Dave Leitao vows to finish rebuilding job at DePaul

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As DePaul’s coach from 2002 to 2005, Dave Leitao never complained about the school’s facilities.

He never backed away from recruiting top-tier players and embraced going against the game’s best coaches, including Conference USA rivals Bob Huggins at Cincinnati, John Calipari at Memphis, Rick Pitino at Louisville and Tom Crean at Marquette.

And he won.

He beat all of them to win the conference’s regular-season title in 2004 and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament that season — the last NCAA trip for the Blue Demons.

It made him a sought-after coaching commodity, and when Virginia president John Casteen, who knew Leitao from their time together at Connecticut, pursued him in 2005 with a $7 million contract offer and the lure of a new arena, Leitao accepted.

“I thought I was going to a place that was better,’’ he said Monday.

A decade changed things for Leitao, 54, and the program he left behind.

He spent four years as Virginia’s first African-American coach, winning ACC coach of the year honors after his second season and going to three postseason tournaments.

But after a losing season in his fourth year, Leitao was out.

DePaul has had only one winning season in the last 10, including 20-loss seasons in seven of the last nine under two other coaches since joining the Big East in 2005.

Leitao and DePaul are together again, a reunion made possible partly because of a bond that remained between Leitao and DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto.

“When I left that first time, we both had tears in our eyes,’’ an emotional Leitao said. “This is a job I started and left unfinished.

“It’s a job I came back to finish. I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves.’’

It is a rarity in college sports for a coach to come back to a former job, but there was precedent at DePaul, where women’s coach Doug Bruno had coached in the 1970s, left to become an assistant men’s coach at Loyola and then returned.

Bruno was one of many supporting Leitao’s return.

“We asked some of our faculty and staff to submit a list of who they thought would be a good fit,’’ Ponsetto said. “It was amazing the number of times [Leitao’s] name came up.’’

Parker Executive Search, a firm hired to start the search process, first approached Leitao, who was a Tulsa assistant this season.

The firm’s short list included Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew and Buffalo coach Bobby Hurley, but Leitao was at the top of the list, Ponsetto said.

He has a five-year deal that will roll over for each year the Blue Demons reach the NCAA tournament, a goal he vowed will happen soon.

He will retain assistant coach Billy Garrett Sr., whose son is also the team’s best player, and complete the rest of his staff soon.

“I want people who can coach and add strengths and also cover my weaknesses,’’ he said. “I want them to know Chicago and the country [in terms of recruiting].

“I followed this program closely, but I didn’t think I would get this opportunity. It’s not about reaching back as much as looking forward.’’

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