Leitao to receive extension following NCAA sanctions


Alexa Sandler / The DePaulia

DePaul head coach Dave Leitao paces the sidelines during the Blue Demons’ game against Georgetown on March 6 in Wintrust Arena.

For close to two decades, DePaul’s men’s basketball program has been searching for a head coach that can return the Blue Demons to their winning ways. This past Thursday the university doubled down on current head coach Dave Leitao, announcing his contract will be extended through the 2023-24 basketball season.

Since DePaul men’s basketball coach Dave Leitao took command of the program for a second time in 2015, the Blue Demons have ended their season on the bottom rung of the Big East standings three times in four years with a total record of 50-81 (15-56 in conference play). On top of that poor performance, Leitao and his staff were charged with NCAA sanctions for violating ethical rules, which resulted in a three game suspension for the embattled head coach and a three-year probation for the program.

At the end of July, the NCAA released a public infractions decision which ruled that DePaul had violated recruiting guidelines when a former associate head coach — Rick Carter, who was fired at the end of the 2017 season and has not returned to work in college basketball — arranged to have a recruit live with DePaul’s assistant director of basketball operations to ensure that he was completing his coursework to maintain NCAA eligibility. The report concluded that the assistant director did not complete the coursework for the player, but ensured tests were taken and that the player was taking steps to remain eligible.

“The student-athlete met eligibility requirements and enrolled at the university,” the release stated. “Because the arrangement was an impermissible recruiting benefit, the committee said the student-athlete competed while ineligible. The arrangement also involved impermissible recruiting contact, which caused the men’s basketball program to exceed the number of allowable coaches.”

At the time, Bryan Tibaldi was serving as director of basketball operations and Baba Diallo was serving as the assistant director. Tibaldi found his way to an assistant coaching job at Cleveland State, and Diallo was recently hired as an assistant coach at Central Connecticut.

According to the report, Tibaldi said he was aware that the program was in violation of NCAA rules, but did not report it because he did not want to be disloyal or inadvertently harm the careers of any of his colleagues.

The only player who fits the description in the NCAA report is Levi Cook, a 6’10’’ four-star center from West Virginia. Cook struggled with injuries while at DePaul and transferred away from the program after his freshman year.

The report does not specifically charge Leitao with any NCAA violation, but levied a suspension against him on the ground that he failed to effectively oversee his program.

“The head coach created an environment where staff members did not report violations or consult with the compliance staff but chose to remain silent,” the committee said. “The head coach simply did not ensure a compliant program.”

The university came out publicly following the ruling to voice their displeasure with the NCAA’s conclusion, and has since referred requests for comment to that original statement from July.

“The decision and findings by the NCAA Committee on Infractions (COI) following a self-reported infraction, and subsequent cooperation, by DePaul University is disappointing,” the statement said. “This infraction was an isolated incident directed and then concealed by a former staff member that resulted in, at most, a limited recruiting advantage relative to one former student-athlete. Since our self-report in January 2018, DePaul has cooperated with the NCAA Enforcement staff to proactively pursue the resolution of this matter and has reviewed and further strengthened related protocol and practice.

“DePaul respectfully disagrees with the COI’s findings relative to head coach Dave Leitao under the Head Coach Control doctrine. Coach Leitao is a man of character and integrity, who has the support of the administration in leading our men’s basketball program.

“In the interest of concluding the infractions process and moving forward for the men’s basketball program, DePaul has agreed to accept the penalties as described in the COI’s decision.”

DePaul’s athletic department declined to comment on the extension process until the contract has been finalized, but it seems clear that the school has decided to hang their hat on Leitao’s incoming class of recruits — which has been ranked among the Top-25 in the nation — and ignore the NCAA’s sanctions. This coming season will be Leitao’s first with a team of players recruited largely by himself.

After Leitao left DePaul at the end of the 2004-05 season to take the head coaching job at the University of Virginia, his value on the college basketball market started to fall. He wound up in the D-League (now the G-League) as the head coach of the Maine Red Claws and then found his way to an assistant coaching job at Tulsa. Then, he came to DePaul and was immediately making over $1 million per year, despite the fact that there was little demand for his services as a head coach. His salary currently sits on the lower end of Big East coaches’ salaries.

At the press conference that announced Leitao’s return to Lincoln Park, Lenti Ponsetto made it clear that the expectation was for Leitao to start winning games right away. Since then, Lenti Ponsetto has urged fans to be patient.      

DePaul’s fan base has become disillusioned with over a decade of failed coaching hires and little to no improvement. For some alumni who have moved away from Chicago since graduating, getting excited about DePaul men’s basketball gets more difficult by the year.

Tim Ring, a 1991 DePaul graduate and the son of former College of Education dean Austin Flynn, grew up as an avid DePaul men’s basketball fan. He estimates that he attended almost every single home men’s basketball game between 1976 and 1994. Today, Ring lives in Phoenix, Arizona and works as a sportscaster for ABC, and says he’s still waiting for DePaul to give him a reason to fly back to Chicago to watch a home game.

“DePaul is so far gone,” Ring said. “If they can’t get out of their own way, there is nothing really more to say. You know, so many years have gone by with mistake, after mistake, after mistake, it just seems like the media and fans just threw their hands up and said, ‘We quit.’”

Ring’s gripes with the program, like many fans and alumni, center around coaching hires made by Jean Lenti Ponsetto. Over her time as athletic director, she has made three coaching hires: Jerry Wainwright, Oliver Pernell and Dave Leitao. Wainwright is the only one of the three to produce a winning record in the regular season, and he did it once in 2007.

“I’ve known Jean my whole life,” Ring said. “I know she loves DePaul, I know she wants them to do well — there is no question about it. You can’t live and breathe and work at a university for that long and not want them to do well.

“But the reality is, she’s blown these coaching hires. The proof is right there — it’s inarguable. I just hope that going forward at DePaul, that when it’s time to hire the next coach, the process is different.”   

Gregory Hermes, who has been a DePaul men’s basketball fan since the heart of the Ray Meyer era in the late 70s agrees, but doesn’t put the full weight of responsibility on Lenti Ponsetto’s shoulders. Administrators like the president, who has voiced his support for the athletics director, and the board of trustees also have to allow this to happen and, he says, don’t seem to understand how athletics can drive fundraising.

“I just honestly don’t understand,” Hermes said. “Let’s talk about continuity with the Vincentian mission: endowments go to provide scholarship and help students in need. So to look down your nose at raising money, or to not prioritize it, is not serving your mission.”