- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

For the third time in barely more than a decade, the University of Virginia is looking for a basketball coach. Dave Leitao, deposed earlier this week, lasted four seasons. His predecessor, Pete Gillen, ran out of X’s and O’s after seven. How long will the next coach last? Indeed, what kind of coach can the school hope to hire, given the Cavaliers’ place in the ACC pecking order and the program’s prospects for anything more than occasional success?

The ACC is a premier conference, sure, and its coaches are well compensated, but how good a job is the Virginia job, really? It proved to be a dead end for Gillen, and the same may be true for Leitao. Consider: In the last 14 seasons - since they went to the Elite Eight under Jeff Jones (now thriving at American) - the Cavaliers have made the NCAA tournament just three times and won a single game (84-57 over the Albany Great Danes two March Madnesses ago).

That’s fewer appearances than anybody in the ACC except Virginia Tech and Florida State (two for both) and fewer victories than… nobody. (Tech has won two games in the tourney, and the Seminoles have won one and could well add to that total this year.)

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So again I ask: How good a job is this, really? If you’re looking for coaching glory, Virginia probably isn’t the place for you - unless another 7-foot-4 kid sprouts in Harrisonburg, the way Ralph Sampson did for Terry Holland. And how many coaches aren’t looking for glory? How many are content to be the third- or fifth- or seventh-best program in a really swell conference? Let’s not forget: While Holland went to two Final Fours, his record in ACC competition was only a touch above .500 (111-103), and all three of his three successors have fallen short of that mark.

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In the ‘90s, Virginia came close to hiring Ramblin’ Rick Barnes, then at Providence. Barnes’ wanderlust later took him to Clemson, where he turned out some nice teams that never finished higher than fourth in the ACC. That’s probably what he would have done at Virginia, too. The conference’s North Carolina-Duke-Maryland (or whoever’s hot) caste system is so hard to overcome.

Texas, on the other hand, is different. Barnes could go places in Austin because the Big 12 has a more fluid power structure. So he went there in 1998 and, lo and behold, has finished higher than fourth in all but two seasons, reaching the Final Four in 2003 and the Elite Eight twice since. He also was able to rent prep phenom Kevin Durant for a year before he moved on to the NBA. Could he have done the same at Clemson - or Virginia?

Certainly, Cavaliers AD Craig Littlepage, he of the Ivy League education, understands the limitations of his school’s basketball program. The ceiling isn’t as low as, say, the 7 1/2th floor in “Being John Malkovich,” but it’s hardly as high as the arching cathedral jobs in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Durham, N.C., where you need an extension ladder to change a light bulb.

Too bad Virginia’s vacancy didn’t come up last year, before Rick Carlisle had signed a four-year deal with the Dallas Mavericks. Having been through the NBA wringer twice in Detroit and Indianapolis, Carlisle might have been willing to listen to the entreaties of his alma mater. Perhaps he could have been cajoled into returning to UVa the way Gary Williams was guilted into returning to Maryland. Perhaps he would have felt the pull of the place the way Roy Williams, a time zone removed in Lawrence, Kan., felt the pull of North Carolina.

Who better to bring the Cavaliers back to relevance than an alumnus who knows the turf, understands the mentality of the university and its fans, is remembered fondly (for the Cavs’ surprise Final Four visit in 1984) - and also happens to be a whiz with a grease pen? But Carlisle, alas, is spoken for… unless his boss, Mark Cuban, can be coerced to release him from his contract.

So Virginia must once again cast about for a coach - and pray that it won’t be writing another $2 million buyout check in a few years. Me, I’d be looking at guys who have done exactly what the Cavaliers would like to do, guys who have come into a program that hadn’t had much recent success and moved it up several notches in the conference hierarchy. George Mason’s Jim Larranaga would be perfect if he weren’t turning 60 this year. Or how about Ron Everhart, who has taken Duquesne from three wins (and five shootings) to 21 wins (and the Atlantic 10 tournament final) in a mere three years?

I mean, assuming Larry Brown hasn’t got another itch.



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