Ryan Gilroy | The DePaulia
When DePaul’s season ended prematurely on March 12 with the Big East canceling the rest of its tournament due to the coronavirus outbreak, the immediate attention turned to the fate of head coach Dave Leitao.
Leitao — who was hired back in 2015 by athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto — was in the final season of his five-year contract with the Blue Demons. During those five years, Leitao compiled an overall 64-98 record and a 19-71 Big East record, which includes four straight last place finishes.
But the narrative surrounding Leitao’s contact and future with DePaul started to become more clear when the season ended in New York. During the Big East Tournament, Stadium’s Jeff Goodman reported that he was hearing the Blue Demons were working on a contract extension with Leitao.
It was not if Leitao would be back for year six, it was a matter of when the announcement was coming. And on April 2, the athletic department finally dropped the sledgehammer by announcing that the school and Leitao agreed to a four-year contract extension. A source did tell The DePaulia that Leitao’s new contract features no buyout and no guaranteed money beyond next season.
“We are happy to reach an agreement to continue the improvement and stability that Coach Leitao has instilled in our men’s basketball program,” Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said in a statement. “His vision of academic excellence, athletic excellence and community service mirrors DePaul’s mission in developing outstanding student-athletes and future leaders in our society.”
The immediate reaction from fans on DePaul’s twitter post was anger and frustration. A week later after the deal was announced, the post featured 144 likes to 125 comments — with most of the messages criticizing the athletic department for bringing back Leitao.
Logan Simios, who has been attending DePaul games since he was five, has seen both the best and worst of Blue Demons basketball. When he heard the news that DePaul was bringing back Leitao, it showed him that the program isn’t committed to winning the conference.
“I am not pleased, and I’m sure everyone else is feeling the same way,” Simios said. “It just shows the lack of commitment to trying to win the conference — not trying to compete, trying to win the conference. I think that’s the difference, they are trying to be competitive in games and they think it’s okay to continue with Leitao. He has been more competitive in games, but there are games he should be winning that he is not winning.”
During the 2019-20 season, the Blue Demons got off to a hot start in their non-conference schedule, winning their first nine games and going into Big East play at 12-1. But when conference play began against Seton Hall, the wheels came off the car. DePaul lost its first four games before defeating then-No. 5 Butler at Wintrust Arena, but the Blue Demons followed that up by losing the next eight games. At the end of the regular-season, DePaul locked up a fourth straight last place finish with a 3-15 conference record.
Leitao, however, guided his team to a first round Big East Tournament victory over Xavier and were slated to face Villanova in the next round before the rest of the tournament was canceled.
“We’ve had better players in the last few years, great recruiter Dave Leitao,” said Patrick Sperry, who first graduated from DePaul in 1997 and then received his bachelor degree from the school in 2000. “The issue is how he is deploying the players, especially on the offensive end. I don’t know how you keep the [players] who are already there happy. We’ve had a couple of guys file for the transfer [portal], which is never a good thing. There won’t be one single player from his first recruiting class graduating with their class.”
In Leitao’s first four years back at DePaul — he was previously the head coach from 2002-05, leading the program to their last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2004 — saw zero four-star recruits come to Lincoln Park. But heading into his fifth season, Leitao secured commitments from two four-star recruits Romeo Weems and Markese Jacobs, which gave the Blue Demons the No. 34 class for 2019. Leitao also landed two former four-star recruits from the transfer portal, Charlie Moore and Jalen Coleman-Lands.
While the recruiting has seemingly improved under Leitao, DePaul only has one commitment for 2020, Kobe Elvis, who is an unranked Canadian point guard. Currently, the Blue Demons have two verbal commits for the 2021 class from two four-star recruits: Ahamad Bynum and Keon Edwards.
“I’m not even cautiously optimistic, I would say I will be cautiously pessimistic,” Joe Breslin said of the 2020-21 season. “You just know what you are going to get with [Leitao], and it’s not good. There’s nothing this year to bring in you, like there was last year. We will see what will happen in the transfer market to see if we can get someone exciting, but Leitao being renewed, I’m just not excited about the season and future of DePaul basketball.”
While Simios, Sperry and Breslin all agree that Leitao is not the answer to getting the Blue Demons back into the NCAA Tournament, they all point out the bigger issue with DePaul men’s basketball is Lenti Ponsetto. She has been DePaul’s athletic director for the last 18 years, seeing the schools flagship program make only one NCAA Tournament appearance and have the worst winning percentage in the Big East since moving to the conference in 2005. During Lenti Ponsetto’s tenure, she has hired three different coaches and fired the first two — Jerry Wainwright and Oliver Purnell — after five years.
“Since her first hire [Jerry Wainwright in 2005], DePaul has won 37 percent of their games,” Sperry said. “The worst team in the Big East other than DePaul during that period of time is St. John’s, and they have won roughly 50 percent of their games. There is a correlation with that. Our clearest rival is Marquette and during her first hire, Marquette had been to the NCAA Tournament 23 times, DePaul had been 22 times. Since that time, Marquette has now been to the NCAA Tournament 33 times and DePaul has been 22 times. This constant dance of going with the old guys it’s just so frustrating. How can every other team in the conference luck into having a coach that gets them into the tournament every 3-5 years?”
Going into the 2020-21 season, Sperry, Simios and Breslin are not sure if they will attend games. All three are waiting to see what Leitao does in the transfer market and if he can land any grad transfers that will move the needle for the Blue Demons. In the case of Simios, he has held DePaul basketball season tickets for decades, but his patience with the program is running thin. Unless there are major changes with the program soon, he doesn’t seem himself attending and supporting the team much longer.
“I think I’m one of the hardest guys because I’ve been going for so long that I don’t know anything better,” Simios said. “But it’s starting to fade more and more. I really believe that the next coach is my last, last hope forever. I really believe the next hire is going to determine my fate as a DePaul fan for life.”