The Rise and Fall Of Dave Leitao as Virginia's Basketball's Head Coach

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IMarch 17, 2009

An apathetic and out of control program that lacked fundamentals on the basketball court.

These were the complaints Virginia fans had of Pete Gillen, a personable and witty man who had worn out his welcome in Charlottesville. 

The Cavalier head coach had led his team to once NCAA tournament in seven seasons, a first round loss to Gonzaga but could never build on that momentum. 

His teams could not play defense and could not muster a winning record in the ACC for most of his years at Virginia.

So the great search went out for Gillen's replacement.  The names were plentiful and the process was embarrassingly long and complicated.

First came the Tubby Smith rumors, but monetary issues seemed to complicate the path to a major hire.

Then it looked like UVA would retread and pick a former assistant in South Carolina's Dave Odom.  However, that apparently turned out to be only a consultation on Virginia's search, not a hire.

The result was another Dave, Dave Leitao from Depaul University.  His hire left many Virginia fans asking one question.

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Leitao was a long-time assistant of UConn's Jim Calhoun, serving as one of his leading recruiters.  He and Calhoun had gone all the way back from his playing days at Northeastern.  Their friendship and camaraderie was evident. 

Leitao, having previously coached at Northeastern unsuccessfully, returned to his mentor and found success in his second departure at Depaul University.  In fact, Leitao's success gave Depaul the opportunity to join the Big East.

Certainly coaching at an ACC school had to be an attractive offer, but it also helped to go to a school where he would not have to do battle with his role model year in and year out.

So here was Leitao, an extremely different picture from his predecessor.

Gillen's humor was replaced with a stoic yet aggressive Leitao.

Gillen's short and sweaty stature was replaced with a tall and sophisticated stature.

Indeed Leitao looked like a coach, dressed to the nines and saying all the right things.

His first two games showed the mark of a new era, earning technical fouls against teams like Liberty University.

How would the short-tempered Leitao fare in the ACC?  He won't last a game!

Leitao had a seven-man roster with which to use as other players transferred or graduated.  This forced him to play two young players, J.R. Reynolds and Sean Singletary almost ad nauseum.

Sometimes you wondered if Singletary might pass out, ranking near the top in the ACC in minutes played as just a sophomore.  When you consider he played near 80% of the season with a busted shoulder, it makes the accomplishment even more impressive.

Leitao's first year revolved around J.R. Reynolds.  Reynolds was a fair shooter, but people really wondered how good he could really be.  Did he have the talent of an ACC guard?

Reynolds needed to prove he could be consistent and be a leader, something he failed to do in an embarassing loss to Fordham.  With Singletary out, Reynolds could only score eight points and Virginia was left wondering where they were heading.

Reynolds admitted that changed his career at Virginia, he spent hours shooting after the game.  He went 24 straight games scoring in double figures and became a building block to the future.

After a 7-9 ACC record and a 15-15 record overall, Virginia was poised to make a run in 2006-07.

His second year had a great start with a 17-point comeback against Arizona to open the John Paul Jones Arena, but his season hit a big snag in December in Puerto Rico.

The Cavaliers put forth an embarassing performance, barely beating a D-II program and many thought their chances of dancing were dashed.

However, Virginia went on an incredible winning streak in the ACC.  The Cavaliers went 11-5 in the ACC including victories on the road against Maryland, Clemson and N.C. State.

Their biggest victory though came against Duke (their first since 2001) at home in overtime when Virginia solidified its bid into the NCAA tournament.

The Cavaliers had an amazing one-two punch with Singletary and Reynolds who were able to both penetrate and then either finish at the basket or dish it out to shooter Mamadi Diane and Adrian Joseph.

Virginia lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Tennessee in the final moments. 

In two years, Leitao was the 2007 ACC Coach of the Year, he had defeated every single team in the ACC at least once.  He had developed J.R. Reynolds and Jason Cain into players no one would have imagined when Gillen was around.

He had instilled a mental and physical toughness that Gillen's teams lacked.  The teams had a tendency to overcome deficits on the road and at home. 

In other words, Leitao had done as much and a bit more in two years than Gillen had in seven.  It no longer mattered how messy the coaching search had gone in 2005, UVA had their man.

Sean Singletary dabbled in the NBA workouts that summer but returned for his senior season and when Virginia knocked off Arizona on the road in the beginning of the 2007-08 season it appeared the Cavaliers were well on their way in Leitao's third year.

Then things started falling apart.

On one hand there were injuries.  Tunji Soroye, Ryan Pettinella, Lars Mikalauskas were all front court players and all experienced significant losses of playing time due to injuries.

As a result Joseph and Will Harris were expected to play in the post where neither were completely comfortable.

That lack of post defense was exploited by Syracuse in a crucial December game where the immortal Sean Singletary could not hit a free throw.

That loss deflated the invincibility of Virginia at JPJA, from then on the Cavaliers began to experience more and more close losses.

The Cavaliers lost to the Hokies twice in overtime, lost to GT in overtime, lost to UNC by a possession, lost to Miami in the final get the idea.

The reason was clear, teams could just pound inside in the final minute and the Cavaliers were essentially defenseless.

Still, when Mikalauskas returned to the line-up the Cavaliers had a bit of a resurgence.

Virginia won four out of its final six regular season games of the year and had a great senior night performance by Singletary.

Sure Virginia had a terrible year but there were excuses.

Joseph and Diane were terribly inconsistent and had not proven to be effective leaders.

Virginia had no post presence due to injuries.

Virginia was six points away from having five extra victories.

Leitao knew his calling card was defense and his Cavaliers were not delivering on that end of the floor.  Leitao gave an impassioned vow that his team would play defense next season after a disappointing performance against Bradley in the CBI Semifinals.

Virginia needed that defense for Leitao's offense was never overwhelming.  Virginia had found its success by making key stops for Leitao believed that would trigger the offense.

It was becoming clear though that offensive futility was taking its toll mentally on the defensive end.

Well all these problems in 2007-08 became exacerbated this year.

The Cavaliers had an incredibly young team whose star player last season, Singletary, was being shipped almost weekly from NBA team to NBA team instead of earning All-ACC accolades.

As a result, Virginia showed some extreme immaturity.  The Cavaliers had extreme difficulty stopping anybody early in the year, they were missing assignments and turning the ball over way too much.

On offense Virginia was just short of disastrous with little motion and poor shooting from behind the arc.  The Cavaliers did score well against the VMI Keydets and their matador defense but Virginia had some abysmal performances against Radford (36%) and at Minnesota (31%).

Virginia's pride took a big hit when it lost at home to Liberty, a team that proved to be better than many would have thought but the Cavaliers nonetheless should not be satisfied with a .500 record at home.

The Cavaliers had an unexpected win at Georgia Tech, only to find out that the Yellow Jackets would have a great deal of difficulty finishing games throughout the season.  Virginia continued to lose a few close games before some severe beatdowns by future NCAA tournament bound teams.

In total, 11 of Virginia's 17 ACC games were decided by double digits and only one of those (vs. Virginia Tech) was in the favor of the Cavaliers.

In most games, Virginia did not just lose but were not even competitive.  Against Florida State, the Cavaliers could only shoot 3-of-22 in the first half at home.

My what a difference two years make.  The sell out crowds at the hornet's nest known as John Paul Jones Arena now looked like a library.  The high-flying act had become a comedy of errors.

Cavalier fans expected losses, but blowouts will make fans reach their boiling point.

Most importantly, the performances did not seem to be improving.  Every time it appeared Virginia had turned the corner they would follow up a strong performance with another clunker.

Most of this frustration stemmed from a point guard position that turned the ball over too much.

Sammy Zeglinski may have some good plays but he had proven to be a liability on defense and his turnovers were far too numerous, even for a freshman.

His replacement, Calvin Baker, was a shooting guard playing out of position.  His ball-handling was average and his decision-making was erratic.  Just watch Baker run a fast break and you can see why it is hard being a Virginia fan.

Still, Leitao had secured Jontel Evans for next season.  The high school senior point guard has a great deal of poise and many expected he could fill the role Virginia desperately needed.

However, Leitao will not be there to see it happen.

Leitao's fourth season has some pretty damning numbers.

Virginia finished 11th in the ACC in scoring offense and scoring defense.

Their scoring margin, shooting percentage, shooting percentage defense and three-point percentage were last in the conference.

That's right Virginia shot the ball worse and defended shots worse than any other team in the ACC...yikes.

Virginia was 11th in assists and 10th in blocked shots, lacking those highlight plays that can inspire a losing team.

Indeed, the only redeeming statistic for the Cavaliers was that they ranked third in free throw percentage, but then again Virginia ranked dead last in free throws attempted too.

Virginia had its fewest wins in a season in nearly 40 years.  In other words, Leitao's fall from grace was not a gentle glide but a loud thud.

The message boards, the fans and even the parents came out and voiced their frustrations and all of the discontent that had been percolating for awhile came to the forefront.

Why can't Dave Leitao run a consistent offense?

Is Leitao's demonstrative demeanor helpful or harmful?  Has he lost his players?

Why won't Leitao admit to his mistakes?  Will he bring in a new assistant?

Why won't Leitao wear the school colors (a weird comment but a constant complaint by some)?

With the exception of Sylven Landesberg, every single Virginia player had major question marks on the roster.  Even Mike Scott, unarguably the second best player, seemed to drift in and out of games throughout the year.

Maybe the Virginia guards were unwilling or unable to get him the ball, but Scott did not always make it east for them.

Players were not making Leitao's job easy with 17 points one night, and zero points the next two games.  Jeff Jones would get hot and then fall off the earth, then Mustapha Farrakhan would follow suit. 

The result was a chaotic and erratic line-up and rotation system that seemed to keep Virginia's season stuck in neutral.

Leitao, a Connecticut product, as was Athletic Director Craig Littlepage and President John Casteen appeared to be on the hot seat but far from being shown the door.  It would make sense they could give Leitao a year to sort things out as they had to their maligned football coach Al Groh earlier this season.

However, 2.1 million dollars later and Dave Leitao is on his way. 

Was it the right decision to fire Leitao in just four years?  Well that depends on what Littlepage does next. 

Virginia needs to hit a homerun with this one. 

With both revenue sports near the bottom of the ACC, Cavalier fans need to feel good about something.  In this harsh economic climate, Virginia has shelled out a pretty hefty amount of change to ensure next season will be heading in a new (and hopefully better) direction.

Who will have that opportunity?

Most likely Littlepage will try to do what he did last time, bring in someone who is everything Leitao is not.  He tried that will Gillen and yet he received the same result.

So will this time be different?


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