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How The University Of Miami’s Basketball Coach Is Bringing Back The Ñ

LAR - Screen Grab.jpg
ESPN Sports

The squiggly line seemed to show up out of nowhere.

It happened at the Greensboro Coliseum on Sunday, March 17th.

Confetti was falling. Hurricanes were celebrating. The University of Miami had made history by winning the first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in school history. Jeannine Edwards, an ESPN reporter, was standing by with second-year UM coach Jim Larranaga.

And then, the name graphic.

In what the television world refers to as a “lower third,” ESPN had identified Miami’s head coach with a baffling cultural flair: a tilde.

“JIM LARRAÑAGA,” the ESPN graphic read.

Scott Michaux, a columnist for the Augusta Chronicle took note, tweeting: “Did moving to Miami automatically come with a tilde?”

The short answer: Yes.

The Long Answer

Jim Larranaga is arguably most famous for ruining the country’s collective March Madness bracket in 2006. He coached 11th-seeded George Mason University through upsets of perennial powerhouses like Michigan State, North Carolina and number-one-seeded Connecticut and eventually reached the Final Four before losing to Florida.

"We never used the tilde,” George Mason's director of news media for men's basketball, Dan Reisig, wrote in an email. "In fact, no one at George Mason was aware of his Cuban lineage prior to his arrival at Miami.”

That’s because the lineage has been slowly whitewashed, piece-by-piece, over Larranaga’s life.


Jim Larranaga is Bronx-born with an accent to prove it. He’s 63, Caucasian, and throughout his life, people have assumed his last name was Italian. “Because it ended with a vowel,” he laughed. 

In reality, the name is Basque by way of Cuba.

According to Larranaga, his grandfather was born in Cuba and was part of the PorLarrañaga cigar company. (That’s pronounced LAW-ruh-NYAW-guh.)

Larranaga’s father wanted his kids to blend in, to be “Americanized.” He pronounced his last name with an extra-nasally, American ‘a’ and left the ñ sound out completely (LAH-ruh-NAY-guh). He refused to let the kids speak Spanish even though Jim’s grandmother was fluent.

But Jim Larranaga liked the way his grandmother said the name, the deep vowels, the ñ. He adopted the Basque pronunciation.

And then he quickly dropped it.

On Larranaga’s first day at a Catholic kindergarten, a nun was going through the class roll. When she called Larranaga's name, she put her own Americanized spin on it. “I try to correct her,” Larranaga said, “and she wouldn’t be corrected...That was it. It stuck.”

The Missing Tilde

There’s a case to be made that Jim Larranaga’s time at George Mason University was as Americanized a stretch as he’ll ever have.

The school -- in Fairfax, Va. -- is 25 miles from Washington D.C. The university’s nickname is “The Patriots.” And by the time Larranaga had arrived at GMU his name’s spelling was set in stone:

“L-A-R-R-A-N-A-G-A,” recalled Bill Rohland, the radio play-by-play announcer for GMU basketball. “Yeah, there was never any accent on any of the letters whatsoever, it was just straight across, that was it.”

One major factor: Jim Larranaga never fully understood that typing an ñ was even a possibility.

“Okay, hang on,” Larranaga said during a recent phone interview before UM’s 2nd and 3rd round NCAA games from Austin, Texas. “I’m in front of my iPad, you’re telling me that there’s a way to do that?”

“Well, no-I mean yes. But it’s a big pain,” this reporter explained. “You have to change your keyboard to an international keyboard.”

“Oh,” Larranaga replied, “I don’t have that ability.” 

LAR - iPad Exchange.mp3
Listen to the iPad exchange.

It’s a safe bet that the “Larrañaga” spelling never got into any of Jim Larranaga’s resumes, cover letters or applications--including the most recent.

“When I applied for the Miami job, I copied and pasted my Wikipedia bio,” said Larranaga, “So whatever that had [as the spelling], that’s the way it went.”

(The Wikipedia page now contains some tildes, but at the time of the conversation with Jim Larranaga it did not.)

Larranaga added that one reason he never corrected anyone about the missing ñ is that he simply thought it couldn’t be done.

The Autograph

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Credit Bob Harbers
1972 Davidson College basketball camp report card provided by Bob Harbers, now a commercial banker in Boca Raton.

In 1972, a 71-pound, four-foot-six, eight-year-old named Bobby Harbers went to basketball camp at Davidson College in North Carolina.

According to a report card that Harbers still has (he’s now “Bob” not “Bobby”), the younger version of himself was “EXCELLENT” when it came to passing, free throws and boxing out. His crossover was just “GOOD” and his pivoting had shown “much improvement.”

Each category on the Wildcat Camp report card was completed by a different coach. Jim Larranaga would have been in just his second year as an assistant coach at Davidson, his first coaching job after playing at Providence.

The 24-year-old Larranaga was responsible for grading Bob Harbers’ “INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE” in the dribbling category.

Larranaga placed a check mark in the “excellent” column and then signed his name. And if you’re looking for it, there is unmistakably a line over the ‘n.’

There’s no reason to think Jim Larranaga ever stopped signing his name with a tilde (granted the tilde is more line than curve). A number of alleged George Mason-era Larranaga autographs have made their way through eBay in the last few weeks. All have included the line over the ‘n.’

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Credit eBay
Two examples from eBay of alleged George Mason-era autographs by Jim Larranaga.

But there is a basic disconnect: How is it that no one seemed to have noticed that line in his signature until now? Or at least didn’t notice enough to include in his Wikipedia entry, on his business cards or in media guides.

Larranaga has a theory: “People didn’t recognize [the tilde].” 

He points out that signatures are generally hard to read. “So to see a line over the ‘n’, [people] just thought that was part of the way I signed my name. They didn’t know that was actually the correct spelling.”

“Mari” or why the tilde matters

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013. Freshman Mariana Gaviria had been waiting in line outside the Bank United Center for that evening’s game against Duke University for about an hour when the commotion started.

The Hurricanes wound up embarrassing the number-one-ranked Blue Devils 90-63. It was the first time in school history that Miami had beaten a top-ranked opponent. The entire sports world was finally forced to take the University of Miami men’s basketball team seriously.

But at the moment, tipoff was still about six hours away, and Gaviria, 19, was waiting in line when she heard someone say: “Is that Larranaga?”

Gaviria saw a group of very tall men piling out of a parked van - many carrying boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts.

It was a sugary expression of gratitude from Coach Jim Larranaga and his players.

Larranaga made a short speech to the students. At a football school, where the basketball team had never reached a national ranking higher than #8 (in 1960), the message was pretty simple: Thank you for waiting in line for a basketball game.

It was the first time Gaviria had seen her school’s coach up close and personal. She didn’t know about his Cuban grandfather, his Basque name, the tilde in his last name.

Nothing about seeing Larranaga in person tipped her off.

“He doesn’t really look Cuban. It’s kind of bad to say,” she admitted, “but he doesn’t look it.”

'He doesn't really look Cuban. It's kind of bad to say,' she admitted, 'but he doesn't look it.'

Gaviria was born in Colombia, where “Mariana” is a fairly common name. Her parents moved to Kendall when she was four years old. Many of her elementary school teachers spoke no Spanish.

In her new home, Gaviria heard all variations of her name. Some people thought it was “Marina” or “Maria.” Others would assume the name was actually the American equivalent of her name: “Marianna” (said like Maryann-a as opposed to Mari-AH-nuh).

It felt like a constant reminder that she was different and that Kendall wasn’t Colombia.

Gaviria started going by “Mari.” 

“It upset me as a little kid because it wasn’t what normal people would call me in my country,” said Gaviria. “I understood why, but as a little kid you want to make it easier on people.”

Gaviria, who is majoring in political science and international studies, is now fiercely proud of her Hispanic heritage and her name. When she learned from this reporter about Larranaga’s Cuban background, the nun who couldn’t say his name and the tilde in his signature, she was delighted. “Something as small as an ‘ñ’ can make a big difference,” she said.

The squiggly line that Larranaga is pretty sure people simply didn’t notice in his signature means the world to Gaviria.

“Everybody has their own story, especially when you’re an immigrant and you go to a different country,” said Gaviria. “And when you travel a little north, people have trouble saying the name, they just don’t understand—understand the different processes that it takes to make it here. And even just a name can link people that way.”

The University of Miami Men’s Basketball team tips off in Austin, Texas today for their first game in the N-C-Double-A tournament. This year the team reached it’s highest ranking in school history, won the ACC conference tournament for the first time and UM’s coach, Jim Larranaga (LARE-uh-NAY-guh), was named conference coach of the year. WLRN-Miami Herald reporter Kenny Malone tells us that while Larranaga will be focused on the Xs and Os for today’s game -- the rest of us should keep an eye on the letter ‘n.’

It’s All About The ñ

Jim Larranaga was as shocked as anyone when he got his University of Miami business cards: “Jim Larrañaga.”

“I showed my wife. I said, ‘hey, look at this. They were able to do it.’”

And then again on ESPN: “That was the first time I’d seen it on TV.”

How the tilde showed up again is a bit of a mystery. Larrañaga said he never asked anyone to do it, but he prefers the new, old spelling.

“It’s always been there [in the signature],” he said. “That hasn’t changed for me since I was a little boy.”

And so the variable has been everything around Larrañaga -- a father who Americanized the family, a teacher who mispronounced his name, a part of the country where the line in his signature may have been mistaken for a flourish instead of a sign of Cuban heritage.

Larrañaga’s glad to have the tilde back, glad to officially wear his grandfather’s heritage on his name. Plus he’s hoping it’ll clear up one misconception.

“People are not going to say, ‘he’s Italian.’”

NOTES: Since writing this story, the reporter has learned that by holding down the regular 'n' key on the virtual iPad keyboard, the user will be presented with the option to add an 'ñ'. We have yet to inform coach Larrañaga of this less complicated solution. A shorter version of this story originally ran in the Miami Herald on Friday, March 22nd.