Monday, March 16, 2009

soapboxing: the Dave Leitao Fired edition

Let's get one thing straight first: Dave Leitao did not resign. Not in your humble blogger's opinion. For a college basketball coach, few jobs are more prestigious or pay better than an ACC head coaching position. You get one of those, you're in like Flynn. What coach alive would go to his boss and say, hey, I don't think I'm earning my paycheck here and I'd like to quit and by the way yes I would like that $2.1 million buyout also? I don't for a minute believe that this was Leitao's idea. So this post is written with that in mind.

And I don't agree with the firing. At all. As I've said repeatedly in the past, Leitao's had to try and deal with having three freshmen playing all the key minutes at all the key positions, as well as the ice-cold shooting touch from players who were supposed to be shooters, and a bunch of players with more minutes than their talent would indicate because of poor play from those that should have been higher on the depth chart.

I'm fully aware of the criticisms, by the way. Leitao's a drill sergeant. He refuses to talk to his players. He can't coach offense. Can't develop players (except for that Singletary guy who managed to become an NBAer under his tutelage.) I'm also fully of the belief that practically all of these are overblown to some extent. Not nonexistent, but overblown. Even in the slamjob WaPo article where Mamadi Diane's father ripped Leitao left right and center, Mo himself seemed to try and back away from those comments.

As for coaching offense, there's no denying it stunk, but the players couldn't shoot. They just could not shoot. Shooting is something you teach to 6th-graders. By the time you get to college, you can either shoot or you can't. Leitao didn't come in to practice with a Shot Sucker and suck the ability to hit a three-pointer out of guys who previously could. The inability to hit a jump shot doomed the offense from the get-go. Unless Leitao actively coaches poor shooting techniques - unlikely, as his DePaul squads improved their shooting while he was there - he's not the primary culprit in the poor offensive performance.

I'd have liked to see a postseason-or-bust ultimatum given to Leitao for next season. The pieces are there for us to take a tremendous leap. Sylven Landesberg returns, or at least was going to when last asked. He's not so happy about the firing and while I still think he stays (his game isn't quite NBA-ready yet and he could really help his draft position with another year or two of seasoning) it wouldn't surprise me if he at least had a second thought or two. The kids have been through the gauntlet once and will be veterans. I expect Zeglinski to still be up-and-down at the point, but more up than down instead of vice versa like we saw this year. So many ACC teams will be rebuilding in '09-'10 and we won't be.

Leitao ought to have been given the chance to see it through. Because the question for me is, other than a couple unimportant nonconference losses, what about this year failed to meet expectations? I'd love to see the answer to that. What couldn't we see coming? Would 12-16 instead of 10-18 have been enough to save Leitao's job? Was this supposed to be a team good enough for the NIT? No. 4-12 is about what we guessed we might see once we decided to be honest with ourselves. If that's bad enough to fire the coach, then it should have happened before the season. If the difference is we weren't supposed to lose to Liberty and Auburn, then it should have happened then. After a bad season that was supposed to be bad but before one with realistic expectations of improvement is not the time to fire the coach.

But, he's fired and that's that. So where do we go? For starters we have to do damage control with the current players, who are "kind of in a haze." Not a good reaction if you're hoping to avoid transfers and/or leaps to the NBA. Second, we have to do damage control with Tristan Spurlock, whose relationship with this staff went back a looooong way. Jontel Evans is likely to stay but Spurlock is the prize of the class. They've signed their LOI's, of course, but they can always request a release. Third, we have to do damage control with the 2010 recruits. I'd like to think we looked good for the services of Eric Atkins and Mychal Parker. All in all though I think our recruiting just got sent to jail without passing Go or collecting $200. Fail to roll doubles on the first try as we do our coaching search, and we're in trouble.

Speaking of coaching searches....yes, we're going to have to put ourselves through that. The top three names bandied about today are Jeff Capel of Oklahoma, Tubby Smith of Minnesota, and Sean Miller of Xavier. The common thread there is that all three of them are coaching in the tournament and the NCAA says hands off until they're done. That's well and good - we want coaches who can get to the tournament after all - but the problem is that Craig Littlepage has just done something rather impetuous and needs to hit a quick grand slam with this hire or be known as the guy who sent UVA basketball into a decade-long downward spiral with his coaching hire-and-fire patterns. And of those three, I think the only one we have a real shot at is Tubby. It's well known that it wouldn't be the first time we'd talked with the man. Not only that, but his Minnesota squad, which he's done an admirable job of resurrecting, is the lowest-ranked and the likely earliest exit. Capel and Miller head up a 2-seed and 4-seed, respectively; at first glance I'd have to say they'd both be crazy to leave for a reconstruction job, ACC or not. Oklahoma is a relative newcomer to the powerhouse game, but to many eyes Xavier would be considered a bigger-time program than we would despite the conference affiliations; Xavier's been to eight NCAA tournaments this decade and two Elite Eights, and it's not all Sean Miller's doing.

To my mind, the best-case, pie-in-the-sky scenario would be for Texas to dispatch Minnesota on Thursday, freeing up UVA's reps to go have a chat with Tubby Smith the very next day and get a deal done by the end of next week. If Tubby really is the guy they want, would we be willing to wait if Minnesota upsets the Dookies and makes it to the Sweet 16 for another week of tournament play? That's why Littlepage makes the big bux. If no Tubby, then my best guess is we'll be forced to take another chance on a coach from a lower-profile school (and by "another" I mean "DePaul is not a big-time high-profile place I don't care if they are in the Big East.") Perhaps Siena's Fran McCaffrey or BYU's Dave Rose, though I'm just tossing out names of coaches who've brought success to their programs and not out of any real connection with the ACC or the state of Virginia.

Regardless, one last word remains: Thanks. As in, thanks Coach Leitao for your service to the University. In my opinion Leitao's a stand-up guy - let's not forget his trips to the war zone to entertain the troops, nor the fact that he worked his tail off for four years for this team. It should have been more than four years, but it's water under the bridge now. Time to roll up the sleeves and get busy rumormongering and tracking plane flights.

1 comment:

gandolph said...

I just wrote a blog that (I claim) answers why UVa thought it made sense to fire Leitao, but not Groh (although he's next). Please check it out: