Dave Leitao back to finish what he started at DePaul
CHICAGO – It’s been an unusual 24 hours surrounding what should be a celebrated event for a basketball program.
But since the announcement of their new men’s basketball coach was made official on Sunday afternoon a feeling of doubt surrounded DePaul men’s basketball.
The decision to go with a coach who left the program a decade earlier for greener pastures was met with some anger from fans who wanted a fresh face or rising star to take over what’s been a sagging Blue Demons program.
Dave Leitao tried to lighten the mood about his own unique situation the minute he got the chance to talk on Monday.
“When I came in contact with the theory of going back to a place that you used to work and have some admiration for, a lot of admiration, a lot of love for, there was a little bit of fuss and I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about,” said Leitao. “Before I left, I told (DePaul Athletic Director) Jeani (Lenti Ponsetto) I was going on vacation for ten.
“She misunderstood me. She thought it was ten days and what I meant to tell her was ten years.”
Perhaps it was to break the ice a bit at DePaul’s Student Center.
Leitao knows his situation is a bit unusual and will likely be viewed with a skeptical eye. Ten years after leaving DePaul to take the head coaching position at Virginia, Leitao is back at the school to take the same job following a number of stops in pro and college basketball.
"I didn't have time to do the research to know and understand how many coaches in this profession get to go back either where they were successful or where they failed," said Leitao. "So having that opportunity is extremely overwhelming to me and it fills me with a lot of emotion.
"I'm still processing a lot of that. Coming back to this school where I had so many great days."
Indeed he did. During his three seasons in Lincoln Park he led the Blue Demons to 58 wins and three postseason appearances. In 2004 DePaul made the NCAA Tournament and picked up a win before falling to eventual champion UConn in the second round.
After bolting for Virginia in 2005 he spend four years with the Cavaliers before being let go in 2009. Leitao took two years off he became the coach of the Maine Red Claws of the NBDL for the 2011-2012 season. He then joined Frank Haith in stops at Missouri and Tulsa the next three years.
Following his first season with the Golden Hurricanes, Leitao received the call to bring his career full circle.
"This is a job I started and left unfinished," said Leitao. "This is a job I came back to finish. This is a very blue-collar town and your head coach is a very blue-collar person."
He proved that in his first stint but many thought it would be someone else to do the second. Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto hired the Parker Executive Search firm from Atlanta to select the right coach after Oliver Purnell resigned after this season.
Buffalo coach Bobby Hurley and Valparaiso head coach Bryce Drew were each interviewed for the position. But after consultation with the Parker group the decision was made to go back with Leitao which made some wonder why the firm was used at all.
Ponsetto defended the decision saying that it wasn't the "comfortable choice" for the school but rather the best based on Leitao's added experience since leaving DePaul.
"I knew what he was when he was here," said Ponsetto, who said before this week she's only talked to Leitao a handful of times since 2005. "But I'm really excited about those additional skills and tools that I think he has now that's going to make him a better coach."
During her news conference she said that this is not a "rebuilding project" that Leitao is starting. The new coach agreed, taking time out of his remarks to send a message to the players gathered in the back of the room.
"I understand you've been through a lot, both good and bad," said Leitao talking to the players. "Today is a new day. Anything I've heard about you, I won't listen to. Anything you've heard about me, don't listen to.
"We're starting with a clean slate and we're going to move forward."
Even if it goes going back to a familiar name.