Talk to Dave Leitao, the 2007 ACC Men's Basketball Coach of the Year, about his basketball philosophy for any length of time and the word "structure" is sure to pass his lips more than once. Implying as it does something solidly built on a firm foundation following a carefully crafted plan, it's an apt description of his basketball vision - and of his own life.
With Virginia having moved into its own new structure, the John Paul Jones Arena, for the 2006-07 season, the Cavaliers appear to have the architect to build a basketball program to match their stylish new home. Having served a successful apprenticeship under Hall-of-Fame head coach Jim Calhoun at the University of Connecticut (and earlier, Northeastern University), then stepping out on his own to renovate a flagging DePaul program into a consistent winner, the 47-year-old Leitao came to Virginia to return the 'Hoos to the national spotlight.
The conditions in Charlottesville in 2005 struck Leitao as similar to those he and Calhoun found in Storrs, Conn., in 1986 and that he inherited in Chicago in 2002. "Those two programs were in about the same ballpark as this program is in now," he said shortly after his arrival. "Had success. Has some tradition. In a good league with some great coaches, with a lot to sell and a lot to offer. The program is not destitute, but it needs some fixing. Those are pretty good ingredients for success."
Leitao, who was also the 2007 National Association of Basketball Coaches District 5 Coach of the Year, certainly knows success. In 21 seasons as an assistant or head coach before coming to Virginia, his teams qualified for postseason play 18 times, including all three of his seasons at DePaul. As an associate head coach at Connecticut, he helped lead the Huskies to the 1999 national championship game, where they defeated Duke, 77-74, in a thriller. The list of future National Basketball Association standouts he helped recruit and coach at UConn includes Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Emeka Okafor, Donyell Marshall, Clifford Robinson, Jake Voskuhl, Travis Knight, Scott Burrell, Caron Butler, Khalid El-Amin, Tate George, Donny Marshall and Kevin Ollie.
Leitao's first two Virginia teams have added to that successful legacy. The Cavaliers tied for the 2006-07 Atlantic Coast Conference regular season championship with a conference record of 11-5, advanced to the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament and compiled an overall record of 21-11. UVa was picked to finish eighth in the conference in the preseason. It's the first 20-win season and NCAA Tournament appearance for the Cavaliers since 2000-01. It's also the most conference wins in a season for the program since 1994-95 when Virginia finished 12-4. UVa defeated four teams ranked in The Associated Press Top-25 during the 2006-07 regular season. The Cavaliers were 16-1 at home, the most home victories in a season in the history of the Virginia men's basketball program.
In Leitao's first season at Virginia in 2005-06, the Cavaliers finished the regular season tied for seventh in the ACC standings after being picked to finish last in the 12-team conference during the preseason. Virginia won seven conference games, three more than the previous year. UVa also won its opening round game in the ACC Tournament and returned to postseason play with a bid to the National Invitation Tournament. Among the Cavaliers' victories were home wins over a North Carolina team coming off a national championship and ranked 24th in the nation, and 11th-ranked Boston College.
"When you take over a program, one of the immediate things you have to do is create an identity," Leitao said. "You have to look like something and I thought we started to head in that direction in terms of having people, either our opponents or other coaches or our fan base, understand that if you're going to play Virginia they're going to play the game a certain way. So I think from that standpoint we can look back at that season and say we began to do some positive things in that direction."
But that's just basketball. Though the sport is certainly Leitao's passion, he has enough perspective to know that life is not measured only in winning percentages and scoring averages, championships and pro contracts. That's why he accepted an opportunity to participate in "Operation Hardwood III," a tour to Japan sponsored by the USO and Armed Forces Entertainment. During the tour in late August of 2006, Leitao coached military players competing in a championship tournament and visited sailors aboard a ship in the region.
"It was with great pride and honor that I participated in a program that provided support for our military personnel," Leitao said. "I believe this is a critical time in our nation's history and if I could lift the spirits of our troops through the game of basketball I was happy to do so."
He followed up that trip by taking his Virginia team to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit with injured soldiers and Marines before a game at Maryland in January of 2007.
He sees his mission as molding solid, successful people, even more than churning out NBA All-Stars.
"When you recruit players, you have the ability to create a relationship," he said. "For me, you have as much - in a lot of cases, more - pride in guys who don't show up on NBA rosters; people who you've helped mature, helped grow, seen make mistakes and get back up, and eventually become husbands and fathers.
"Eventually, through a little bit of what you are able to do, you see a growth process, from boys to men who are able to lead productive lives."
That's not a surprising stance coming from Leitao, given the succession of people who have helped guide his life - beginning with his four older sisters, two of whom played college basketball themselves; a next-door neighbor, Peter Britto, who served as his godfather; the priest who ran Holy Family, the small Catholic high school he attended, and helped look after him during his senior year, after the rest of his family moved to California; and an assistant coach from his playing days at Northeastern, Dr. J. Keith Motley, who recently served as interim chancellor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. He remains in regular contact with all of them.
Calhoun, though, has been the overriding mentor, beginning when he recruited Leitao, a skinny, 6-foot-7 forward, out of New Bedford, Mass., to play at Northeastern. Calhoun gave Leitao his start in coaching, hiring him as an assistant at Northeastern; two years later, he brought him along to Connecticut, sharing his big break with his young aide. He helped Leitao land his first head coaching job, back at Northeastern; after his second team there staggered to a 4-24 record, he took him back as an associate head coach, allowing him to rebuild his credentials until DePaul came calling.
"When you are around people like that on a day-to-day basis, you don't even have to try to learn as much as you just absorb," Leitao said.
"Just watching and being around somebody who has the passion that he has for young people, for the sport, and for winning, gave me early on, even as a player - without even knowing it - a foundation to build from."
That foundation includes caring for players, insisting upon doing hings the right way, instilling discipline and teamwork, and fostering a family atmosphere. It means lending a sympathetic ear when needed, and a swift kick in the rear if necessary.
"A lot of times it's father, it's brother, it's confidant. You wear a lot of hats," Leitao said. "You are a psychologist, you're a teacher, a lawyer, you're a lot of different things to these guys. And I think that is what makes it so special, that you're not just wearing the hat of a basketball coach."
That firm philosophical foundation finds its on-court expression most clearly on the defensive end of the floor, where Leitao demands that his players give maximum effort.
"It's almost like parenting - there are core values that you have to have," he said. "For what I've learned and what I think is necessary, it's structure, it's discipline, and all of those things start on the defensive end.
"If you look at any sport, defense is what wins championships and wins at the highest level. If you have good pitching and good fielding, you're going to win a lot of games in baseball. The greatest coaches in football have had great defenses. Those go down in history. It's the same in the sport of basketball. It's what I learned and it's what we believe in."
Though he would prefer to have a team that is athletic enough to blanket its opponents with a stifling man-to-man defense, he's not inflexible about it. "I want to win games. If it means you play zone for 40 minutes and at the end of the day you win, that's what I believe in," he said. "So we'll play a little bit of whatever is necessary at the time, but it will be rooted in man-to-man."
Leitao's defensive emphasis paid dividends for Virginia in 2005-06. The Cavaliers' points allowed per game average dropped from 76.0 points a game in 2004-05 to 67.7 in 2005-06, an improvement of 8.3 points a game. Virginia's field goal percentage defense average dropped by over a percentage point from 44.8 percent in 2004-05 to 43.5 percent in 2005-06. UVa also improved dramatically in the area of rebounding. In 2004-05, the Cavaliers' average rebounding margin was -2.0 compared to +4.6 a in 2005-06. Virginia finished third in the ACC in rebounding margin and three-point field goal percentage defense (32.7 percent), and fifth in scoring defense in 2005-06.
"Yes there was a significant amount of progress made in those areas, but if we're going to go where my vision wants to take us, then we still have a lot of room for improvement," Leitao said. "We can still play defense a whole lot better and be more dedicated to it for longer stretches of time. We still want to be a better rebounding team than what we were in 2005-06. So we've tried to work hard in those areas to shore up and get better, but I think part of that comes with experience. When we started preparing for the 2006-07 season, those were two areas we concentrated on, as we will every year."
That effort has paid off. In conference games during the 2006-07 regular season, Virginia finished first in field goal percentage defense (.408), third in three-point field goal percentage defense (.339), fourth in scoring defense (70.8) and fourth in rebounding margin (+1.9). In all games, the Cavaliers ranked second in the conference in field goal percentage defense (.408) and fourth in rebounding margin (+4.5).
His real flexibility, however, will come on the offensive end. His years under Calhoun have taught him that it is up to the coach to adapt to his players, and not the other way around. "I thought at one time you coach a certain way and everybody adjusts to what you do," Leitao said. "[Calhoun has] been a bit of a chameleon as far as that goes, and it's given me the proper and a very good perspective on how to deal year-to-year on what's in front of you, and knowing that you have to adjust."
Leitao was aware improvement needed to be made offensively by the Cavaliers.
'We had two very good offensive players in 2005-06 in Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds, but it's probably the one area where we did not do very well," Leitao said. "We were near or at the bottom of the league in a lot of offensive categories. That gave all of us something to work on during the summer in order to improve. Part of that is to recruit more offensive players and I think we did, to some extent, in the incoming class for the fall of 2006. We also have to take care of the basketball better, get more easy baskets and respect offense more."
In all games during the 2006-07 regular season, Virginia finished first in the ACC in three-point field goals made (8.03 pg.), second in free throw percentage (.742) and fourth in scoring offense (77.0).
"I think a lot of coaches - and I'm one of them - like to spread the floor, get up and down and be exciting for your players and be exciting for your fans. As long as you know you're going to defend people, I think that's the best way to play," he said. "But you've got to be able to read your personnel and adjust accordingly."
That kind of wisdom - when to compromise, when to stand firm - has been well earned over an interesting basketball life.
Leitao was an average player - fundamentally sound, of course - at Northeastern from 1978 until 1982, posting 6.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per game over his career. The teams he played on compiled a 79-34 record, reaching the NCAA Tournament in each of his last two seasons. The Huskies even advanced to the second round in 1982 before losing to Villanova in a triple-overtime game, with Leitao on the floor for 54 of a possible 55 minutes.
He hung around another year to complete his degree in business administration, then moved to California to rejoin his family and look for work. He cleaned offices, made telemarketing calls and managed a record store. He was on his way to a second-shift job when Calhoun called.
"We caught up for a little while, and then he asked me if I would be interested in coaching," Leitao recalled. "I told him yes. He said to give him a call back in three or four days. I called him back the next day." He got the job and started work immediately - not as a graduate assistant or director of basketball operations, more typical entry-level positions for a young coach, but as a full-fledged assistant.
"He was a two-year captain, the kind of guy that I relied upon," Calhoun said. "He was probably as cerebral a player as I've ever had. I saw that even as a young player. He brings more to the table than Xs and Os and recruiting, all of which he is great at. He is the kind of person who epitomized our program, as a player and as a coach. He is what our players at UConn, and Northeastern before that, should be about. No higher compliment could I give him."
Calhoun's success at Northeastern continued, with a combined record of 48-14 over the next two seasons and two more NCAA trips. That drew the attention of Connecticut, which offered Calhoun the chance to revive its program in the powerful Big East. Calhoun invited Leitao to come along.
"I started right out by trial and error, and with only two years worth of experience, he went to Connecticut and he had enough faith in me to take me with him," Leitao said. "To even be allowed on the road full-time - never mind to be at a Big East school, with his coaching life on the line, having to compete against the powers that be, the Georgetowns and St. John's and Syracuses of the world, the Villanovas - his belief in what he either thought I was doing or could do was tremendous. I look back on it now, and it's something that I admire him for - being in this chair and knowing how difficult it would be to have someone very young and inexperienced responsible for a lot of your successes."
Calhoun said the choice was easy. "To take him to UConn, with the kind of quality person he is, was really simple," he said.
Their first season in Storrs was rocky, a 9-19 record in a Big East that was stacked with three teams that had reached the Final Four the previous year. But the Huskies improved by 11 wins the next season and captured the postseason National Invitation Tournament championship, and they were off and running, reaching the postseason for seven straight seasons under Calhoun and Leitao. In 1990, UConn posted 31 wins in advancing to the NCAA Elite Eight. There were also a couple of Sweet 16 appearances mixed in.
As UConn's profile rose, so did Leitao's. He gained a reputation as an up-and-coming young coach, a talented recruiter. Northeastern, looking for someone linked to a more successful era after going 5-22 in 1993-94, asked Leitao, then 33, to come back and coach his alma mater.
It looked like a wise decision in the first year, as Leitao led the Huskies to an 18-11 record and a spot in the North Atlantic Conference Tournament championship game, the biggest turnaround in the country that season. But the following year, the 1995-96 season, the bottom fell out; Northeastern, its roster decimated by injuries and suspensions, posted just four wins in 28 games.
"I learned probably more in that year than I learned in any one year, just again about what to do and what not to do through adversity," Leitao said. "I always tell young guys now that we can get to know each other pretty well right now, but it's not until we face some extreme adversity that you really show your true colors."
It was a time of constant self-examination. "You have to be resilient. You have to keep fighting and find a way, or find a better way," he said. "You're really tested in everything that you thought and felt confident in, things that have worked time and time again and suddenly don't work. At that time, you want to change everything about what you've done. And it's at that time that you have to become stronger in your beliefs and the things that have gotten you to that point.
"Unfortunately, many coaches go through that. It brings about some self-doubt. You override it with confidence. When you're losing, it's hard to override that self-doubt with a tremendous amount of confidence. But you've got to find a way to do that. You've got to find a way to stick to your guns."
Leaning heavily upon his network of mentors, Leitao survived the year. Then Calhoun called to pick Leitao's brain about another opening on his staff; he wanted someone who could fill Leitao's former role.
"The more we talked, the more we got to the point where it was appealing for me to consider it," Leitao said. "It was so unconventional, but the more I sat down and contemplated it, the more it made sense."
"He felt like things kind of changed at Northeastern," Calhoun recalled. "He wanted to win a national championship, just like I wanted to win a national championship. And of course, we did."
Leitao knew that returning to a subordinate role on Calhoun's bench - even with the title of associate head coach - might mean never getting another chance to lead his own program.
"At that time, I didn't know anybody else who had done anything like that. Now, it happens a little bit more," he said. "But if I hadn't made that move, I wouldn't be where I am right now."
The national championship came three years later, in 1999. Leitao's first reaction was to be happy for Calhoun, the man he first met as a high school senior 22 years earlier.
"And then it strengthened my resolve in what I learned in that year in '96 - that you have to stick to your guns, that better days are ahead, and all the things that go along with that."
Leitao spent three more seasons sitting alongside Calhoun on the UConn bench - and making three more trips to the postseason - before he finally got his second chance at a head coaching job. DePaul, formerly a national power but out of the postseason for two straight years - the Blue Demons didn't even qualify for their own conference tournament in 2002 - was willing to gamble that Leitao would be better prepared the second time around.
And he was.
"After what I had been through - coming back, all those things- my resolve had strengthened to the point where I knew," he said. "Certain things that I thought about before, this time I knew. I thought before if we could do this we'd be successful; now, I know if we do that we'll be successful. That was the biggest change mentally; it allowed me to feel confident that if you put certain things in place, then good things can happen."
True to his values, Leitao's first DePaul team emphasized defense. For only the third time in the past two decades, the Demons limited their opponents to an average of less than 65 points per game, and held them to just 42 percent shooting from the field. They quadrupled their conference win total, from two to eight - including a thrilling upset of then-No. 9 Louisville - and improved by seven wins overall. Their effort was rewarded with a trip to the 2003 NIT.
The next year, DePaul shared the Conference USA regular-season championship (with an amazing four other teams) and claimed the top seed in the CUSA tournament. They reached the final, then earned their first NCAA invitation in four years and their highest seed since 1992. The Blue Demons won their NCAA opener, setting up a clash with none other than Calhoun and Connecticut. UConn won that meeting en route to Calhoun's second national championship.
Leitao's third DePaul team posted 20 wins for the second straight year and reached the second round of the NIT, confirming his staying power in one of the toughest conferences in the country and leading to Virginia's courtship.
He was intrigued by the opportunity that U.Va. offered - and not just because of the basketball program's potential. "I really don't know that America knows or understands the value that this school possesses," he said. "I look at it as a challenge to make more and more people find that out through basketball - about its basketball programs, about its athletics programs, about its academic structure, about everything that makes this school the great school that it is."
He's certainly not cowed by the challenge of coaching against the likes of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina's Roy Williams, Maryland's Gary Williams and Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt. After all, he and Calhoun faced down John Thompson, Jim Boeheim, Lou Carnesecca and Rollie Massimino at UConn; at DePaul, he took on Louisville's Rick Pitino, Memphis' John Calipari, Cincinnati's Bob Huggins and Marquette's Tom Crean. He respects their accomplishments, but he relishes the challenge of breaking into their ranks.
"Are you afraid that you're going up against guys who have these names?" Leitao asked rhetorically. "Those are some terrific teams, terrific coaches and terrific programs, but we wouldn't have it any other way."
Calhoun predicts that Leitao will thrive in the ACC.
"I truly believe he will get Virginia in the thick of the fight for the ACC championship and bring them back to national prominence," he said. "He's a terrific coach, and with all that said, probably a better person."
Since his arrival in Charlottesville, Leitao has thrown himself into his job. He is conscious of his status as Virginia's first African-American head coach in any sport, an accomplishment he listed as among the proudest of his life in one newspaper interview, but is even more conscious of his role as arguably the University's most visible face.
"That's why it's so important to do things in the proper way," he said. "You're not just representing yourself, or the people around you, or the basketball program. You're representing a university; you're representing a state. Oftentimes what you do affects all of those other entities, so you've got to make sure you are true to who you are and what you do, and be consistent."
The proper way. Consistency. Structure. Dave Leitao is in this for the long haul.
Year School Record Postseason
1984-85 Northeastern 22-9 NCAA First Round
1985-86 Northeastern 26-5 NCAA First Round
Assistant Coach, 2 years, 48-14 (.774)