Men’s basketball coach Jim Larranaga has resigned to accept a job as head coach at the University of Miami. File Photo

Men’s basketball coach Jim Larranaga has resigned to accept a job as head coach at the University of Miami. File Photo

Rain tapped against the windows of Mason Hall Friday afternoon, cutting through a silent crowd of people sitting in anticipation with looks of curiosity and disbelief spread across their faces. They exchanged somber nods as they shuffled to their seats, like family members at a funeral service.

Commemorative portraits of past George Mason University presidents stared down from each side of the room; shadows from spotlights cast upon their faces, making them appear gloomy.

This was a day few people within the Mason community thought they would ever experience.

Mason Athletic Director Tom O’Connor entered the far side of the room with press secretary Dan Walsch, who was dressed in solemn black from head to toe.

After accepting handshakes and hugs of sorrow from some of the attendees, O’Connor made his way to the podium to deliver the “eulogy.”

“At 9 o’clock this morning,” he said, “Jim Larranaga called. He said he would be accepting the head basketball coaching position at the University of Miami.”

Larranaga, who coached the men’s basketball team through 14 seasons, began talks with the Atlantic Coast Conference team about two weeks ago according to O’Connor.

Larranaga’s contract at Mason ran through 2016, but according to O’Connor, Larranaga was granted permission to leave before his contract was up.

“We are thankful and respectful for Jim’s decision,” said O’Connor in an interview with Connect2Mason. “We’re thankful for all he’s done for the university and for the basketball program. We respect his decision from a personal and a professional standpoint.”

Dating back to 2006, Larranaga repeatedly told members of the media that he hoped to retire with the Patriots.

He frequently called Mason the best university in the nation and served as an ambassador for the green and gold.

“All along, Jim and I have had conversations about his ability to coach,” said O’Connor, who brought in Larranaga to coach back in 1996. “I have always said that he can coach at any conference in the country. In fact, most recently I told him he could coach the Los Angeles Lakers if he wanted to. He’s that good of a basketball coach.”

After turning down his alma mater, Providence College, back in 2008, many believed that Larranaga would finish his career in Fairfax with the Patriots.

Even when The Washington Post reported on Thursday night that Larranaga was in serious talks with the University of Miami and would be speaking with university officials on Friday morning, Larranaga’s final decision still sent shockwaves through the university.

Just a few weeks earlier, following an impressive Final Four appearance from VCU, Rams coach Shaka Smart was able to strategically use offers from other schools as leverage, forcing VCU to offer a contract totaling more than $1.2 million per year.

Mason fans saw Larranaga’s talks as a similar ploy to force O’Connor’s hand in hopes of a much sweeter contract offer.

“We were able to put together a total compensation package that was, in a good year, a top-5 salary among mid-major coaches in the country,” O’Connor said.

Unfortunately for Mason, that wasn’t enough.

According to USA Today, Larranaga was set to make about $700,000 for the 2011-12 season at Mason, depending on bonuses. The position at Miami is expected to pay over $1 million annually.

“. . . In the end run, Miami’s an ACC school, a football school, [and] we really can’t compete with the amount of money they can use for their program, or for compensation for a coach,” said O’Connor in an interview with Connect2Mason.

Larranaga followed the lead of LeBron James, taking his talents to South Beach and leaving the Mason basketball program scrambling to find a quality replacement. O’Connor said the position will be filled within a month.

“We will begin a national search to find a good strong coach, so we can continue to be successful in the CAA and move forward in the NCAA tournament,” said O’Connor. “We’re going to get a really good coach. This is a hot, hot job for somebody right now. And it’s a great job.”