Thinking Back, Looking Ahead
Craig Littlepage, University of Virginia
While many of his peers with an economics degree from Penn’s Wharton School graduated with an eye toward Wall Street or finance, Craig Littlepage had a different calling — literally. That call came from legendary Villanova basketball coach Rollie Massimino, who hired Littlepage, a forward for the Quakers, to be his assistant coach. That triggered an unexpected career path for Littlepage, who eschewed a job with IBM to become a coach, and later the athletic director at Virginia. Littlepage, who was the first African-American AD in the ACC in 2001, established himself as one of the most respected leaders in the country over the last 16 years before retiring in December, proudly handing UVA’s keys to new AD Carla Williams, the first African-American female AD in a power five conference. Littlepage shared his perspective on 45 years in collegiate athletics with staff writer Michael Smith.
My involvement in basketball allowed me to be influenced by some of the greats in college basketball. Going back to high school, my coach was Paul Westhead. My freshman coach at Penn was Digger Phelps. My first varsity year the coach was Dick Harter. My junior year the coach was Chuck Daly, and he had an assistant who was Rollie Massimino. Rollie offered me a job when he got the head coaching position at Villanova. And then I worked with Terry Holland at Virginia. It was basketball that influenced me and facilitated me to become an athletic director.
During the time I attended Penn, my summer job was in the marketing and manufacturing office at IBM, downtown Philadelphia, 9 to 5, coat and tie. I thought I’d be pretty happy to work at a great company like IBM, or maybe teaching and coaching. Well, late in my senior year, I found a message taped to the door of my room: “Call Coach Mass.” Coach Massimino had gotten the head job at Villanova and he said, “Page, I want you to come with me.” I thought he meant we were going to lunch. He wanted me to be on his staff, and that’s how I got into coaching.
Getting the AD job at Virginia [in 2001], my only concern was wanting the program to be better than when I walked in the door. I had been at Virginia [since 1990] as a coach and administrator, so I knew all of the people — coaches, administrators, donors — and they knew me. So, I had an advantage, I knew the environment, the landscape, the people, and I had a plan to make Virginia a top-10 program. None of that related to being the first African-American AD in the conference. I didn’t have to face a lot of that because everybody knew me.
I had a particularly good relationship with our coaches and I already miss that daily interaction. Going beyond the professional, but also the personal side of getting to know our coaches and their families.
[I won’t miss receiving] the free advice. Mondays after a home football game would be filled with free advice about parking, traffic, transportation, band, concessions, recruiting, offense, defense, how the field is lined, the PA, music selection, whether the horse ran onto the field the right way. All of that, I won’t miss. At the same time, that does reflect the passion and loyalty of our fans, which I’m grateful for.
There’s still a lot of work to go, but there have been some tremendous accomplishments across the ACC, coaching and administratively. At one point in the ACC, half or more than half of all basketball coaches were African-American, all at one time. Now Virginia is the first to have an African-American female athletic director, and that’s significant because it shows leadership comes in a lot of shapes, colors, backgrounds, and that if a person works hard and does the right things and gets the opportunity, they can be an AD. Carla Williams here, I’m sure, is going to be a huge success, and I’m going to do everything in my power to see that it happens.
There’s no more powerful message for your student athletes across the board to see that great leadership comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. What we do in athletics so well [is that] color very rarely enters that locker room. It’s the best example of diversity that you can find on a university.
Our coaches tend to have success and they tend to stay [at Virginia] for a long time. I was the athletic director for 16 years and only once did one of our head coaches leave to go to another college job. That was swimming and he left to go to his alma mater, Arizona.
There’s no question the biggest challenge facing ADs is the need to generate resources and bring added value to the institution and the community. We have done so many good things for the student athletes — unlimited meals, academic support, sports nutrition, medicine, mentoring, professional development, year-round scholarships, stipends. All of these things lead to the need to diversify a revenue base that allows you to do all of those things, like travel, salaries, all of these things in the enterprise that are facing rising costs. That’s something I’m sure that keeps my former AD colleagues up at night.
It’s semi-retirement, really, more than retirement. My interest is in enhancing both the university’s efforts to recruit ethnic minority faculty and senior administrators, as well as helping retain the superstar candidates that come to the university. The University of Virginia over a number of years has done an admirable job identifying and recruiting ethnic minority candidates, but once they come to the community, there’s more that can be done to keep them connected.