Leitao named ’Hoos first African-American
By Dan Heuchert
Dave Leitao’s recent hiring as the men’s basketball coach represents a near-perfect stance for the University: one foot stepping boldly forward, the other firmly rooted in tradition.
Leitao (pronounced LAY-toe), formerly the head coach at DePaul University, was introduced April 17 as the first African-American head coach of any varsity sport at U.Va.
Both he and athletic director Craig Littlepage were clearly pleased to have broken new ground, but they stressed that a more important factor in the choice was a desire to return the team to a hard-nosed playing style that stresses defense and rebounding.
“I think I know the framework for what made the program successful,” said Littlepage, who was an assistant coach under Terry Holland during the basketball team’s high-water mark in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the Cavaliers played what he called a “gritty and aggressive” style.
“That model is still a model that works,” Littlepage said.
Leitao pledged, “I can tell you that the next time we play a basketball team, these young men will play and fight together like never before. … Whoever plays against us will know that we will fight you for every inch of the floor.”
Leitao, 44, inherits a Cavalier program that has struggled over the last decade, only twice posting a winning record against its Atlantic Coast Conference foes.
Former head coach Pete Gillen, who stepped down in March after this year’s team tied for last place in the ACC, favored a fast-paced offensive style during his seven-year tenure. But this year, the Cavaliers ranked last in the 11-team ACC in scoring margin, 10th in field-goal percentage defense and eighth in rebounding margin.
|Craig Littlepage, director of athletics, fields questions at an April 17 press conference announcing Dave Leitao’s hire as the new head coach for men’s basketball.
By contrast, Leitao’s DePaul team ranked second in average rebounding margin and sixth in scoring margin in the rugged, 14-team Conference USA. His Blue Demons finished the season 20-11 after losing in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament.
Leitao learned his craft as a self-described “moderate success” of a player and team captain at Northeastern University, then as an assistant coach at Northeastern and the University of Connecticut — all under future Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, who has a pair of NCAA championships to his name.
Leitao “is one of the highest-quality people I’ve ever known,” Calhoun told the Hampton Roads Daily Press. “If he didn’t have his own father, I’d adopt him. Seriously, ours is a loving relationship, and I consider him like a son.”
Their professional relationship began when Leitao joined Calhoun’s Northeastern staff in 1984, a year after Leitao’s collegiate playing career ended. Two years later, Calhoun was hired to rebuild the program at the University of Connecticut, a school then led by a president named John T. Casteen III. Casteen, now the president at U.Va., described Leitao as “one of the country’s most highly regarded young coaches — someone I have known and admired.”
After eight years at Connecticut, Leitao got the call to return to his alma mater as head coach. Northeastern had gone 5-22 in the 1993-1994 season; in their first year under Leitao, they improved to 18-11.
Then the bottom fell out; a raft of injuries and suspensions the next season left the Huskies with a 4-24 record, and Leitao resigned to return to Connecticut, where Calhoun welcomed him back as his associate head coach.
During the next six seasons, Leitao restored his reputation as the Huskies won 156 of 207 games, reached the postseason all six years and won the 1999 national championship.
Littlepage, who crossed paths with Leitao when he coached the basketball team at Rutgers, joked that Leitao’s recruiting prowess helped push him toward an administrative career.
In turn, Leitao said he admired Littlepage. “When I looked at him back then, I didn’t see a basketball coach,” he said. “I saw a man who happened to coach basketball and who stood for something. I took part of it and put it in my pocket, used it as I trekked through the rest of my career and tried to do some of those things.”
DePaul gave Leitao a second chance at a head coaching job in 2002, which he recalled with gratitude at his introductory press conference at U.Va. “I didn’t know if I would ever be a head coach again” after leaving Northeastern, he said.
He made the most of it. Taking over a team that had won 21 games over the previous two years, he led DePaul to a 58-34 record and three straight postseason appearances — including the 2004 NCAA Tournament, where they lost to Calhoun and Connecticut on their way to another national championship —before Virginia came to call.
Leitao agreed to a five-year contract at a base salary of $215,000. He will receive total annual compensation of $925,000, including media and apparel-driven revenue.
Leitao hired former DePaul assistant coach Gene Cross, 33, to fill a similar role at U.Va., and suggested that he would seek another assistant with ties to the University or region.
Leitao pledged to perform a comprehensive review of the program in the coming weeks. Barring any unexpected departures among the eight returning players and three incoming recruits, only one scholarship is available during the next two years, so he said he will focus his efforts on “getting our 11 core guys ready to play successful ACC basketball.”
When it comes time to recruit players, “I have always tried to be around and recruit the highest quality student-athletes,” he said. “The reputation that the University has will always be protected.”
As for the history-making aspect of his hiring, Leitao acknowledged its significance.
“It’s a great honor that Virginia has bestowed upon me. I feel extremely proud to coach the game of basketball as an African American when others have not had the chance who have come before me. At this time, at this university, for our future, I carry that with me as not only an honor but a responsibility. At the same time … I’m here to coach basketball.”