See you Leitao
“We’ve gotta grow through improvement — team-wise, individually, through recruiting. Through all those things, you get to the place that you need to be ... It’s happened already for us, and now it’s [going to] happen again.”
These were the words of former Virginia men’s basketball coach Dave Leitao following one of his team’s numerous follies this season, a 79-54 loss against Duke Feb. 1. With Leitao’s resignation Monday — and with many reports revealing that he actually may have been fired — Athletics Director Craig Littlepage apparently did not think Leitao would be the one to make that happen.
I don’t know about you, but I was shocked. With the way that Virginia had played toward the end of the year, taking three of its four conference wins after Valentine’s Day, I thought he had saved himself for at least another year. And, talent-wise this team frankly shouldn’t have won more than three or four games in the conference — and it won four. It was a lousy season, for sure, but in Leitao’s first season without Sean Singletary, I thought Littlepage would cut him a break.
I was searching for answers, and Jerry Ratcliffe of The Daily Progress turned out to be the man with the answers I wanted. Ratcliffe has been covering both Virginia football and men’s basketball for the Progress since 1982, and is one of the most well-respected reporters not only in the Charlottesville area, but in the ACC.
I would love to say that Jerry and I put our heads together and bounced some theories off each other, but, true to form, Jerry had all the answers. Unlike yours truly — the naïve student reporter — Ratcliffe was not surprised that Leitao is gone.
“I think it all boils down to the perception that [Leitao] just didn’t fit what they were looking for,” Ratcliffe said. “I don’t think [the administration] had the confidence that he was ever going to take Virginia basketball to greater heights on a consistent basis.”
So, based mostly on Jerry’s thoughts, here are some of the factors that contributed to Leitao’s getting fired.
If Dave Leitao is a charming, patient person, you’d never know it from watching him coach. He mercilessly hollered not only at the team as a whole, but at individual players. A typical Leitao coaching sequence included pulling a player after making one simple mistake and yelling at him nose-to-nose on the bench while said player stared off into space.
Certain players can handle this kind of abuse — but not all.
“I think on the guys who were really tough, like Singletary and [Sylven] Landesberg, who grew up on the playgrounds and who weren’t intimidated by anything, I don’t think it bothered them a bit — they maybe even thrived upon it,” Ratcliffe said. “I think the other guys, the majority of them had a lot of problems with it. You can’t play basketball tense, and you can’t play basketball with one eye on the court and one eye looking towards the bench.”
Perhaps that’s why sophomore Jeff Jones, a McDonald’s All-American nominee in high school, has instead found DNP next to his name after some games. Perhaps that contributed to senior Mamadi Diane’s awful senior season; Diane’s father Mori Diane told The Washington Post that Leitao had been “demeaning” toward his son, telling the Post that Leitao acted like “Mamadi did not exist.” Perhaps Leitao’s demeanor also contributed to the up-and-down seasons of Mustapha Farrakhan, Sammy Zeglinski and numerous others who fluctuated during their performances throughout the season.
What’s more, Ratcliffe said Leitao’s attitude problems also could have put off alumni.
“Some of the older players told me they just felt unwelcome being around the program,” Ratcliffe said. “There’s a lot of guys who live here who were [at U.Va.] as far back as in the 50s, and they just felt uncomfortable. They felt like they were not welcome around the program anymore, and a lot of ‘em decided not to be around the program anymore. I think that’s not a good thing.”
Virginia had two bad years in a row, there is no denying that. Two years of five and four conference wins, at the very least, merits conversation about where the program is headed.
But that’s just the beginning; Leitao’s method simply wasn’t working. The plan from the beginning was that Leitao would get his guys to be defensive-minded, that Leitao’s hardened coaching style would toughen them up. Instead, the Cavs have finished 10th or worse in field goal percentage defense the last two years and finished 11th in rebounding margin this past season.
“The reason he was hired was on the premise that he was going to make Virginia a tough out every game,” Ratcliffe said. “The defense, rebounding and toughness was gonna be the foundation of his program, and that was rarely the case.”
The one aspect that did surprise Ratcliffe is something I had heard, too — I thought Littlepage was a Dave Leitao fan. Despite Leitao’s demeanor, that was no mystery when he was hired.
“I had heard that the athletic department was divided on whether or not to do it, and that Littlepage was the last road block that was in Leitao’s corner,” Ratcliffe said. “In that respect I’m a little surprised he changed his mind.”
In the end, though, Littlepage obviously turned.
“I’m not surprised he got fired,” Ratcliffe said.
Those are the reasons why Leitao was fired. Now, here are some reasons you might think of — and, that admittedly, I considered — that probably don’t hold true.
First, this probably had nothing to do with the football team’s similarly mediocre season. Littlepage issued a statement in February in which he assured fans that it was a priority to improve both teams, which would indicate that he felt the pressure to make a move in the revenue sports. Even if the football team had gone 10-2, however, Ratcliffe said Leitao’s fate likely would have been the same.
“I think they came to the realization that things weren’t gonna change that dramatically in basketball — obviously they felt like that wasn’t the case in football,” Ratcliffe said. “I would agree with both those scenarios — I think that football is gonna turn around, I don’t think basketball was.”
Then, there is the idea of a hypothetical “line” that Leitao didn’t hit. If Leitao had advanced a couple more rounds in the ACC Tournament, would he still be at Virginia? What if he had won six conference games this season instead of four? And what if one of those two extra wins was, say, against North Carolina at Chapel Hill? Would any of those scenarios have saved his job?
Maybe — but not for long. It may have saved him for a year, Ratcliffe said, but whether it was this year or in the near future, Leitao had cemented his fate.
“I imagine there’s probably a number that probably would have saved his job for a year, but I still think it was prolonging the inevitable,” Ratcliffe said. “It’s kind of like when [Leitao’s predecessor] Pete [Gillen] was in trouble his next to last year, and he won like three or four in a row and knocked out a couple ranked teams; they just couldn’t fire him then, it just wouldn’t have been right. But I think they realized they probably were gonna have to do it the following year, and I have a feeling that’s the same thing that would have happened here.”