In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on July 26, 2011 at 9:17 pm

When the NCAA penalized the Georgia Tech basketball program, no reverberations were felt in Fairfax, Va. – new home of the program’s former leader.

Fired at Tech for losing big, Paul Hewitt soon after landed a job at George Mason. The man who hired him – Athletic Director Tom O’Connor — said this after Tech’s NCAA penalty was announced.

“I can sift through things. I was fine with it when I hired Paul and I’m fine with it now.” Then he said how much he “respected” Hewitt for telling him of the pending infraction during the job interview. Gee, how considerate.

“Fine” with it? You hired a coach with ONE winning conference season in 11 years. Then news breaks your hire violated the rules. Famous for recruiting “one and dones” at Tech, Hewitt had two players – Chris Bosh and Derrick Favors – leave for the NBA after warming up in Atlanta for one season. So much for academics.

Hewitt’s one winning season in the ACC was 9-7 in 2003-04. Last year, he was 5-11. Two years ago, 2-14. Overall, 72-104 in the ACC.

By hiring a “name” coach, O’Connor tried to save face after befuddling contract negotiations and losing beloved Jim Larranaga, who led the Patriots to the 2006 Final Four and last year, upset Villanova in the NCAA first round.

Remember O’Connor’s words when Larranaga left for the University of Miami?

Basketball is not at the front entrance of this university, it’s at the side entrance.” Huh? Without a football program, how is men’s basketball “secondary” to any other sport at Mason?

Seemingly front and center are Mason’s non-revenue sports – wrestling, soccer, tennis and volleyball. But O’Connor forgets these money-bleeding programs would be drowning in red ink if not for Larranaga’s NCAA bounties.

O’Connor jumped to the driver’s seat when President Alan Merten – a Larranaga supporter – announced his retirement earlier this year. Somehow, the Mason athletic director couldn’t come up with $1.3M a year to keep his coach. But VCU — another state school —  did for Shaka Smart. The young coach took his team to the Final Four last year, five years after Larranaga did so at Mason. How do you think Larranaga felt about that?

In Larranaga, Mason finally had a committed pilot for its flagship sport (what it used to be called). Other coaches left at the very first chance.  Rick Barnes left for Providence after one year. Joe Harrington opted out for Long Beach State. Ernie Nestor couldn’t consistently win after taking Mason to its first NCAA. Paul Westhead’s run-and-gun style didn’t work.

I guess Miami saw something O’Connor missed since it promptly made Larranaga a millionaire three times over. Even though basketball is the No. 3 sport at Miami (after football and baseball), university President Donna Shalala and company gave Larranaga a handsome 3-year deal.

Don’t think Hewitt has greater loyalties to Mason than did Larranaga. After leading mid-major Siena to a pair of NCAAs 12 years ago, Hewitt was off to the ACC.

But after Larranaga found success at a mid-major, he spurned his alma mater, Providence, telling the coaching world he was content to retire in Fairfax. He only left when dissed by O’Connor.

Mason’s A.D. couldn’t do what others  did – retain their prized basketball coaches. VCU kept Smart. Richmond placated Chris Mooney. Mark Few is still at Gonzaga. Ben Jacobson remains at Northern Iowa and Brad Stevens is happy at Butler.

Hewitt won’t get cozy in Fairfax, despite his saying, “My wife loves Old Towne Alexandria.” If he wins in Fairfax, he’ll bolt back to the big time. And that could be the Big East and Villanova, where he was a 5-year assistant and whose current coach, Jay Wright, is mentioned with every single major Division I vacancy.

Losing Larranaga was a major embarrassment. Replacing him with Hewitt was another.

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