At times moved to tears, nostalgic, and humorous, Craig Littlepage reflected Wednesday on his decision to retire as Virginia Director of Athletics. After 16 years in the head chair and 35 years overall with the University, such a range of emotions is hardly surprising.
Littlepage announced Tuesday that he would step down when a replacement for his job is found before moving into a part-time, yet-to-be-determined role in the University President’s Office. When he sat down with media members at the John Paul Jones Arena for a “difficult day” on Wednesday, the 66-year old administrator explained the thought process behind his decision.
He cited research into the tenure of the previous five UVA directors in the department that showed younger departures, an average age of 54.5, and shorter tenures, an average of 7.5 years. He also mentioned the good health of the athletics department as a whole and the ability to leave on his own terms as key factors. Littlepage thanked fans, donors, the department’s staff, senior administrators, and coaches for all the support they have given UVA athletics.
”You’re looking at a guy that’s beaten the odds administratively so it’s time to move on,” Littlepage said. He later added that: ”In recent months the retirement question has been asked of me increasingly and for good reason but I know that it’s been a distraction, a major distraction for what it is that needs to be done on a day to day basis. I can’t allow for this department and so much good work to suffer from the paralysis of uncertainty so I leave with the department being in great shape. I leave it in a position of strength in my opinion. As I said earlier because of that, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to find an exceptional leader that’s going to be able to continue the hard work that’s been done”
Several times during nearly an hour with the media, Littlepage stopped to gather himself with tears welling up in his eyes. Those times included the moment before he began his opening remarks in full, thanking Executive Associate Athletics Director Jon Oliver after working side by side for the full 16 years, missing significant milestones for many of the school’s programs, and his wife Margaret and their home in Charlottesville.
While speaking of Oliver, the first mate to the captain in this case, Littlepage got choked up. He later mentioned that Oliver offered him a position in future endeavors in developing future leaders in sports through professional development. Oliver announced his decision to leave UVA on August 31 and his tenure ends on Sept. 15.
”We’ve been a great team,” Littlepage said. ”He’s been real important to me. When I think of how important he’s been to me, I think about that one liner that I heard years ago … in this case, Jon has been more important to me than my mother. My mother carried me for nine months, Jon’s carried me for 16 years. He’s been a superstar.”
Throughout the session, thoughts and answers often circled back to relationships and “how important those have been” for Littlepage.
He mentioned how the late Rollie Massimino gave him his first job when he hired him as an assistant coach in the 1970’s, though he at first thought “Daddy Mass” was just inviting him to lunch to talk about his future. He also thanked others who took what he described as risks by hiring him through the years. Those thank yous included Terry Holland, who first brought Littlepage to Charlottesville, Charles Harris, who made him the head coach at Penn, Jim Copeland, who brought him back to UVA as an administrator, and John Casteen that elevated him the director of athletics chair as the first African-American AD in ACC history.
Littlepage’s thoughts mentioned executive assistant Becky Davis that has worked for four directors of athletics at Virginia, Executive Director at the VAF Dirk Katstra, and many other officials. He also answered many questions with thoughts about the coaches and how hard their jobs are to find success. That included basketball coach Tony Bennett, who revived Virginia basketball into the national conversation again while filling up the multi-million dollar arena that Littlepage helped get built. He smiled recalling the day that hire was made public.
”I remember on the afternoon that it was announced that Tony Bennett was going to be our basketball coach and within five minutes of the release going out a flurry of emails coming in – ‘Who’s Tony Bennett? We wanted a basketball coach not a night club singer,’” Littlepage said. ”He’s an unbelievable basketball coach and most importantly he’s a coach that fits the University of Virginia and that is completely aligned with what this program and what this University is all about.”
Few would discount the job Littlepage has done on the relationship end of his job, building good connections with donors, peers at other institutions and on NCAA committees, and as a public representative of the University. The largest criticism of his tenure focuses on the handling of contract extensions, perhaps holding on to coaches too long, and, of course, the decline of the football program since 2008.
Since reseating Scott Stadium prior to that 2008 season, the Hoos have posted only one winning record, which came in 2011. Attendance and season ticket sales have dwindled throughout that time period. Bronco Mendenhall is the third coach in charge of the program since 2008 as Al Groh finished out his tenure before Mike London took over the job. The revenue hit from the extended period of football struggles has been offset somewhat by TV revenue, but remains a long-term issue for the department until the program turns things around.
Littlepage said Wednesday that he believes the overall department is in strong standing and that he believes Mendenhall will lead football to similar levels of success as other sports at Virginia.
”No doubt in my mind,” Littlepage said. ”I’ve said this many times. Coach Mendenhall is as creative and as bright, innovative, and as hard-working as any coach in any sport that I’ve ever been around at any level. I see the trust that his staff has in him, the trust over these past two seasons that’s being built within that team and that locker room – he’s going to be successful. As I told him when I was drilling down to come up with this date, I’m going to be around here … and I’m waiting for that opportunity to give you that big hug where we’re both holding a trophy. There’s no doubt he’s going to be successful. He’s going to lead this program to some of its best days ever in my opinion.”
Mendenhall could find a road map of sorts in Littlepage’s overall tenure. He took over the director of athletics role officially in August 2001 and led the department through a period of unprecedented growth and success. UVA has raised its graduate rates for student-athletes, increased fundraising, expanded facilities, and won championships over the past 16 years.
The accomplishments under Littlepage’s watch include raising more than $500 million through the Virginia Athletics Foundation, including $130 million for the John Paul Jones Arena and $13 million for the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility. UVA also reaffirmed its position in the ACC, helping the league up its outside revenue through TV and other conference contracts.
Prior to this sustained period of success, Virginia sat on the verge of a University Task Force recommendation to tier its sports, which would have eliminated some funding for some sports. Instead, the school with its alumni and supporters decided to up its assistance for athletics. The VAF formed a growing endowment and athletics moved toward fully funding scholarships across all sports. The department also moved away from part-time and volunteer coaches to full-time coaching staffs, upped the academic support system, and improved other facets of the programs as well.
What followed those decisions has been a consistent level of success. The Cavaliers have finished among the top 20 in the Director’s Cup that measures all-sports standings for each of the last 11 years. They’ve also won a league-leading 64 ACC team titles since the conference expanded in 2004-05. Over the entire course of his tenure. Littlepage watched Virginia teams bring home 76 ACC Championships and 13 NCAA National Championships. So while there are things he “would like to have accomplished” during his time as Virginia’s Director of Athletics, it’s by and large been a successful run.
”One of my projects in retirement may be to figure out a display for all that bling,” Littlepage said with a smile. ”It’s been fun. Hopefully there are a few more before I officially end.”