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It's Getting Late For Home Run Candidate

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

  April 11, 2005

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In its efforts to hit a home run, the baseball analogy frequently used in connection with Virginia's search for a new basketball coach, it was clear in mid-April that the Cavaliers had gone into the late innings.

Given the four- to six-week timetable established by athletic director Craig Littlepage when he announced March 14 that Pete Gillen was "stepping down," extra innings were beckoning and the Cavaliers may have to settle for a sacrifice fly.

While it is quite possible that Virginia will have named a coach by the time this issue reaches readers, many UVa fans have become increasingly impatient with Littlepage, who's faced with the signature hire of his first four years as the school's AD.

No one can blame Littlepage for putting Kentucky coach Tubby Smith at the top of his wish list, especially if Smith pulls a major surprise and takes the job. But there is a growing fear that the prolonged pursuit of Smith has taken Virginia out of the running for other attractive candidates.

No matter how it was perceived, that was not the case with West Virginia coach and NCAA Tournament darling John Beilein, now working with a new seven-year, $5.2 million contract. Since Gillen was making at least $900,000 at the time of his resignation, Beilein probably could have gotten $1 million out of Virginia, but he simply wasn't going to leave the Mountaineers prior to his basketball-playing son's senior year.

Virginia's delay tactics didn't prevent the Cavaliers from talking to South Carolina coach Dave Odom, DePaul coach Dave Leitao and Boston University coach Dennis Wolff. Unlike the others, Odom emphatically stated that his discussions with Littlepage at the Final Four in St. Louis did not deal with his possible candidacy for the position.

That didn't stop the Washington Post, citing two coaching sources, from reporting April 4 that Virginia had offered the position to Odom and that he was poised to accept it.

According to numerous Sports Journal sources, Littlepage and Odom did have serious discussions about Odom taking the UVa job, and the coach's adamant denials (including a press release) of such came about in part because Littlepage hadn't yet asked South Carolina for permission to speak with Odom on an official basis. The same sources said Littlepage stopped short of making an official job offer to Odom, but that the AD left the coach with the impression that one would be coming shortly.

Meanwhile, the Odom-to-Virginia article in the Post prompted a backlash from many UVa fans. Given that something at least temporarily prevented Littlepage from moving forward with Odom — perhaps Casteen vetoed the idea — that development in the media may have impacted whatever chance Odom did have of gaining the position.

What the fans had against Odom likely was a reflection of their "home run" mentality more than a criticism of his coaching ability. True, he will turn 63 by the start of the 2005-06 season, but most of the complaints dealt with his inability to win an NCAA Tournament game in recent years. He did win 10 NCAA games at Wake Forest during the 1990s, although his recruiting ability never came close to his reputation as an excellent coach.

Most of all, Odom simply doesn't "wow" anybody, to use another term frequently associated with the UVa search. That part was understandable.

Odom's exit from Wake Forest came in part because AD Ron Wellman declined to offer him a contract extension in 2001, after a four-year stretch in which the Demon Deacons made a first-round exit in their only NCAA Tournament appearance. Similarly, Odom did not receive the extension he wanted at South Carolina this year, even after his NIT championship, mainly because AD Mike McGee didn't want to reward anything less than an NCAA bid.

Next: Leitao, Odom Or Surprise?

Of course, other than Smith, who is going to wow anybody at this point? Leitao?

Six weeks ago, 95 percent of UVa fans wouldn't have been able to identify Leitao. A long-time Connecticut assistant, he recently wrapped up his third year at DePaul, where he has a 58-34 record and two postseason trips — the NCAA Tournament in 2004 and the NIT this year, when the Blue Demons were eliminated in the second round.

At 43, Leitao certainly is younger than Odom, and he would become the first African-American head coach of any varsity sport in UVa history. He also has five years remaining on the renegotiated five-year contract he signed with DePaul last September.

That contract may have a $3 million buyout, as stated in published reports out of Chicago, but sources told the Sports Journal the actual amount is closer to $1 million. (As a private university, DePaul is not obligated to release contract terms.) Whatever the number, if Leitao takes the Virginia job, the buyout money would be tacked onto the end of the $2 million settlement UVa reached with Gillen for the remaining years on his deal.

There has been speculation that Virginia would be willing to pay as much as $3 million per year for Smith, which begged the question: Where are the Cavaliers finding all the money? After all, they have roughly $35 million remaining to raise on the 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena, which will open for basketball in 2006.

The arena is named for a retired Memphis, Tenn., attorney who is the father of Paul Tudor Jones, a wealthy Connecticut hedge-fund manager who had a 2003 income of $300 million, according to New York Magazine. Jones already has donated $35 million to the arena, so what's another $3 million per year if the Cavaliers can get Smith?

Of course, if you can get Smith to come for $3 million, what do you pay football coach Al Groh, whose original seven-year deal is ripe for renegotiation? And what do you pay women's coach Debbie Ryan? For that matter, what is the faculty going to say?

In mid-April, there remained considerable questions about whether Smith would come under any circumstances, although it appeared that he was allowing himself to be courted. If Virginia couldn't get Smith or one of its other "A list" candidates, Golden State Warriors coach Mike Montgomery, then Leitao stood at or near the top of the "B list."

Presumably, if Virginia still does not have a coach, it could talk to Montgomery after the Warriors' season ends on April 20, but the buzz out of the Bay Area is that Montgomery has no interest in a position he almost got in 1990. Golden State won't make the playoffs this season, but the Warriors recently won eight games in a row to raise their record to 31-45. Perhaps Montgomery can see a light at the end of the tunnel, after the midseason acquisition of point guard Baron Davis.

The Cavaliers were never going to get Indiana Pacers coach and UVa alumnus Rick Carlisle, who told Richmond columnist John Markon that college coaching wasn't on his "radar screen." And it would be problematic to land another former UVa player, Marc Iavaroni, who has been connected with one of this season's major NBA success stories as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns.

Phoenix's season won't be done any time soon, and while Iavaroni may be considered for several NBA posts, there is some question about how experienced he is in the inner workings of a college program. That doesn't seem to bother many posters on an internet board devoted to UVa sports, TheSabre.com. As on most message boards, people there don't seem to have many nice things to say, but Iavaroni tends to get a free pass.

So, if the Cavaliers can't persuade Smith, Montgomery or Leitao to take the job, and if they don't want Odom, who will get it?

Wolff has been standing on the periphery of the search, alternating between a consultant and a candidate. But he knows the job, having served as a UVa assistant and a successful recruiter from 1990-94, and he is coming off his fourth straight 20-win season at BU. He also understands the need to unify what has become an increasingly splintered UVa men's basketball family.

Meanwhile, Odom's long-time connection to former Virginia basketball coach Terry Holland is seen by some as a negative, which is interesting because Holland was only the most successful basketball coach in school history. Holland, also a former UVa athletic director who now holds the same post at East Carolina, has been serving as one of Littlepage's consultants over the last several weeks.

Another knock against Odom is that he would be only a short-time solution, but certainly a short-term solution is preferable to no solution at all.