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Leitao-calhoun Bond Extends Well Beyond Basketball Success

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Jerry Ratcliffe
Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress

June 27, 2007

CHARLOTTESVILLE – When Dave Leitao took on the challenge of rebuilding Virginia's basketball program a little more than two years ago, he couldn't avoid relating to a somewhat similar experience when he joined Jim Calhoun's first staff at Connecticut in 1986.

Both programs were in the cellar of their leagues, UConn mired in a quagmire of problems and with no tradition to fall back on, Virginia having fallen from grace when things went sour for previous coach Pete Gillen. There were other similarities – outdated facilities, a lack of a national image, seemingly hopeless lagging behind the premiere programs in their own leagues.

So, after Leitao led the Cavaliers from worst to first in the ACC in a mere two years, the least surprised person on the planet was Calhoun, a Basketball Hall of Famer who had been there, done that, with Leitao by his side two decades before.

"Dave was going through a tough time his first year there in Charlottesville, so when we would talk I would always bring up 1986 and how much he contributed to what we did here at UConn. We were ninth in a nine-team league (the Big East), so I'd tell him to stay on track," Calhoun said. "After all, he had a great new building, a wonderful school. There was no doubt in my mind he was going to be a success."

Leitao's relationship with Calhoun is a remarkable one, much more than just coaches passing through. Leitao played for Calhoun at Northeastern and, upon graduation, eventually worked for Calhoun as an assistant coach at his alma mater before the two ended up together again at UConn.

Certainly, that's nothing unusual. What makes the relationship unique is how the two bonded from the very beginning.

Leitao never really had a relationship with his father, as a teenager growing up in New Bedford, Mass. What Leitao needed in his life as much as anything at that particular juncture was a father figure. Calhoun completely understood, having lost his father as a teen and turned to his high school coach for guidance.

"Coach Calhoun filled a void in my life in having a male figure that I could respect, look up to, emulate," Leitao said. "My father wasn't really around as a teenager, and Coach Calhoun could relate to that because of losing his father early, so I kind of looked at this male-bonding relationship a little bit differently."

Calhoun said he recognized that father-figure role and accepted it, embraced it, mostly because he understood it.

"I hope that I did give him someone to rally around and maybe see things from a man's viewpoint as he progressed through life," Calhoun said. "My dad died when I was 15, and my mother had a heart condition, so my high school coach was there for me. We all need those kind of people that we can call or confide in and just ask, ‘What do you think?'"

So, it was no surprise when Calhoun uttered these words proudly: "David Leitao is like a son to me."

The bonding began immediately when Leitao accepted a scholarship offer from Calhoun at Northeastern and only grew stronger. In fact, Calhoun often used Leitao as a role model to his players, at both Northeastern and UConn.

"Dave is of extraordinary character," Calhoun said. "He was the epitome of what I wanted our kids at Northeastern and UConn to be like. I would be very blunt to them and tell them, ‘This is what you should turn out like after four years here.' Dave had every quality I wanted in a kid."

Calhoun raised two sons of his own, but he always considered Leitao as a third. Now Leitao, who has three sons of his own, finds himself repeating the same life lessons to his boys that he learned from Calhoun long ago.

"I catch myself laughing sometimes, because as I bring up my kids there are parts of him showing up in my own personality," Leitao said with a laugh. "That's generally what a father and son have in a relationship, is that you take on those traits. Not only from a basketball perspective, but more from a life perspective, that naturally arise because of the time I have spent around Jim."

There have been so many parallels drawn between Calhoun's and Leitao's coaching styles and philosophies on how to run a program. UVa players may not completely understand why their head coach can be gruff at times, and downright ornery at others. He gets it honestly.

"When Dave Leitao was an assistant at UConn, he was just a cool guy, a cool coach," former Huskies star Emeka Okafor said. "Coach Calhoun was already pretty intense, so I guess it wouldn't have made sense to have two really hardcore guys. Leitao was good at counter-balancing, just kind of seeing what he needed to do to get his players going."

Essentially, it was a good cop/bad cop situation. Calhoun ruled with an iron fist, and Leitao was there to pick up the pieces. Now it's Leitao who has taken on the role of stern disciplinarian, pushing his players to their limits and leaving it up to his assistants to give the young men a shoulder to cry on.

Leitao clearly remembers how Calhoun, who built UConn from scratch into one of the nation's strongest college basketball programs, treated players and even assistants at times during his stints under the legendary coach.

"Jim is intensely passionate about passion," Leitao said with a smile. "His passion for the game or for young people or for coaching, or probably for anything else in his life, probably exceeds anybody else's that I've ever come into contact with, and that's been part of the education or orientation of his kids and his guys.

"As a result, he could structurally change, and that was the constant. That passion was going to be on defense. That passion was going to be on the fastbreak. That passion was going to be in a conversation."

The passion also could be unleashed with thunder-like abandon if anyone around him screwed up.

"He will tell you that I might be in the top three or four guys that have felt his wrath over 30 years," Leitao said, laughing out loud this time. "I think that's probably where part of the respect comes from, because he knew I could take it and I knew a little bit as to why it was meant to be that way."

While both men can be portrayed sometimes as appearing cold-hearted, there is another side.

One of the worst moments of Leitao's basketball life came during his senior year at Northeastern. In an NCAA Tournament game, Northeastern was tied with Villanova in overtime. The ball was passed to the 6-8 Leitao on the wing for an open jumper with five seconds to play. He missed the shot, but he followed it, grabbed the rebound and, in one motion, put the ball back up while still airborne.

It bounced on the rim – four, maybe five, times – as the clock ticked down. Then it fell off. Villanova eventually won in triple overtime. Leitao was miserable, believing he had cost his team the game.

Ask Calhoun today about that ending, and he'll simply say, "Dave had a great game, especially on defense."

Perhaps that attitude back in the 1980s helped Leitao move on, a lesson he never forgot. That was evidenced in March, when Virginia point guard Sean Singletary's last-second shot caromed off the rim in a second-round loss to Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament. Singletary immediately slumped to the floor in agony. The first person by his side, offering support, was Leitao.

Somewhere down the road, Singletary likely will learn to appreciate that gesture more than he could understand at that point of his career.

If this is sounding spooky, that two coaches could be so close, so much alike, don't worry. There are some differences, albeit minor ones.

"I wouldn't say that Dave Leitao is a clone of Jim Calhoun, but it's not far from it," said ESPN national recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons, who has had a relationship with both coaches for decades.

While Leitao has taken so many things from the UConn coach, Calhoun said that hasn't been a one-way street. He benefited from Leitao's presence, too.

"Dave always kept me in touch with my players," Calhoun said. "I was just a young coach at Northeastern, and that worked against me because I had to prove I was tougher than what I really was.

"David always helped me see the world through the eyes of my players, which was one of the greatest things he ever gave to me. He gave me perspectives that I otherwise would never have had, about kids from deprived homes, single-parent homes, poor homes, white kids, black kids, green kids. That allowed me to handle situations before they ever became problems. He's exceptional at that, and I learned a lot from that."

Leitao talks to his old coach often, which undoubtedly helped the Virginia leader in a myriad of ways in his attempt to reverse the Cavaliers' fortunes. He took over a UVa team that was dead-last in the ACC, a program that had only seven scholarship players, and in two years he guided it to a share (with North Carolina) of the ACC regular-season title.

Last season marked only the third time Virginia has made it to the NCAA Tournament since a successful run in 1995. On the two occasions sandwiched between, they had been short, one-and-out appearances. This time, the Cavaliers advanced to the second round and were only a matter of inches from slipping into the Sweet 16.

With Singletary, already a two-time All-ACC player, returning for his senior season, the chances of Leitao continuing the momentum of his program appear worlds better than had Singletary opted for this year's NBA draft.

No wonder the coach still seeks knowledge from his mentor.

"There isn't a whole lot that I do that has any significance that I may not consult him on, or at least think of how he would have thought about it," Leitao said. "If there is somebody that I need to confide in, or have questions about life that I need answered, I find myself going to him.

"But more importantly, if I don't ask him, I think of him, which is what you do with a male figure in your life. What would your dad do in this situation?"

Calhoun provided the blueprint in how to take a bankrupt program and build it into a consistent winner, and Leitao added his own tweaks. But there was never any hesitation from either that Leitao would make it happen at Virginia.

That's why Calhoun often speaks of 1986 and what the two endured in trying to raise UConn's program from the ashes. The year before, three Big East teams had slugged it out in the Final Four, and the league was dominated by John Thompson's Georgetown, which boasted players the ilk of Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning.

Much as North Carolina and Duke are so revered in the ACC, back then in the Big East it was Georgetown attracting major talent, while St. John's and colorful coach Lou Carnesecca owned the best recruiting roads in the Northeast. Then there was Rollie Massimino and Villanova, which plucked the best players out of Connecticut on a regular basis.

How in the world was Calhoun going to compete with that at UConn, which had been saddled with five consecutive losing seasons when he was brought in to lift the sagging program?

The Huskies played in a dismal facility. The coaches' offices were cramped, with one office for four assistants (good thing they all got along), rotary phones, no air conditioning, and a persistent stench permeating throughout the building. Try to recruit with those shackles.

Calhoun, Leitao and the other assistants ultimately discovered that their grinding, day-to-day persistence really did pay off in all phases of the business. By 1988, the Huskies won their first NIT championship. Adding Chris Smith put them over the hump, and by 1990, UConn had advanced to the Elite Eight. Not bad after four years on the job.

"That helped establish that we were somebody who could fight for their lunch money on the Big East block," Leitao recalled. "What you see today in UConn is a combination of a lot of Calhoun's vision and a lot of hard work and never taking no for an answer. His passion has brought Connecticut two national championships."

Leitao believed that the scenario at Virginia wasn't as bad as when they started out in Storrs. After all, UVa had been successful over periods in its not-too-distant past, there was an established and passionate fan base, and he didn't have to stretch selling the future in terms of a facility because the 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena was under construction right across the street.

"There it was Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova. Here it's Duke and Carolina," Leitao said. "Instead of asking why, I've always asked, ‘Why not?' There isn't anything I see that can hold this situation back. (The UConn-Virginia comparison is) a similarity I draw off of almost every day."

Oddly, the "Why not?" phrase was the identical one George Welsh once used to sum up his belief that he could turn Virginia's hard-luck football program around when he was introduced as its head coach in 1982.

Calhoun knew that when Virginia hired Leitao its program immediately had been placed in good hands and on the right track. After two seasons, it's difficult to argue against the results.

"There's no reason Virginia shouldn't be good in that league," Calhoun said. "There's no reason that some of the Ray Allens and Emeka Okafors shouldn't take a long look at Virginia. Dave can certainly develop their talent and provide a terrific experience for any young man. There's not a better man I've ever coached than Dave Leitao."

Leitao will never rest until he again can experience the most memorable basketball moment of his life, when UConn defeated Duke for the national title in 1990. A review of that postgame celebration reveals that Leitao was the first to embrace Calhoun. It was a long hug between two men who had shared an incredible rags-to-riches story.

"My mind wandered back to 1977, 20-some-odd years together," Leitao said. "That particular moment, that hug, was extremely personally satisfying to me in what I have been able to be about in this profession and my feelings for Jim, because it was a relationship I had seen grow so much over time. I knew how much work he had put into it.

"Knowing that I had been side-by-side, that embrace was special. Selfishly speaking, it wasn't for a player, it wasn't for his wife, it wasn't for his son. It was he and I … and that's something I will always hold dear to my heart."

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