When Mason’s men’s basketball team went all the way to the NCAA Final Four in 2006, Coach Jim Larranaga, borrowing from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, spoke to the media about “a habit of excellence” that permeated not just the university’s approach to basketball but all Mason sports and the entire campus. It became a university catchphrase for a few years before fading away, but the “habit” continues.
Our run to the Final Four opened doors that were closed before,” says Larranaga of the experience. “We not only had great TV exposure during the run, but we have had tremendous TV exposure since.”
We just recruited a player from outside Dallas, Texas. The thing that amazed me was how much he knew about Mason,” says Larranaga. “I asked him, ‘How do you know so much?’ He said, ‘Well, I watch you guys on TV all the time.’”
Mason is reported to be fourth in the country among non-Bowl Conference Series schools for number of television appearances. TV exposure combined with university accolades, such as being named the number one school to watch by U.S.News & World Report for 2009 and making Princeton Review’s and Kiplinger’s lists of best-value schools, has raised the university’s profile and made academic and athletic recruiting more competitive than ever. At Mason, recruiting student-athletes is serious business, and it takes more than winning skills to make the team. While each coach has his or her own approach to screening potential recruits, academic potential is high on their list of priorities, as is character.
Baseball head coach Bill Brown’s online GoMason.com bio jokes about constants in Mason life—rising enrollment, construction, and Bill Brown being involved in Mason baseball. Brown’s baseball career at Mason has spanned 33 years. For 29 of those years, he has been head coach of his alma mater’s team.
“I’m the luckiest guy on the face of the earth to be able to do this for such a long time and at the same school,” Brown says.
During that time, Brown, BA Government and Politics ’80, has guided Mason baseball to some of its greatest accomplishments, including two Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) titles and three second-place finishes and six appearances in the NCAA Tournament. He also has been named CAA Coach of the Year a record six times. And he’s seen a lot of players go on to play Major League Baseball (48 to be exact) or coaching careers of their own.
With three decades behind him, Brown has seen a lot of changes at Mason, but he says the kind of young men who come to play baseball here has remained pretty much the same. “You hear coaches say all the time how kids have changed,” says Brown. “I think the kids who come into our program are as dedicated, if not more dedicated, than the kids I saw 20 years ago. They have put a lot into their futures before they even get here. They have goals and dreams, and they work at them day in and day out. They are an impressive group.”
Last year, six of Brown’s players were selected during the Major League Baseball draft, which is great for Mason and the sports program, but Brown puts a slightly different spin on the news. “It is outstanding, and we love for that to happen,” he says, “but at the end of the day [being here] is about [being] a student and getting a degree from Mason.”
“If you have the opportunity to play professionally, that is outstanding, but [statistics show] you probably won’t,” Brown continues. “But we are going to make sure you graduate from Mason with a degree and that you go on and do great things with your life.”
So a wannabe Patriot’s academic potential is the first thing that Brown’s scrutinizes. “First and foremost, you start with what kind of student is this young man going to be?” says Brown. “What are his chances for success here at Mason? You match that with ability. You want to make sure that socially it is going to work for him and that he is going to be a real positive and productive member of not only the baseball program, but also the Mason community.”
Brown says he strives to be as upfront and honest with recruits and their parents as possible. “If the only reason you are coming here is baseball, you are probably making a poor choice. The majority of their time here is spent being a student; being an athlete is a fraction of that. We take both very seriously. But they will always know—from the first day we talk—that they are here to be a student.”
Women’s volleyball head coach Pat Kendrick, BS Decision Sciences ’83, is used to accolades. She recently was awarded her eighth CAA Coach of Year title after her team won the CAA championship last fall. She also saw four of her players receive all-CAA honors. Yet, it was a rough year for Kendrick and her team, which made the tournament win all the sweeter. “We struggled for a while and made changes,” says Kendrick. “What made this season really rewarding was that the players bought into what we were trying to do. The players took ownership of what we were doing and how we were doing it.”
Kendrick is the longest-tenured women’s volleyball coach in the CAA, having just finished her 25th season at Mason. She took the helm of the women’s team practically right after graduation, starting out as the assistant coach before taking over as head coach in 1985. She currently ranks 44th among active Division I head coaches in career victories.
Her youth did make things interesting in her early days of coaching. “There were times when [officials] didn’t realize I was the coach,” she says. “I had a couple of women working with me, both older than I was. So the refs would come up and try to talk about game procedures with our statistician.” The refs finally realized Kendrick was the coach when she would turn in the lineup.
Over the years, Kendrick has guided the Patriots to eight CAA championships and seven NCAA Tournament appearances. In December, Kendrick received her sixth Coach of the Year honors from the Virginia Sport Information Directors.
But during those almost three decades of coaching, she admits she has changed her coaching technique. “Players are different now from when I was in school. Their motivations are different,” says Kendrick. “Back in my day, if the coach told you to do something, you just did it. These days, it needs to be a little more collaborative. …[The players] need to understand the reasons why and see what the benefits are.”
Over the years, the team also has become less regional and more international, with players coming from as far away as China and Australia. When looking at recruits, Kendrick doesn’t just think about talent. She says chemistry plays a big part in pulling together a successful team. “And it isn’t just the chemistry of the players when they are on the floor,” she says. “It is the chemistry off the court as well.”
The combination of chemistry and talent is what set this year’s award-winning team apart. “This group gets along really well. It is also the deepest group we’ve had in terms of talent, which made the team more competitive.”
Attitude, Commitment, and Class
No one has been more open about his coaching and recruiting philosophy than men’s basketball head coach Jim Larranaga. In fact, Larranaga, or Coach L as he is more commonly known, has spoken about his approach to basketball—and life—in seminars and lectures on the Mason campus, as well as in the media and throughout the country. His philosophy not only drives his work, but permeates his personal life as well.
“I live by a certain philosophy and try to be true to that,” says Larranaga, who last year led the Patriots to their fourth CAA championship. “That philosophy is based on three words: attitude, commitment, and class. That is the philosophy my wife, Liz, and I have raised our sons with, and that is the philosophy my coaches and I preach to the players. We simply tell them you need to go through life with a positive attitude, you need to make a commitment, and you need to always behave in a first-class manner.”
It isn’t surprising then that Larranaga would look at recruits with those words in mind. “We don’t just go after a good basketball player, there are lots of good basketball players out there,” he says. “What we specifically look for are players who have a great attitude; have made a commitment to not just basketball, but also academics; and are serious about earning their degree—young men who know how to behave on and off the court.”
What is unexpected is that Larranaga prefers to recruit locally. One would think that in his 25th season as a collegiate head coach, with a wide range of coaching awards on his resume, including the prestigious Clair Bee Coach of the Year Award, he would have his pick of the cream of the crop nationally, yet he chooses to go his own way.
“Our number one priority is athletes who we consider local,” Larranaga says. He and his assistants focus their search within a 90-minute drive of the Fairfax Campus, although that doesn’t always work.
“A couple of years ago, we had a need for big guys, and there weren’t enough big guys locally,” he says. “So, in those cases, we would use our network of friends in the profession to help us identify athletes who fit the Mason profile.”
Larranaga and his staff have developed relationships with a wide variety of basketball coaches, including those at high schools, junior colleges, and the Amateur Athletic Union, as well as scouting services, who all help introduce gifted players to the university.
Putting the Pieces Together
With just seven seasons at Mason under her belt, women’s soccer head coach Diane Drake is in some ways still the new kid on the block. Yet with the 2009 season, she hit her stride. “This was a fairy tale year,” Drake says of the record-setting season in which she saw her first recruiting class at Mason graduate together.
“This year I had nine seniors, all brought in together, all great leaders,” she says. “We had been through the good, the bad, and the ugly together. In a way, it was a crescendo of years when you can see it all come together.”
In 2009, the Patriots won nine more games than they had the previous season and tied the CAA record for greatest single-season turnaround. Mason allowed just 14 goals the whole season, the second-fewest in school history, and scored 51 goals, just the eighth 50-goal season in the program’s 25-year history. In addition, four players were named to the All-CAA and All-Rookie Teams.
And the downside to this very successful recruiting class? “I just lost nine seniors.” Prior to coming to Mason, Drake coached at Georgetown University, quietly keeping her eye on Mason and its program. She had even met some Mason administrators such as senior associate athletic director Sue Collins at recruiting seminars, so when the position became available, she jumped at the chance.
“This is the perfect place for me,” Drake says. “It is a much better fit. I prefer the work ethic here, and the personalities of the players and administrators.”
Work ethic and personality are two of the things Drake considers when looking at potential players. “I want to know about their character, their integrity,” she says. “If I’m sitting in an interview with a family and the daughter talks back to one of her parents, that’s a pretty good indication to me that she is not someone I want in my program. She is going to be disrespectful of our environment and our culture.”
Drake says finding the right candidate is critical to good team chemistry. But another challenge they face in women’s soccer is timing. College recruiting is incredibly competitive in women’s soccer, and the young women are expected to commit as high school juniors. In fact, by January 2010, Drake and her assistant coaches had already closed their 2011 class.
“The players know they have to make a decision or they will lose an opportunity. It has changed a great deal in recent years. I didn’t decide until spring of my senior year,” says Drake, who played for the University of Dayton. “That was 1989. There were 60 Division I programs then; now, there are more than 325.”
Drake’s favorite part of the soccer season takes place before the games even begin. “The utopia is the preseason when you bring everyone in and you are building something,” she says. “That’s why we coach—to see the pieces come together.”