Coach Paul Hewitt (right) has a tough task on his hands in replacing former coach Jim Larranaga (left) at the helm of the Patriots. Photos by Stephen Kline

(AP) — A few days before the start of practice, there was still bubble wrap in Paul Hewitt’s office.
Art work that would eventually go on the wall was still on the floor, including prints of “Skins and Shirts” by Ernie Barnes and “Short Stories” by Joseph Holston. It had been five months since Hewitt took the job as coach at George Mason University, but a nonstop summer of moving, recruiting and settling into new surroundings had put office decor way down on the priority list.

It’s still a bit jarring to walk in and not be welcomed by Jim Larranaga, whose smiling face sat behind the desk for 14 seasons. “Coach L” became a local legend and a national mid-major hero, taking the Patriots to the Final Four in 2006 and winning a school-record 273 games.

But Larranaga is gone, having made the jump to Miami of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Taking his place is Hewitt, who made the reverse trip, having been fired by Georgia Tech of the ACC before Mason hired him in May.

Whoever the new coach happened to be, he would be standing squarely on Larranaga’s shoulders. Hewitt is no exception.

When Hewitt was invited to speak at a Chamber of Commerce event in July, he took his wife and kids and wasn’t expecting much of a crowd. He found himself welcomed by 300 people “fired up about Mason basketball.” He’s been “surprised, definitely surprised” at how frequently he is recognized as Mason’s new coach, even when he ventures into Washington, D.C., to take in a baseball game.

“That caught me off guard,” Hewitt said, “because being in a city area, if you will, a pro sports community — and I’ve always worked in pro sports communities — I’m pleasantly surprised at how much people are into and follow Mason basketball.”

“Jim did obviously a tremendous job here. … They all respected and loved Jim for what he did,” Hewitt said. “But it’s like, ‘Hey, you’re the coach now. Let’s go. We’re behind you.'”

And so his task is to sustain Larranaga’s momentum and take the Patriots even further. Hewitt had a solid 11-year run at Georgia Tech, although the won-loss record tailed off over the last few years. He received a $7.2 million buyout from the Yellow Jackets and hadn’t expected to take another job so soon, but the suburbs of the nation’s capital have a lot to offer for a 48-year-old coach who’s always been an East Coast, big-city guy.

Not to mention the fact that the program is in pretty good shape. It’s one of the best in the Colonial Athletic Association, which has recently sent two teams to the Final Four — Virginia Commonwealth in April in addition to Mason in ’06 — and last season sent three teams to the NCAA tournament.
“Is it hard to win a national championship anywhere you are in the country? Yeah.” Hewitt said. “But can you win a national championship from George Mason? Yeah. And so, I thought to myself: ‘Where I like to live, where my wife likes to live, the type of players you can recruit here, it’s pretty good. There are a lot of things I like to do. It’s all here.”

The Patriots are coming off of an NCAA tournament season and might have been a preseason Top 25 preseason pick if Larranaga had stayed. But forward Luke Hancock transferred to Louisville, and the natural getting-to-know-you period expected under a new coach has diminished expectations. Even so, Mason was picked to finish second in the CAA at the conference’s annual media day.

“I think we have a good team. Will there be an adjustment process? Probably,” Hewitt said. “But it’s like Howard Cosell used to say, that’s why they play the games.”

To really get Hewitt talking, just bring up anything having to do with NCAA rules. Take the case of Hancock, whose transfer will cost the Patriots on the Academic Progress Report that tracks graduation rates.

“He got an opportunity to go play at another school. His brother lives in that city,” Hewitt said. “He was, like, if I’m going to go do something different and new, at least go someplace where my family is. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I really wish that people who make the rules in our game would really come down to our level and see what it’s like day to day for our student-athletes, for our coaches, so when they pass these rules they have a better understanding that Luke Hancock did nothing wrong. My coaching staff and I did nothing wrong. He just decided it’s time to go. But because he leaves, we’re going to be penalized for it.”

Hewitt also weighed in — with harsh words — on the dizzying pace conference realignment sweeping the country, even though Mason is mostly a spectator to it all.

“I really find it comical, the conference-shifting stuff,” Hewitt said. “If a college coach makes too many phone calls, we’re call unethicals, we’re scoundrels and this and that, but yet you have major decision-makers, high-ranking officers, giving their word to one conference and then in the middle of the night changing their mind and going to another conference and not telling anybody until the announcement is made.”

“It’s really hypocritical,” he added, “and it’s really a shame to see how these decision-makers and these people who are supposed to be examples for our student-athletes and coaches operate. … It’s bush league.”

That’s one thing that hasn’t changed about the Mason coach’s office. The new occupant, just like the old one, isn’t shy about giving an opinion.