CHICAGO — A light rain freckled the Sheffield Ave. sidewalk as Dave Leitao walked through DePaul’s campus, talking relocation. As of mid-May, he and his family lived in temporary quarters, down near the water in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Leitao was a little more than a month into his second tenure as the Blue Demons’ head basketball coach, which started 10 years after the last one ended (he left to become Virginia’s head coach), a scenario that was as surprising as it sounds. Still, despite the familiarity with the place and the real estate scene, despite knowing exactly what he was getting into, the 55-year-old Leitao preferred not to get rushed into anything.
“I want something long-lasting,” he said.
Anyone long exasperated by a program with two NCAA tournament bids in 23 years could relate. When DePaul sought a replacement for Oliver Purnell in March, the situation screamed for energy and hustle and new ideas. When it hired the guy who left a decade earlier, some viewed it as typical of a school perpetually thrashing about in the quicksand of what was.
If there was some validity to that, there were also a couple points worth noting: First, Dave Leitao led DePaul to two of its three 20-win seasons since 2000. Second, it’s not like any of that angst was his fault.
He was a Tulsa assistant at a junior college tournament in Hutchinson, Kan., when Blue Demons assistant Billy Garrett broached the idea of a second coming. He decided that if he was going to be a head coach again, he wanted to do so at a place where he could build relationships and be successful on his own terms. And there should be some comfort in Leitao’s belief that he can accomplish what he wants at DePaul, because he did to a degree before, and this time he is no longer building to get to the next, better thing.
There should be some comfort in his enthusiasm, in visiting a music class to prep for singing during the seventh-inning stretch at a Cubs game, a small but not insignificant sign of a desire to stoke a lethargic student body. There should be some comfort in his urgency, too; Leitao is not old, but he’s not young anymore, either, and he knows this is a last chance. “The chase is done,” Leitao said. “I have absolutely zero interest in making this successful to be successful doing something else. Or anywhere else. That’s from the personal side of life and the professional side of life ... The thing I want to do is create a team or bring a team to the ultimate, which is to get to a Final Four and win a championship. I don’t have to go anywhere else to do that. That’s the only thing left.”
That’s a long way off for a program with 20-plus losses in six of the last seven seasons. Leitao talked with SI.com about his vision for the rebuild, for recruiting and for justifying the school giving him a second chance.
SI: What did you need to know about this job before you took it again?
Leitao: For me, simplistically, it was the state of the program. From 10 years ago to now, the league is different, so that matters a ton. All 10 teams in the Big East are pretty much alike. Moving into the Big East at that time, 2005, 2006, there were some lopsided programs. The resources have increased dramatically to the point where it’s competitive with everybody in this league. From the top on down, give or take two things positive or negative, you have a level playing field. It allows you to do the job you need to do as a coach.
SI: So where do you start here?
Leitao: First and foremost, you have to create a culture. The simplicity of it is winning begets winning, and the opposite is true, too. Having not won before, it’s not just to say, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to play this game a certain way.’ Everybody has shared in success and everybody has shared in failure, too. Each department and each individual has to self-check, starting with me, on what it is and what could be better to make this thing work.
SI: There’s been a lot put into the new downtown arena solving some ills [the $150 million facility is scheduled to open in early 2017], but a lot of teams get new arenas. Why is this different?
Leitao: I think it’s a changing of an era, of what people perceive to be a negative of playing at Allstate Arena. [In the new arena] you’re automatically going to get more interest, you’re automatically going to get more enthusiasm, you’re automatically going to get more energy, people looking at you a little differently, starting with players, high school kids. It’s been something that’s been a real bad toothache in their mindset for a long period of time.
SI: Is this a harder job now than it was when you first took it?
Leitao: It’s too early to tell, because I have to be in it. But I’ll say this, Conference USA at that time was John Calipari, Bob Huggins, Mike Anderson, Rick Pitino, Brad Soderberg, Tom Crean. So it wasn’t like you go to sleep early at night. You had some pretty successful people that you really had to match wits with and beat. As it compares to (the Big East), you’re talking about the second rated RPI league in the country.
SI: Is it harder to get people excited now, given the recent struggles?
Leitao: There’s probably more apathy, there’s probably more cynicism, but I don’t really notice it. I’ve got too many other things going on to be overly concerned. I make the assumption that everybody has to be won over.
SI: Everyone latches to this idea of, ‘DePaul has to recruit Chicago.’ What is your game plan in that regard?
Leitao: I came (to DePaul) last time, no one knew who I was, didn’t know how to spell my name, didn’t know how to say my name. Connecticut could have been Mars. Coming back here, there’s more an embracing on both sides. I also know the greater the player, the more challenging it is.
If Jahlil Okafor was in Los Angeles or any other place, he probably wasn’t going to stay in his hometown school. For guys of that cloth, the blue bloods are always going to be the blue bloods. Kentucky, Kansas, Duke—you have to fight them regardless. It just happens that in this city, there are a lot of guys that qualify as (elite players). Now, it just takes you getting one of them, and that’s our task, to try to figure out who that person may be and how to try to get them to say yes. But I also know in this city, there are a lot of options. A lot of options. That guy that may not be recruited by a blue blood, that can really help you win, too. That area is probably the most important area.
SI: Some would argue the best plan is to recruit to Chicago, as opposed to staking everything on getting the guys already here.
Leitao: That was the formula when I didn’t know anybody and they didn’t know me. The fortunate thing for me is, over the years, we recruited the country. I just continue to do that. I can go to California, I can go to New York, I can go down South. If we make five to 10 phone calls, people are going to know people or have relatives in Chicago, that love Chicago. So I can’t just forget about that. Obviously I would like to have a balance.
SI: So a little while into the job, are you at peace with the decision to come back to it?
Leitao: Settled in, yes. Peace, no. It’s going to be probably a couple years before I’m able to breathe. There are just too many other things going on. It takes a collective effort, because you’re selling something that’s abstract. You’re selling the dream of a future.