The Maine Red Claws basketball operations underwent a jolt Friday, leaving the NBA Development League team without a head coach and a general manager.
Early Friday, the team announced that Dave Leitao, who coached the Red Claws last season, left to return to college basketball as an assistant coach with Missouri.
Then, later in the day, Jon Jennings stepped down as president and general manager to concentrate on his role on the development team of The Forefront at Thompson’s Point project.
Jennings is largely responsible for bringing the D-League team to Portland and partnering it with the Boston Celtics as an affiliate, along with Charlotte and Philadelphia.
Co-owner and chairman Bill Ryan Jr. will assume Jennings’ role as team president. He said Friday night that the Red Claws are, and will be, in good shape.
“Thankfully the season doesn’t start until November,” he said. “All I can say is that there will be more information forthcoming in the next week or so.
“We’ll be fine on basketball operations.”
Both moves were surprising, especially Jennings’ departure.
Under his leadership, the Red Claws became a model franchise for the D-League. This year, Maine won five of the league’s six business awards, and was honored with the Best Sponsorship Activation Award for its series of summer clinics. The team is also among the league leaders in community service.
But he and Ryan had been discussing a change of responsibilities for the last couple of weeks, or since the Portland Planning Board gave final approval for the Thompson’s Point project on June 5, allowing the start of construction on the $105 million project to begin this summer.
The project will include a 3,500-4,800 seat arena, hotel, sports medicine facility, parking garage, restaurant and two office buildings. It is expected to be the home of Red Claws’ games beginning with the 2014-15 season.
“I am incredibly proud of the organization that we have built at the Maine Red Claws, and the staff that we have assembled,” Jennings said in a statement released by the team. “We brought an unknown product to Maine in 2009, and it has grown to become a model among NBA Development teams.
“I am looking forward to the new challenge of bringing The Forefront at Thompson’s Point to fruition and to seeing the Red Claws play in a brand new arena there in the not-too-distant future.”
Leitao said he was contacted by Frank Haith, the coach at Missouri and a close friend, a couple of weeks ago. The chance to return to college basketball, where he spent 16 seasons as an assistant and nine as a head coach at three schools, was too much to pass up. His family, which stayed in Virginia last year while he coached in Portland, will join him at Missouri.
“That was important to me,” Leitao said. “As was my relationship with Frank and my 20-plus years at the college level.”
Leitao led the Red Claws to a 21-29 record last year in his only year as a professional coach. While they missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year, he displayed an ability to get the best out of his players every night.
“I had a great time in Portland,” said Leitao. “I learned a lot, especially about myself. When I left Virginia (his last head coaching job before taking the Red Claws), my mind-set was that I wanted to become a better version of myself.
“Dealing with all the things involved with the pro game was a great learning experience. It wasn’t just Xs and Os, but learning how to deal with people.”
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: