami responded with a 39-14 regular season but did little in the ACC Championship and was embarrassed as host of the Coral Gables Regional. The Canes fell to fourth-seed Stony Brook and third-seeded Missouri State by a combined score of 22-4, making it clear that DiMare’s efforts as recruiting coordinator and hitting coach were beyond necessary of this once-proud program was going to be a contender again.
Recruiting efforts were felt immediately as Miami reeled in the ninth-ranked class in 2012 and the sixth-ranked class a year later—the Canes’ best haul since 2006—welcoming immediate-impact players like Willie Abreu, Zach Collins and Jacob Heyward; opposed to overly-ranked players who were shoo-ins to shun college ball for a crack at the majors.
The measurable efforts of DiMare—coupled with his in-waiting status and a general aloofness from Morris—it’s had the Canes in a state of limbo since Miami re-upped with the long-time head coach back in 2014. The Canes’ batting average dipped to .275 in 2013; the program’s lowest since 1979—and the inability to get to Omaha (or past Florida) was was on full display without DiMare.
Conversely, Miami’s offense ranked among the Top 10 in school history eight of nine season with DiMare as hitting coach and the last great Canes squad (2008) held a .320 average and notched some strong internal records—tied for second in home runs (106), fourth in slugging percentage (.541), eighth in total bases (1,202) and RBI (517), ties for ninth in doubles (135) and tenth in hits (711).
“I’m not coming back to just get to an NCAA Tournament,” DiMare told the Miami Herald upon his return. “Coach Morris knows how I am. He and [pitching coach] JD [Arteaga] are used to winning and going to Omaha. The fans are used to that. I am as a former coach and player at Miami. I certainly wouldn’t be coming back if I didn’t feel the program could get back to Omaha. I wouldn’t put myself in that situation. I think we can get it turned around. I don’t think they’re that far off. But there’s no doubt we have to get it going in some areas, hitting is one big area where we have to get it turned around. And we will get it turned around.”
YOU HAVE YOUR GUY; WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
The coach-in-waiting dynamic may make sense in certain situations, but in this case reeks of seniority and rewarding a long-time coach for past success, while dangling a carrot and keeping the next-man-up at bay—a guy more than ready to create his own legacy.
In a sense, it could be argued that a two-time national champion has earned the ability to retire when ready and has every right to stick around—but doesn’t that in itself put the individual over team and go against everything coaches teach their players regarding what it takes to be successful?
Same to be said with a coach starting a good-not-great senior because he’s been around longer, despite having a phenom freshman hungry and ready to make an immediate impact. This isn’t about Morris’ legacy; it’s about the future of Miami baseball in a crowded and competitive landscape where rivals haven’t just caught up—they’ve pulled ahead.
The DiMare experiment remains just under two seasons away and upon his takeover, Miami will have a new leader at the helm for the first time in 24 years—which requires adjustment at some level. Best case scenario, the Canes hit the ground running under DiMare. Worst case; it’s a carry-over from the Morris era and Miami doesn’t re-find it’s post-season groove—the title drought since 2001 rolling on—and the program will have to look elsewhere for a leader (setting the rebuild back even further.)
Whatever the case, does it not make sense for the Canes to dive in and start the process, already? Was it really necessary for Miami to renegotiate the original Morris deal—one that would’ve wrapped after the 2015 season—extending it through 2018 as some form of a courtesy? Sure, a fair-enough send off for a successful coach—but at what expense?
Slow-start aside, or recent regular season success the past few years—doesn’t matter. At best, Miami baseball is in maintenance-mode, while Canes’ basketball is reaching new levels—both coached by men in the twilight of their careers; one still learning and fueled by fire and passion, while the other is sticking with his archaic ways and seems like he’s going through the motions; riding this thing out until the end, for his own personal needs—not the future of the program he helped build.