Q&A with Penn basketball alum Craig Littlepage
Former Quakers coach and current Virginia AD talks long-term changes in athletic administration and more
October 28, 2013, 11:58 pm·
_Although he has served as Virginia’s athletic director since 2001, Craig Littlepage’s much of college basketball career will always be associated with Penn. Littlepage played for the Quakers from 1970-73 and was a part of Penn’s legendary of 1970-71 squad that notched an undefeated record (26-0) and advanced to the Eastern Regional Final in the NCAA Tournament (inexplicably losing 90-47 to a Villanova team it had beaten earlier in the season).
Littlepage went on to become the Quakers’ head coach from 1982-85 after serving as an assistant at Virginia for six seasons. He led Penn to the NCAA tournament in his final game here before moving onto Rutgers._
The Daily Pennsylvanian: Since you’re from La Mott, did that proximity to Philadelphia make you aware of Big 5 basketball growing up?
Craig Littlepage: Absolutely. Any kids that played either junior high or high school basketball during that era was intimately familiar with Big 5 basketball. The Big 5 was probably the premier association in terms of basketball affiliation. It was a dream for virtually any good high school player to have a chance to play for one of the Big 5 schools.
DP: What did you learn from guys like Steve Bilsky and Dave Wohl and Corky Calhoun, some of the leaders of the ’71 team, your first year as a letterwinner?
Craig Littlepage: They were lessons in teamwork and sacrifice. The focus was never on one individual player, or a star if you will, but it was on the team as a group and the contributions of all 15 members of the team. Everybody, whether they were a star or not, whether they played in the game or not, had a role with the team. A fellow like Jimmy Haney, for example, who had several serious knee injuries, and didn’t have a lot of opportunities to play, took seriously the role that he had as a guy that had to push Bilsky and Wohl and the other guard in practice, and he took great pride in the fact that his role was an important one to get them prepared for games. He took every bit as much pride in the success of the team as anybody, and I think the guys that were the starters primarily were guys that never made the younger guys feel like they were anything less than full, contributing members of the Penn basketball program. They brought lessons of humility, sacrifice, and teamwork each and every day.
DP: One more question about the ’71 team. Sweeping the regular season, what was that run like while it lasted from your perspective?
Littlepage: It was a situation where regardless of the opponent, our team went out there expecting to win every game that we played We played some really good teams throughout the course of the season, had a couple of real interesting big 5 encounters. But we always approached things from the standpoint that we were a great team, and we were great not only because of the record but also I think the rankings showed that we were one of the top five teams in the country from start to finish,. We went out with the feeling that every time we took the court, regardless of the opponent, that we were going to win.
DP: If you can remember back, how big was the revenge factor your junior year when you beat Villanova twice, once in the NCAAs after they had stunned you guys in the tourney the previous year. Did you approach those games from the standpoint of new coach, new leaders, new matchup, or were those victories a bit of payback at the time?
Littlepage: I don’t payback ever entering into our discussions or preparation. There was too much to concern our selves with just to get prepared to play. They were outstanding teams that they had, and to get caught up in drama, to get caught up in anything that happened in the previous year or anything along those lines was going to be counterproductive so the focus was on how do we prepare for beating an outstanding team like this.
DP: What or who inspired you to get into coaching after graduating?
Littlepage: I benefitted by having an unbelievable relationship with coach [Rollie] Massimino, who was one of our assistant coaches from 1971-73. Over the course of the academic year, whenever I had a free minute, I would go to the office and pick Mass’s brain and I’d watch films and I just liked the whole idea of trying to break opponents down and trying to prepare for whoever that opponent might be, and coach Mass was very generous and very patient and very willing to spend time with me and help me understand what it was that he and other members of the coaching staff did to get the team prepared.
So I would say that that was probably one of the things that entered into my mind. I’d always been blessed from grade school on to play for people that were the consummate professionals in terms of educators, teachers and coaches, and I just valued the way in which I was taught the game of basketball and other sports by those people for whom I played from a very early age to the time I was in college.
DP: You said in an interview with the Cavalier daily from 1979 that what attracted you be a part of Telly Holland’s program was that you had similar coaching philosophies. What was that coaching philosophy? And did you have a set philosophy that you brought to Penn and Rutgers later on?
Littlepage: I would say that in all the places that I’ve had the opportunity to place and then work as a coach that the programs themselves were not focused on accumulating character at the expense of character. That there had to be a very strategic blend of bringing guys in who were quality students interested in getting a degree but were also interested in the process of what it would take to be a member of a team, and a member of a winning team and a winning program. And so everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been a part of programs where the coaching staff was committed to character development, leadership development, and the development of the total student athlete beyond what the players did as basketball players exclusively.
DP: A lot of coaches that I’ve talked to have said that college basketball recruiting is a process that has heightened exponentially in the last decade or so. How do you think recruiting evolved while you were coaching? Was that aspect of your job any more taxing in your second stint coaching at UVA than your first?
Littlepage: The critical timeframe for me would be the mid to late 1980s, probably early ’90s. I think there became an increasing level of influence over talented high school prospects from intermediaries and others that were not prior to that time heavily involved in decisions that top ranked basketball players were making. When I first got into coaching in 1973, you recruited the prospect, you recruited the family, you recruited the high school coach.
As we got into the mid ’80s and the late ’80s, the high school team became a little bit less important, because there were all kinds of non scholastic basketball teams and tournaments that were taking place. The high school summer leagues where we did so much evaluation in years prior to that time were becoming less and less important.
It was all about AAU and non-scholastic team that were being heavily supported by shoes companies and other entities. So I remember a situation around 1988 or 1989 where we were recruiting a very talented student-athlete and we thought the University of Virginia would be perfect for him. After we got a couple of months into the recruiting process we had invited this prospect to a visit to the University of Virginia and the prospect’s coach told us that this young man would not be visiting the University of Virginia because at the time we were wearing Reebok shoes instead of Adidas or we were wearing Adidas instead of Nike.
And it became increasingly clear that there were other influences in the lives of these high schools prospects that the high school coach, the high school team, and the high school itself were much less important than all these other affiliations that the prospects had in terms of where they were playing their basketball.
So I’d say that was the biggest change and that was starting to take place in the mid-to-late ’80s.
From my standpoint, college sports is still about education and playing a sport, and the trend seemed to be at the time that the influence of the high school team and coach had diminishing influence in terms of the prospects’ considering of schools and ultimately where they would visit and where they would attend. At least with the high school coach, the assistant coaches, the guidance counselors, these are people that are accountable to somebody in terms of the welfare of the perspective student athletes, whereas other people were not accountable to any educational institution or administrative body for how they were overseeing the recruiting process.
From the standpoint of how I was viewing it, the accountability of teachers, counselors, etc on the one hand with the high school, versus the lack of accountability that was taking place with the other types representatives, I just the like the idea of being able to go into a school, talk to the school, talk to the counselor and people that were tasked with looking out for the welfare of the high school prospect.
DP: While we’re on the subject, what was the recruiting process for Ralph Sampson like? I know he wanted to state anyway, so how did you sell UVA to him?
Littlepage: Actually, he didn’t necessarily want to stay in state, and the competition for him was as intense because every Division 1 school in the country recruited him and some felt more so than others that they had a legitimate chance to get him, but at every game there were a half a dozen to a dozen or more schools that were there because of their desire to get him to sign on with their institutions.
The recruiting started as early as his sophomore year when we had heard about this young man that was a very talented player that was only an hour away, and certainly a player of his talent and his size is someone that can’t be hidden away by any measure, and we focused for good reason the recruitment efforts of our staff on Ralph for a two to two-and-a-half year period of time because we felt that he was the one young man who was coming out of high school at a point in the history of our program where even beyond the things he could do as a basketball player, there were things he could do as a student and a leader as a UVA student athlete and ultimately as a graduate of UVA, there were things he could do that nobody else would be able to do on the basis of his character and on the basis of his talent.
DP: Would you say that he was head and shoulders above any other player that you’ve ever coached?
Littlepage: Just in terms of the magnitude of everything about him – his size, his talent, his accomplishments – from that standpoint, yes.
DP: What was the chemistry like between yourself and Mr. Sampson and Terry Holland? I know that Holland and Sampson are both known for being reserved. Were you similar to them, or what was your role at the time between them?
Littlepage: The thing that I always admired about Ralph was that he was a consummate teammate, and as big as his talent was, and as gaudy as his statistics were, and as much attention as he received from the national media over the course of his career at UVA, he never saw himself as being above anybody, he had as good relationships with walk-ons and non-starters as he had with guys that were starters for the team. I just felt as though he was an unusual star in that regard, in that he didn’t thrive on needing the attention on himself, he wanted the attention on his team, he wanted his attention on winning, and I think that that sort of character, that sort of mindset and approach, was something that started with Terry Holland and the great job that he did in mentoring Ralph throughout the time that we were recruiting him as well as when he did come to the University of Virginia.
DP: When you became head coach at Penn, you were following a long string of really successful coaches. Did you feel any pressure in that situation coming after several successful eras at your alma mater?
Littlepage: I think anybody that gets into coaching at any level with any sport does a assume a certain level of pressure attached to that and certainly with the success that the Penn program had had over several decades both from an Ivy League and Big 5 standpoint as well as nationally, there’s no doubt that I felt a certain level of pressure. But pressure was because of the great responsibility that was trusted as a result of being named the head coach, and as you mentioned, being a product of the university and the basketball program, I certainly wanted to do anything possible to maintain the level of competitiveness and ensure all the guys had the experience that I had as a student and a basketball player at the University, so that’s where the pressure came from, just the responsibility of upholding a legacy that was an outstanding one.
DP: How would you characterize your first year as head coach at Penn? I know that Paul Little was coming back and there was a pretty deep roster, and that team was expected to be special at the time.
Littlepage: We started the year very strong, got out of the gates fast, beat Villanova for the first time in a number of year in a great game in early December, beat La Salle, then we kind of hit the physically and mentally in maybe the second half or last third of the season. But I think it was a good year, it was just unfortunate that we did have high hopes and we got off to a very good start, but nonetheless there were some things that were established along the way that gave us an opportunity to feel as though we were going to be able to continue building.
DP: In the NCAA game against Memphis St., your final game at Penn, you were seeded 15th and led them by 8 with 8 minutes to go, What did you think about how that entire game played out, and did feel like you guys weren’t as outmatched as conventional wisdom would dictate?
Littlepage: When the matchup came, that were going to be playing Memphis state, my first thought was with their size, I thought we had an opportunity to give them some trouble. We had tremendous depth in terms of our back court, and I felt as though because of their size, they would have difficulty chasing us around, guarding us, in terms of halfcourt defense in particular, and felt that if we were able to do anything to control them, to keep them off their game, to keep them off the boards, I thought that we had a chance of beating them even though the odds were against us, but the rest of the coaches and I had confidence that it was really going to come down to how we defended them and how we rebounded as far as our chance to win.
I knew that we could run offense and score against them, and for the most part that played out, and it wasn’t until one of their big men, I think William Bedford, got his fourth foul late in the game while we were still ahead, and Memphis St, instead of putting another big guy in the game, the put a 6’4” kid in his place, and that changed the complexity of the game from the standpoint that they were able to more successfully match up with us, and what I remember was that everything changed at that point. They were able to match up with us, they were able to make it difficult for us to run an offense and to score.
DP: Who was the best player you coached at Penn? Does any one individual stand out?
Littlepage: We had a number of really good players. Paul Little, as you mentioned, Bruce Lefkowitz, Perry Bromwell were also very good players during that same era. There were a number of other guys that were great complements to what we were trying to do overall. But those would be the guys whose names that would pop into the mind quickest, Phil Pitts was another one, although I only coached him for one year, he showed signs in that one year of someone that was going to be a heck of a basketball player.
DP: When you left Penn, obviously the team was coming off an impressive NCAA appearance despite actually having a losing record. When you left for Rutgers, were you confident that you were leaving the program better than you found it?
Littlepage: I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as saying better than whenI found it, but I definitely felt as though it was in great shape on the basis that we had put together returning players, the quality of the returning players, Lefkowitz, Bromwell, Johnny Wilson to name a few, and the guys that were incoming as well…it was a very young team, and we had some excellent players that were coming in as well, Phil Pitts was also a returning player on that team following the year I left. I felt like the program was in great shape and it was a very deep and young basketball team that was going to be inherited by coach Snyder.
DP: How and why did you make the move from coaching to athletics administration in 1990?
Littlepage: I just got to a point that I wanted something different in my career. I spent a lot of years chasing high school prospects and having no control over my schedule, that sort of thing. And I had done a number of different of things here – during the time I had been coaching, I had the opportunity to make a transition into administration and work with coaches directly related with our 24 sports at the University of Virginia. I kind of liked the challenge that was put before me prior to that – none of our administrative staff had any coaching background at all and I was put into the position of developing our coaching staff from top to bottom. And having coaching experience, I think that gave me a level of credibility with all of our coaches. That allowed me to do a pretty good job of that.
DP: What did you learn from Terry Holland about athletics administrating?
Littlepage: There are a number of things – the most important lesson was just one of being a professional every day and in everything I do.
DP: How has that position evolved since you became an assistant athletic director over 20 years ago?
Littlepage: I believe the roles of administration have changed over the last 23 years in that when I first got into athletic administration, the roles of assistant and associate athletic directors did a lot of different things. Where we have evolved is that many administrators are now specialists in certain areas.
DP: What was your experience serving as the chairman of the NCAA selection committee like?
Littlepage: It was a tremendous experience that included a lot of hard work. It was one of those responsibilities where I received a lot of free advice from people all over the country that apparently knew the job of committee chair better than I and by colleagues had.
It was an opportunity to be a very significant part of one of the most special sporting events in our country, and I took an approach of stewardship into the being the chair of the committee. I wanted to make sure that we as a committee did the very best job possible to deliver a great tournament to our stakeholders. I think the committee when I was chair, although we made some controversial decisions, it ended up being one of the most exciting tournaments we had in terms of drama and upsets.
DP: What was it like hosting Penn in the NIT tip off tournament in JPJ last year?
Littlepage: I don’t think that there was any different emotion, although I’ve gotten to know Jerome a little more since he became coach…and the opportunity for his staff and team to see our facility, which is arguably one of the best, if not the best, on campus facility in the country.
DP: Do you think Penn basketball fans can expect UVA back on their schedule in the foreseeable future?
Littlepage: Those decisions about the schedule reside with our coaches. I don’t know exactly for the future what coach Bennett has in mind for scheduling for any specific team. I do know that we spent some time in the New Jersey and Philadelphia area, and usually coaches like to play in areas where we like to recruit or where we have been successful in getting players, so there will probably be discussions our staff has at some point with the Penn staff.
DP: What do you think from the ACC’s perspective, Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse bring to the ACC?
Littlepage: These programs that are coming into the ACC are great programs with phenomenal coaches for whom I have great respect. The quality of their play in recent years, these are some of the top programs in the country in terms of Division 1 basketball so it makes our conference even more difficult than it was before. It just means that when you play in the ACC, there’s no such thing as a night off there’s no game on our schedule in the conference that you can pencil in as a ‘W.’