The fixer: Leitao to Cavs: UConn
Obviously UVA's new basketball coach will feel the pressure to pull the Cavaliers, the bottom-feeders of the ACC, back into the winner's circle.
But Dave Leitao– even in 2005– faces additional scrutiny because of the color of his skin: he's the first African-American head coach in any varsity sport at Mr. Jefferson's university.
"I try not to look at myself as an African-American coach as much as a coach who happens to be of color," says Leitao, who points out he was the first African-American coach at DePaul and Northeastern as well. "You have to look at the significance of it for others."
What is the significance of all those vowels in Leitao, pronounced lay-toe?
"I can be French or Italian," he jokes. Actually, his family hails from Cape Verde off the coast of Africa, which has a large expatriate population, and most of its citizens are Portuguese and African. Leitao's father was a ship chef.
If Charlottesville thinks it has race problems, well, Leitao grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, near Boston. "There's still racial tension, and it's as separate as anywhere," he says. "In Boston, people talk about it. It's there. You have to talk about it."
Leitao acknowledges a factor even more significant than race that started his path to the UVA head basketball coach's chair. "My mother and father are both 5'7"," he says. "By the grace of God, I'm 6'7". My ancestors are short. The people in my town are short. If I were shorter, I wouldn't be here."
Those 79 inches translated into a college scholarship. After a one-year stint behind a corporate desk, Jim Calhoun, Leitao's coach at Northeastern, asked if he wanted to be an assistant coach in 1984. "I jumped at the chance," he says.
That association with Calhoun has been the second major factor in Leitao's career. He followed Calhoun to the University of Connecticut in 1986 when the school was a basketball backwater.
"Twenty years later, UConn is on par with any basketball program in America," says Leitao. "I learned how you can turn things around."
It was at UConn that he crossed paths with John Casteen, who was president there before being offered the UVA job. Assistant basketball coaches and college presidents don't hang out a lot, but "We did have the opportunity to meet," says Leitao. "We've come full circle.
The coach tells young people about the importance of not burning bridges and treating people the way you want to be treated– because you never know who's going to come around in life again.
"My reputation in the industry is the only thing I can control," he says. "I can't control games. What kids do on Saturday night, I can't control."
He knows he has a major challenge ahead of him, and his reputation will be one of his recruiting strengths. "Why wouldn't a young person want to go here?" he asks. "It has a great campus and the teams you play are going to be challenging... There are no doormats in the ACC."
Is basketball still fun– or has it become a business? "I'm lucky– to be doing something I have a passion for and something I love," says the coach. Fun? "Absolutely."
Leitao admits the transition from player to coach was one of the hardest shifts. The passion for the game "fuels you," he says, and he tried tennis, swimming, racquetball– anything competitive. "When you're on the sidelines coaching, it's the closest thing," he says.
So your team is down by 10 and there's a minute left in the game. Is calling a timeout really going to make a difference? "Most coaches believe you can win," answers Leitao. "Fans look at the score. A coach looks at the game."
Leitao is looking at the game.
Why here? I came to a great university at a great time.
What's worst about living here? Getting lost
Favorite hangout? Still looking
Most overrated virtue? My thought process
People would be surprised to know: [I'm a] part-time comedian.
What would you change about yourself? I'd have a better singing voice
Proudest accomplishment? First African-American coach ever on Grounds
People find most annoying about you: I talk too much.
Whom do you admire? Honest people who work honest jobs for an honest living
Favorite book? Golf for Dummies
Subject that causes you to rant? The educational system
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Three healthy boys
Biggest 21st-century creep out? This world is in the south side of its existence.
What do you drive? BMW
In your car CD player right now: Joe
Next journey? Italy
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Down 18 at half time and won
Regret: I try never to have them.
Favorite comfort food: Brownies and ice cream
Always in your refrigerator: Apple juice
Must-see TV: SportsCenter
Favorite cartoon: Tom & Jerry
Describe a perfect day. Hitting the fairways, making putts, and the rest of the time with my wife and boys
Walter Mitty fantasy: I believe I'm in the middle of it now.
Who'd play you in the movie? Most would turn down that script.
Most embarrassing moment? I get embarrassed every day.
Best advice you ever got? Put God first in your life.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO