March 14, 2005
CHARLOTTESVILLE Nothing will define the tenure of Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage more clearly than the upcoming choice of UVa's new basketball coach.
Many UVa fans felt that Littlepage should have fired Pete Gillen after the 2003-04 season, but numerous sources have confirmed to the Sports Journal that the decision to bring Gillen back for a seventh campaign enabled the Cavaliers to restructure a contract that previously lacked a buyout clause.
At face value, the cost for eating the final six seasons of Gillen's $900,000-per-year contract would have been $5.4 million, but the general consensus in mid-March was that Gillen would get closer to $2 million as his severance fee.
Gillen gambled that the Cavaliers would return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001, a hope that was fueled by an 8-1 start that included a stunning 78-60 home upset of then-No. 10 Arizona. However, the strength of the ACC, combined with an injury to senior forward Devin Smith and the academic ineligibility of senior forward Jason Clark, relegated Virginia to a 14-15 finish.
It was UVa's first losing season since Gillen's first season in Charlottesville, when the Cavaliers went 14-16 in 1998-99. Even the coach admitted after an ACC quarterfinal loss to Duke that, "the University of Virginia deserves better than the 14-15 we gave them this year, and I take the blame for that."
For the second year in a row, the Cavaliers won their first game in the ACC Tournament, a feat they failed to accomplish in Gillen's first five seasons. Had Virginia been able to win at least one ACC Tournament game in 2000 or 2002, it might have gone to as many as three NCAA Tournaments. Instead, the Cavaliers made just one trip, in 2001, when Gonzaga scored in the final seconds to beat UVa in the first round.
It doesn't seem as if Virginia will return to the NCAA Tournament any time soon. The Cavaliers totally lacked an inside game this year, and that was with a veteran frontcourt of Smith, Clark and senior center Elton Brown.
On the other hand, unlike many of the top teams in the ACC, UVa is not at risk of losing any of its top underclassmen to the NBA. ACC all-freshman choice Sean Singletary, who said he will consult his parents if Virginia makes a change, isn't going anywhere.
Then there is the matter of a new coach, who could install a system that would bring out the best in perimeter players such as Singletary, shooting guard J.R. Reynolds and swingman Gary Forbes. Freshman Adrian Joseph, who missed six games at midseason with a quadriceps injury, had 19 points against Wake in January and is an intriguing talent.
In some respects, so is 6-11 freshman Tunji Soroye, who started both ACC Tournament games and had nine rebounds and seven blocked shots in 32 minutes. If Soroye merely had been able to catch the ball on offense, he might have had 10 points to add to those totals. Instead, he repeatedly fumbled passes from Singletary and T.J. Bannister, and thus he went scoreless.
Plenty Of Time, Money Available
For all the talk that Virginia will try to lure Tubby Smith from Kentucky or Rick Barnes from Texas and is willing to pay $2 million per year or more, speculation on a Gillen successor has been all over the lot. For one thing, Virginia already has signed three players for next year and a fourth for 2006-07, so time is not of the essence.
Since Virginia does not have a junior on its roster, it will not have another scholarship available for 2006-07 unless somebody leaves prematurely. That is the year when the new $129-million, 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena will open.
Presumably, there would be recruiting benefits to having a new coach and a new building, but Gillen took at least one project, Colorado big man Sam Warren, and then added unheralded junior Stephen Kendall from the Blue Ridge School north of Charlottesville. Both of Kendall's parents are UVa grads, and Kendall has been likened to a poor man's J.J. Redick, but somebody Littlepage or senior associate athletic director Jon Oliver should have been preaching caution.
Nevertheless, if Virginia waits until mid-April before landing a coach, it's not going to hurt recruiting this year. And it might take until mid-April if the Cavaliers think they can get Golden State Warriors coach Mike Montgomery, who is near the top of their wish list.
Montgomery, 57, removed his name from consideration for the Virginia job in 1990, when the Cavaliers were on the verge of hiring Rick Barnes away from Providence. In fact, he would have been the UVa coach if then-UVa athletic director Jim Copeland had known that Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt would hold Barnes' feet to the fire and cause him to remain with the Friars, the program Gavitt himself once built.
Montgomery went on to enjoy considerable success at Stanford, a program to which Virginia likes to compare itself. Stanford was a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament on three occasions in a five-year span, 2000-04, although the Cardinal made the Final Four only once, when it was a No. 3 seed in 1998.
If money isn't an issue for Montgomery, who has a four-year contract with Golden State that will pay him $10 million, geography could be. One reason he took the job with Golden State was the convenience of not leaving his West Coast home.
Virginia has never had an African-American head coach in any sport, but if the Cavaliers get nowhere (as expected) with Smith, a long-time Virginia Commonwealth assistant whose wife's family is from Richmond, political correctness will not be the highest priority. Littlepage and Oliver are black, so the case could be made that no ACC program has as much minority representation as UVa.
One African-American who has caught the Cavaliers' attention is 44-year-old Dave Leitao, who is in his third year as the head coach at DePaul. For many years, Leitao was an assistant coach at Connecticut, a connection he shares with UVa president John Casteen, previously the president at UConn. Leitao also has a holier-than-thou aspect to his personality that many ACC fans likely believe would be a perfect fit for Charlottesville.
If there is a popular choice among UVa fans, it would be 45-year-old Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who has Middle Atlantic ties dating back to his playing days at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., and then at George Washington in college. Brey also served as an assistant at Duke, which, combined with his experience at Notre Dame, gives him the kind of pedigree UVa would want from an academic standpoint.
There was considerable speculation early in the winter about UVa's chances of landing either Brey or another former Duke aide, Michigan coach Tommy Amaker, an African-American who went to high school in Virginia. Interest in Amaker waned when the Wolverines started to stumble, but it is felt that Brey might have legitimate interest.
A new Big East configuration that includes Louisville and Cincinnati gives Notre Dame less in common with its colleagues than ever. Plus, it is unlikely that the Fighting Irish would be willing to get into the kind of bidding war UVa apparently is prepared to wage.
It is interesting to hear that big money will not be an obstacle in UVa's coaching search, because rumors persist that the Cavaliers are finding it difficult to complete fundraising on the new arena. That's why there has been so much discussion of the "wow" factor, which assumedly would cause donors to add zeros to their checks.
Given their experience with Gillen, who certainly qualified as a big name when he was selected to replace Jeff Jones in 1998, Virginia certainly can't afford to overlook substance for sizzle.