Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: AD needs to shoulder the blame, too

The athletic director is next.

Or he should be, if things don't turn in a hurry. Spout baseball and swimming and lacrosse and trapeze records all you want, but the sports that matter to the masses, the sports that draw the donations and bring in the fans and build the palatial facilities -- and then must fill them -- are men's basketball and football.

At Virginia, both of those sports are in the toilet. Football coach Al Groh is hanging by a whistle string. And on Monday, men's basketball coach Dave Leitao "resigned" just two years after being named ACC coach of the year. Which probably means he was told to go. Which probably means the few alumni who still have disposable income in these trying economic times weren't willing to spend another dime as long as he headed the program.

We'll get to whether Leitao deserved the axe in a minute. But the bigger issue, the one that will resonate long after the shock of this news fades, is this: Just when, exactly, is athletic director Craig Littlepage going to be held accountable for the state of UVa revenue sports?

Let's go back four years, to when Leitao was introduced as the new coach. Littlepage was there. He sat right next to Leitao, pleased as could be about his fresh hire out of then-Conference USA participant DePaul.

Littlepage, who has an extensive basketball background -- both at UVa and elsewhere -- told us all that this was his decision. His guy. Donors had no influence. Administrators had little say. This was a basketball man making a basketball decision, hiring a basketball coach.

So we all made a mental note to credit Littlepage should Leitao become a big hit. Just to be fair, though, we asked Littlepage if we could blame him if things didn't work out with this new coach.

"Why not?" Littlepage said that day, smiling. "I get blamed for a lot of other things."

He does. All ADs do. Some of it is fair. Some of it isn't.

Littlepage didn't hire Groh. Terry Holland did, shortly before stepping down to becoming special assistant to the president at UVa and later the AD at East Carolina. But it's Littlepage's job to manage Groh, to demand excellence. And until this past offseason, when Groh made a slew of changes to his staff under pressure, Littlepage's presence wasn't felt much.

Still, though, that's a foggier situation than this. The basketball situation is much more clear. Littlepage the basketball man -- former player at Pennsylvania, former head coach at two schools and assistant at two others -- made a basketball hire essentially on his own. On Monday, that hire was declared a failure. And he should assume the majority of the blame.

As bad as things got, Leitao should have gotten one more year. His best players are freshmen. The odds of the team becoming an ACC power next year were miniscule, but the idea of a last-chance opportunity to prove himself seemed reasonable. Especially when the alternative is paying a guy $2.1 million to go away.

Such is the price of 2009 college sports. Likewise, people will be watching Groh closely this fall, knowing he is potentially walking the plank. People will be watching the new basketball coach, whoever he is, to see if he can revive hope in Charlottesville.

But the guy we should be watching is Littlepage. His biggest move, his most important decision, just went bust. And at some point, the director of athletics has to take responsibility for the direction those athletics are going.

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