When the e-mails started arriving from soldiers in Iraq, from cancer patients, from a car-crash survivor who was told she'd never walk again—that's when George Mason University basketball coach Jim Larranaga knew his team's stunning run to the Final Four last spring had transcended mere basketball. "We were inspiring people to reach beyond expectations," he says. "To say, 'I'm going to prove the experts wrong, just like George Mason proved the experts wrong.' "
In one of the most exhilarating NCAA Tournament runs in hoops history, Larranaga's overachieving underdogs did more than beat the odds: they became America's team, shocking three former champs in a little over a week. And it couldn't have happened to a more deserving coach. In a business where each game is treated with the solemnity of Middle East peace talks, Larranaga, 57, asked one thing of his players: Have fun. Have more fun than any team in the tournament. To the coach—a former player at Providence—it's clear: "People perform better when they're happy." And so he's Norman Vincent Peale with a whistle, preaching the positive, quoting Emerson and Aristotle in the locker room.
It's an upbeat, offbeat approach that's led to 17 winning seasons in 22 years, including 11 at Bowling Green and 9 at Mason. Yet he's that rarest of coaches: someone who doesn't believe that winning is everything. "My job is to educate these young men not just for the basketball court," he says, "but for life after basketball is over." Recently he asked his players to write their obituaries, an exercise in evaluating their lives. "Not a single guy wrote about basketball. They talked about wanting to be liked, about hard work, about giving it their all. That," he says, smiling, "is what we're trying to teach."
*The name of this award was originally the Impact Award. In 2008, the awards were renamed as the Inspire Awards.