Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Gillen goin' fishin'

I was the summer sports editor for The Cavalier Daily at U.Va. when Terry Holland announced his resignation, and the sports editor when his resignation became effective at the hands of Derrick Coleman (quite literally, as Coleman blocked a last-second jumper to ensure Syracuse's 63-61 win in the second round of the 1990 NCAA Tournament -- Holland's last game). When U.Va. sought a new coach, it looked for potential rising stars and established names in lower-tier conferences: Pete Gillen (then at Xavier), Jeff Mullins (Charlotte) and Rick Barnes (who actually took the offer then reneged); and at its own top assistants, Craig Littlepage (who failed miserably as a head coach at Rutgers) and Jeff Jones. Funny anecdote: in every mention of Littlepage during the coaching search, The Cavalier Daily made sure to include his dismal 23-63 record at Rutgers because he was widely considered an early frontrunner -- and would have been a disastrous choice.

As a "hero" of Virginia's lone glory era, the Ralph Sampson years, Jones was an enticing pick: young, charismatic, seemingly honest, and he seemed ready to break out of certain offensive conventions that had the team back under Holland. He also could recruit, something Holland always lacked skills in. For the first few years, Jones did a fine job: he kept some top recruits home like Cory and Courtney Alexander, Junior Burrough and others, the team had an NCAA appearance in 1991, an NIT title in 1992 (that's good for U.Va., but Jones failed to integrate young guards on a veteran team), a Sweet 16 run and sweep of Duke in 1993, an ACC title game appearance (Virginia's only had six, two with Sampson), a Final Eight run in 1995 . . . and then the bottom dropped out. First with academic scandals, then accusations of theft and violence against co-eds on campus. Jones had a sex scandal of his own, the team went from mid-ACC to stinko, and ultimately Jones took the sack after the 1998 season. Overall, a sorry state of affairs that is made even worse by the fact that Jones' teams played the best basketball on both ends of the court that Virginia had seen since the Sampson era (other than the 1988-89 season).

Gillen resurrected the team somewhat: a couple of NCAA appearances, some NIT presence, and a modicum of competitiveness in the conference. He also cleaned up the stench of the end of the Jones era. But recently, U.Va. has gone downhill: Gillen has never developed his players (most notable failure: McDonald's all-American Elton Brown), his teams play terrible defense and their offense tends to be primarily a fling-and-hope attack: fling the ball at the hoop and hope it falls in. Gillen's fresh-air effect wore off.

Littlepage has since become Virginia's rather solid Athletic Director. He is presiding over the program during the construction of the John Paul Jones Arena (named for a generous alum, not the Revolutionary War era hero or the Led Zeppelin bassist), which will replace the dilapidated University Hall (which itself has been overdue for replacement for 10 years) and wants a big-name coach to take over the reins. Selling points: lovely Charlottesville, ACC team, proximity to Washington/Northern Va./Southern Md. talent bases and basketball magnet schools (two words: Oak Hill), relative proximity to NYC talent base, school and program with excellent academic pedigree. Negatives: ACC team not named "Duke" or "University of North Carolina", lack of program credentials for major conference school (two Final Eights in the last 20+ years -- even Providence beats that!).

The early wishlist includes names like: Tubby Smith [like he'd leave Kentucky], Rick Barnes [shouldn't leave Texas], Mike Montgomery [wanted to be an NBA coach, and is], Dave Leitao [DePaul's coach; I didn't know either -- so much for a big splash with the alums], Mike Brey [more defense-challenged years ahead], and Jeff Capel [whom I like]. Littlepage wants to make a splash. He can do so by getting a NAME or a quality coach. I'd look far and wide if I were him, especially at sharp young coaches who are learning from Hall of Fame caliber men -- like Norm Roberts and Paul Hewitt did before they took over for St. John's and Georgia Tech. Capel fits the Roberts/Hewitt bill and is an ex-Dookie who did NOT coach for a long time with Coach K himself. Both factors are plusses (see Coach K's ex-Dookie failures, Tommy Amaker, Quin Snyder, Brey).

Haste makes waste, and this program has entirely too much waste for its own good. Good luck Mr. Littlepage, don't mess up.

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