DePaul coach draws plenty of high praise

For weeks now, we’ve heard Dave Leitao’s name a jillion times in relation to Virginia’s basketball coaching vacancy.

But what do we really know about the man? Well, he grew up under the wing of Connecticut’s Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun and rebuilt the DePaul program after cleaning up its academic train wreck left in the wake of former coach Pat Kennedy’s tenure.

Votes of confidence

To find out more about Leitao, who will almost certainly become Virginia’s new basketball coach, we went to two people who know him well.

George Washington University coach Karl Hobbs has known Leitao since their high school days in the Boston area. Basketball recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons, one of the most respected gurus of talent, has known Leitao since the coach arrived at UConn with Calhoun back in the day.

If Leitao is looking for good references for his r?sum?, he should list Hobbs and Gibbons.

“As far as a person, they don’t come any better,” said Hobbs, who was on the same UConn staff as Leitao for eight years. “As far as a coach, he’s excellent. His record at DePaul speaks to that. He was part of the whole process in turning UConn into a national power.”

Described as a tireless worker, Hobbs has admired how his longtime friend turned things around at DePaul. The program had fallen upon hard times and the academic side of the basketball team was in shambles prior to Leitao’s arrival.

“He brought some discipline,” Hobbs said. “He brought a work ethic and more importantly, he brought accountability to that program. He made kids accountable for what they did on and off the court and academically.”

Gibbons knows practically every head coach in the country and every recruiter, so he’s been familiar with Leitao for a long time. In fact, Leitao has spent the night at Gibbons’ home in western North Carolina from where they journeyed to Oak Hill Academy together to check out Steve Smith’s basketball-rich program.

Discipline guaranteed

Gibbons paints Leitao as a “players’ coach,” but don’t let that fool you. The guy believes in discipline as Hobbs mentioned.

“He works his players hard but they relate to him well,” Gibbons said. “I think his persona is like Jim Calhoun’s. He’s not a guy who is going to berate players publicly, but I think he will have a strong code of ethics and kids will adhere to them … and he will recruit the kinds of kids who will adhere to them.”

The recruiting analyst, who will be in Charlottesville in early May for the annual Southern Invitational, an assembly of some of the best high school talent on the east coast, believes that coaches can’t change players’ personalities once they hit the college level. So, if there’s a selfish kid, self-centered and focused on getting to the NBA that is a detriment to the team, some coaches struggle to deal with such problems.

Not Leitao.

“Dave’s not going to recruit those kinds of kids,” Gibbons

said. “He will avoid those type of individuals.”

Not only is the 43-year-old Leitao a good coach (58-34 in three seasons at DePaul), but he’s a good recruiter in the estimation of Hobbs and Gibbons.

“I’ll tell you what,” said Hobbs. “I think that’s one of the major assets Dave will bring to Virginia should he take the job.”

Gibbons agreed.

“I think he will broaden Virginia’s recruiting base because he has connections from coast-to-coast,” Gibbons said.

Because UConn recruits nationally and obviously has strong recognition in the northeast corridor of the country that could only enhance UVa’s efforts. In addition, Leitao recruited well at DePaul – his incoming recruiting class is ranked among the top 20 nationally – and he has ties to California.

“He’s well-connected from his experiences at UConn,” Gibbons said. “His best players at DePaul came out of Michigan. In fact, he beat out Michigan State for Wilson Chandler.”

For those recruiting challenged souls out there, Chandler is a 6-foot-8 forward who was named the state of Michigan’s “Mr. Basketball” this past season. He was a third-team Parade All-American and Gibbons voted for him as a McDonald’s All-American, though he didn’t make that team.

Waiting for decision

What has folks back at DePaul a bit miffed about Leitao’s courtship by Virginia is that the Blue Demons’ recruiting class is on hold because of the probable move.

“Wilson Chandler is very concerned because Coach Leitao is the coach he wants to play for,” said Chandler’s high school coach Ramsey Nichols.

Chandler was recruited by Michigan State, UConn, Ohio State, Indiana, Florida and Purdue.

Meanwhile, two more recruits, 6-4 Jabari Currie, the Detroit Player of the Year, and guard Rashad Woods of Houston, are also wondering if their coach will be in Lincoln Park or Charlottesville after this weekend.

“I think that Virginia can recruit in a broader geographic area than it could previously if Dave takes the job,” Gibbons said.

While Leitao appears to be a dynamic guy with a strong work ethic who is driven to succeed and as a solid recruiter with a good reputation, he’s also a good guy.

“He has no ego,” Gibbons said. “He’s very down to earth. He motivates his players well. He’s a former player himself for Calhoun at Northeastern. And he’s a totally devoted family man who loves to spend time with his kids and who cares about his players.

“If I had a son who was talented enough to play Division I basketball, I would want him to play for Dave Leitao,” Gibbons said.

You can’t get a much stronger endorsement than that from a guy who knows the coaching profession inside and out.

Calhoun’s influence

Obviously the biggest influence on Leitao’s coaching career and a strong influence on his life has been Calhoun. He played for Calhoun, coached under Calhoun. He knows how to win and what it takes to win a national championship because of Calhoun. He was UConn’s chief recruiter during the building of the Huskies’ rise to national prominence.

Sounds like a Calhoun clone.

“I think that pretty much sums it up,” Gibbons said. “He’s maybe not as intense as Calhoun. Well, maybe he is, but he displays it in a quieter way.”

Hobbs said that description of Leitao is accurate.

“He’s not a true clone,” the GW coach said. “His personality is different than Jim’s, but I guess you could say he’s a clone in the way he goes about his business, his work ethic and style of play. Yes, he is a clone in that regard.”

The comments should warm the hearts of Wahoo fans, many of which were concerned that the UVa program and the ACC might be more than the new coach could chew. Not if you believe in Gibbons.

“I think the Virginia fans will grow to love him,” Gibbons said. “I know this is a big challenge, but Virginia has made an excellent choice. He’s a perfect fit.”

He had better be. There’s an awful lot riding on Leitao’s shoulders.

Contact Jerry Ratcliffe at (434) 978-7251 or [email protected].