The Washington Times - March 16, 2009, 07:45PM

Earlier this season, I was talking with a Division I basketball coach who wondered whether Dave Leitao was in any trouble at Virginia.

Certainly, there was reason to wonder. The Cavaliers didn’t look very good, predictably worse since Sean Singletary wasn’t around to fuse the team together through sheer willpower.


But the idea of Leitao leaving after just four seasons? It seemed more likely he would stay than go.

Still, I was warned, “That arena is going to be a coach killer. Just you watch.”

It would seem John Paul Jones Arena has claimed its first victim.

Now, it’s not like the building itself is devouring the occupants of the men’s basketball office. But make no mistake: The move from dumpy University Hall to the gleaming JPJ upped the ante for the program.

Rather than playing in a rundown old gym that looked like a spaceship (and I actually liked U-Hall), Virginia moved into a spectacular, multipurpose facility befitting a team in one of the nation’s top conferences. And JPJ is a gem, without question.

It also increased capacity from about 8,400 to more than 14,000. Of course, there was a financial aspect as well.

Trouble is, arenas don’t fill themselves. And if Virginia wasn’t cracking 8,000 at U-Hall in the latter stages of the Pete Gillen years, what was going to happen when a mediocre team took up residence in a larger building?

We found out this year. The Cavaliers drew more than 12,000 fans precisely once this season —- when North Carolina came to town. The average was a few hundred extra on the right side of 10,000. Maryland fans took over a bit of the lower bowl in the March 7 regular-season finale. Interest understandably waned for a 10-18 team.

In some ways, Leitao’s dismissal looks like a response to a fan base angry that both football and basketball are struggling so much. No matter how much disdain exists for Al Groh, he’s owed too much money to be jettisoned. Leitao walks with $2.1 million —- a nice going-away gift, but somewhat manageable nonetheless.

The trouble is, the big arena and its empty seats aren’t going away anytime soon. Some coach is going to step into the breach and take over a team with a really good guard (Sylven Landesberg), a capable forward (Mike Scott) and a whole lot of questions.

Leitao’s tenure was the shortest at Virginia since the immortal Roy Randall rolled up a 3-12 record in 1929-30. Every other coach in program history lasted at least six seasons; Gillen was in Charlottesville seven years before the plug was pulled.

The Cavaliers are in a tough spot. Not counting the JPJ honeymoon period in its first two years, Virginia has never consistently drawn 13,000+ for conference games (granted, it never could with a smaller arena). In a trying economic climate, that almost has to be the goal to pay the bills. But who’s going to shell out for season tickets to watch a rebuilding effort that could take a couple years?

Virginia is fortunate in that it rates among the best jobs available right now (behind Arizona, probably on par or better than Alabama and Georgia). But its beautiful home, which should be one of its great assets, might just work against it given the need to fill the place up.

After all, who seriously wants to be the guy who officially demonstrates Charlottesville and its spiffy new arena might have turned into the coaching graveyard of the ACC without anyone realizing it?

—- Patrick Stevens