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The New Guy

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

By Lindsey Willhite
Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald
June 21, 2005

Virginia coach Dave Leitao, the only newcomer among the ACC's head coaches in men's basketball and football in 2005-06, has this to say after his experience with successful programs at Connecticut and DePaul:

NFW = No (#*&%-ing) Way A Virginia team not known for intense, physical defense or powerful, passionate rebounding under Pete Gillen likely will come to understand Leitao's basketball motto very quickly.

When Dave Leitao enrolled at Northeastern University in 1978, a 6-7 forward out of New Bedford, Mass., with a New England work ethic and a methodical way of thinking, he knew what he wanted out of life.

To become the world's tallest cost accountant.

It fit perfectly with Leitao's personality, both then and now. Input all of the data, not just a few pieces to the puzzle. Make sure it adds up. Analyze the results. Double-check the entire process. Review it one last time. Only after every last nugget of information has been put in its place, every fact weighed, will a prudent decision be rendered.

"It's a life trait," Leitao said. "If I look back, I used to enjoy math, and math does make you think. But sometimes you overthink things a little bit."


Analytical Nature Will Help

But, as proven time and again in the 45-year-old Leitao's life, a lot of thinking can carry you a long way.

At Northeastern, for example, Leitao eventually crunched the numbers on how exciting a life spent behind a desk might be, so he sidestepped a life of debits and credits.

"I started as an accounting major, but I wanted to have a little bit of a social life, too," Leitao said with a laugh. "So I went over to management."

Technically, Leitao earned a degree in Business Administration, but he soon became a basketball coach willing to take on big projects where the high rewards outweighed the high risks.

Together with Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, who recruited and coached him at Northeastern, Leitao built the Connecticut program that has captured two of the last seven NCAA championships. Among the players whom Leitao helped to recruit? The top two finishers in this year's NBA rookie of the year balloting, Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon.

In 2002, after spending 14 seasons alongside Calhoun at UConn, Leitao took over a tumbling DePaul program that hadn't won a conference title in 10 years or an NCAA Tournament game in 13 years. Within 23 months, Leitao's Blue Demons had earned one of each and placed the program on solid footing for its move into the Big East.

But on April 15, after patiently weighing the pros and cons of the job for nearly a month, Leitao accepted what figures to be the biggest management challenge of his career: returning Virginia basketball to the upper echelon of the ACC, where NCAA bids are givens and national titles a distinct possibility.

Can Leitao deliver on this premise? Build the Old Dominion a team worthy of the $150 million John Paul Jones Arena, which is scheduled to open in Charlottesville next year?

If anyone knows the answers, it's Calhoun, who essentially has been the father figure in Leitao's life since he recruited him to Northeastern.

"He is polished and very classy," Calhoun said. "He knows what it is to take over a program that seems like an ill fit. He knows what it is to come into a tough situation. We're the only two components who came (to Connecticut) in 1986. He's a special guy. He's a winner. I have no doubt Dave is going to succeed."


Calhoun Provided Blueprint

Though Calhoun spoke those words in the days following Leitao's move from Connecticut to DePaul, they are no less true today. For if there's a program that looks like DePaul circa 2002, it hails from Charlottesville and wears orange and blue.

The Blue Demons of three years ago boasted a roster filled with talent, but lacking in victories and devoid of discipline or structure. The Cavaliers of 2005 boast a roster laden with talent, starting with rising sophomore point guard Sean Singletary (an ACC all-freshman selection last season), but lacking wins, discipline and structure.

Leitao, with little name recognition upon his arrival in Chicago, took over a nine-win team at DePaul and immediately hopscotched to 16 wins and an NIT berth. The next year, the Demons earned 22 wins, including a first-round NCAA Tournament victory.

The new Virginia coach won't guarantee improvement over last year's 14-15 mark with the Cavaliers, but he promises to work from the same sketches that led to DePaul's revival.

"It's similar from the standpoint that you've got to get your fingerprints on the program," Leitao said. "There's a mindset of how you want things done and how you want your program to look. There are some things that are out of place a little bit – mindsets that are fragmented and things like that. That's going to allow me to use some of the same blueprints."

Many of those blueprints are virtual copies of the set Calhoun and Leitao used long ago to transform Connecticut from moribund to monstrous.

One idea to be imported from Storrs is the mandatory team breakfasts from the start of school in the fall until the season's end in March (or April). Just as at UConn and DePaul, Leitao will ensure that at least one academic adviser, one trainer and one coach will be on-hand at eight o'clock each morning.

"There was nobody here (in the coaches' office) for an extended period of time," said new Virginia assistant Gene Cross, who joined Leitao in the move from DePaul. "So we're going to need that even more. We want to make sure everyone's in the fold and going in the right direction."

"We started that (11 or 12) years ago, and it has been very successful in keeping contact with the guys and knowing what they're doing every single day," Leitao said. "It also gets them up in the morning and eating in a nutritional way."


Sun Tzu: Defense, Discipline

While the breakfasts are designed mainly to help the players' bodies, Leitao plans to focus much of his work on the players' minds.

How might he accomplish that? Well, Virginia players wishing to get a head start might want to check out a copy of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" from the university library.

Leitao, who'll keep his copy of the book on his office shelves whenever he finishes unpacking, long ago devoured the 2,400-year-old tome, which is regarded as the world's oldest military treatise.

"I read it for me," Leitao said, "and for what I could bring to my players. It's all about getting that edge. Let's face it. In basketball, there are always going to be winners and losers. You might as well be a winner."

Sun Tzu was Leitao's kind of guy, someone who examined every angle before striking. Sun Tzu's writings declare that when generals can answer the "seven considerations," they can predict which side will win a battle.

While some of those considerations are obvious – "Which army is stronger?" "Which of the two generals has most ability?" – the one that was most relevant to DePaul (and Virginia) is No. 4 on Mr. Tzu's list:

"On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced?"

During coach Pat Kennedy's five years at DePaul, the Blue Demons were never the correct answer to that question. During coach Pete Gillen's seven years at Virginia, the Cavaliers' laxness often came into play on defense and under the boards.

That won't be the case under Leitao. If he can't find five guys willing to play defense, he might not take the court with a full team.

"Defend and rebound," Cross said. "Defend and rebound."

Throughout Leitao's three seasons at DePaul, he always worried about his primarily man-to-man defense before anything else.

"A positive mindset, in my mind," Leitao said, "is always connected to what you do on that end of the floor first."


NFW = No (#*&%-ing) Way

When there's a disconnect in that area, Leitao can become more negative than an electron. That explained his tactics after DePaul's performance in its first exhibition game last season.

When St. Xavier, an NAIA school, scored 45 points after halftime on 54 percent shooting from the field, Leitao and his staff "reorganized" their practice plans. The day after the St. Xavier game, the Blue Demons practiced nothing but defense. Same thing in their next practice. And the practice after that.

Not until six days after St. Xavier did DePaul again work on some offensive sets. And if Virginia's players don't like Leitao's stance on defense, they're going to hate his preferences when it comes to toughness and rebounding.

Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor learned how Leitao likes to play on Jan. 2, when his NCAA-bound squad took a loss and a beating at DePaul. The Blue Demons dove for loose balls, banged aggressively in the post and scrapped so hard in general – and particularly in the second half, when the game broke open – that one ODU player required stitches for a cut mouth and another needed a timeout to tend to his bleeding cheek.

"It was an unusually physical game," Taylor said afterward, with a telling sigh. "It was very difficult for us to establish much around the basket. You needed to show up with your headgear on."

In other words, DePaul played as if it belonged in the NFL. Coincidentally, Leitao employs a three-letter slogan to describe the ideal mindset for his teams.

It's not quite NFL, but it's close: NFW. The first letter stands for "No." The last letter stands for "Way." The middle letter can be deciphered by anyone with a pottymouth.

"It's been around Connecticut for (more than) 15 years," Leitao said. "That's the unofficial slogan when you need to make a stop or the other team's making a charge. I've been saying it to these guys all year."

Leitao decided that his first team at DePaul finally "got it" late in the season, when the Demons fought for an overtime upset of then-No. 15 Louisville. He got so fired up by the way his players stood up for themselves, he celebrated the win by grabbing a magic marker and scrawling the magic letters (actually, in his haste, he wrote "NWF") on the locker room's greaseboard.

"It means no matter what you have to do, get the job done and win the game," said then-DePaul senior forward Sam Hoskin. "It's just a swagger, an attitude you walk with. Like, when you step on the floor, it's the charisma that you have that you're going to win the game. Like an air about yourself."

The funny thing about Hoskin's last idea? Leitao might be the last coach to walk around with an air about himself.

Much of the time, particularly during the offseason, he lives up to Calhoun's "polished" billing. He tends toward quiet time, measured tones and thoughtful conversation.

But during a practice or a game, Leitao has been known to surrender his cool to put across his message.


UVa Support Backs Intensity

During his first game on the DePaul sidelines – an exhibition at that – senior Joe Tulley and sophomore Quemont Greer failed to rush back to prevent a three-on-one situation that became a layup. Leitao jumped off the bench and screamed: "Timeout! Timeout! Two lazy guys!" He then stared holes through Tulley and Greer as they walked toward the huddle.

During Leitao's second season at DePaul, when he didn't get a foul call he wanted late in a 20-point rally to win at conference rival Saint Louis, he spiked his water bottle on the court hard enough to make it bounce four feet in the air. During a home game in non-conference play, Leitao registered his disenchantment with an official by kicking the scorer's table.

In practice, the coach boasted a variety of ways to motivate his players. When one starter complained during a drill, Leitao blasted him with the first line from a lengthy motivational poem he memorized years ago:

"Excuses are the tools of the incompetent!" he screamed.

When the player kept complaining, Leitao switched tactics and splattered him with profanity. That did the trick.

That player went on to become the No. 1 scorer on DePaul's NCAA team, then spent 2004-05 as the No. 1 scorer in Serbia's SuperLeague. Now the Boston Celtics have invited him to fight for a job this summer.

"Coach always says he wants me to play to my full potential every day," said then-senior forward Delonte Holland, the starter in question. "Some days, I may not be focused and he's on top of me. I think he has definitely helped me to become a good player."

These are only some of the things Leitao brings with him to Virginia, but here's the best part for Wahoo fans: Virginia is getting an even better version of Leitao than the one who showed up in Chicago three years ago.

"I grew tremendously in every aspect at DePaul," Leitao said. "Whether it was preparation-wise, motivationally, strategically – both coaching the game and every day in the office."

This time around, Leitao also knows he has the resources and the interest to build his program as big as it can become.

At DePaul, where Leitao loved the personal nature of the close-knit Catholic school if not its thin bottom lines, he had to fight to end the practice of five-hour bus rides after weeknight road games. At Virginia, Leitao and his staff have a private jet at their disposal for recruiting, and the school plans to spend $7 million alone on the new arena's video equipment and sound system.

DePaul had to fight Chicago's professional teams – not to mention several other colleges – for space in the newspapers and time on newscasts. Upon his arrival at Virginia, Leitao discovered, in his first month on the job, that he had been scheduled for 12-15 speaking engagements across the state. He gladly did the tour and hoped his dry, deadpan sense of humor washed over the UVa faithful.

"I enjoy talking to people," Leitao said. "I know they're not as familiar with me as with somebody else. Plus, I get to articulate my vision, my plan.

"This is different (than DePaul) and it's a challenge. But if anybody has pride in what they do, they want to be challenged. I want to be challenged."

Lindsey Willhite covered DePaul basketball for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald during Leitao's tenure with the Blue Demons.