June 22, 2022

After Leading Culture Shift To Upgrade Stuart Sports, AD Leith Taking Winning Approach to the Bullis School

PACKING A PUNCH: Justin Leith makes a point while serving as the head coach of the Stuart Country Day School basketball team. Leith, who was also the Stuart Country Day School director of athletics, is leaving the school to become the AD at the Bullis School in Potomac, Md. Leading a culture shift to upgrade Stuart sports upon arriving at the school in 2014, the Tartans earned numerous Prep B titles in indoor track, outdoor track and basketball during Leith’s tenure. In addition, the field hockey team advanced to Mercer County Tournament final in 2019 and the basketball squad made the MCT title game in 2020. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

When Justin Leith became the director of athletics at the Stuart Country Day School in 2014, he had a mandate to inspire the school’s teams to compete harder and better.

“The reason I took the job was because the school and the administrators were pining for more athletic achievement, there was a want for that and a need for sure,” said Leith, a former basketball star at Princeton Day School who went on to play in the college and pro ranks and had served as an associate athletics director and hoops coach at the Asheville School (N.C.) for three years before coming to Stuart.

“To have that transformation take place, there needed to be a culture shift. It meant small things, like being punctual to practice, making sure that game attendance is required. I remember a lacrosse game in my first year and all of a sudden the day before six of the players couldn’t make because of a Sweet 16 birthday. It is not the kids’ fault, there was no expectation that was created.”

Leith moved swiftly to create a winning culture. “We were able to do that through parent-student contracts, conversations, and a coaches handbook,” said Leith, who also served as the head coach of the Stuart basketball team. “There were a few bumps in the road but everyone was responsive, everyone was great.”

That responsiveness led to more Stuart students getting involved in athletics.

“Without enrollment growth, we have participation go up significantly in the upper school,” said Leith. “That was done, adding some sports but then it was also a culture thing, kids wanting to play multiple sports. We had our sports awards the other day and we had over 25 kids this year that got a certificate for being three-sport athletes. That is a good percentage of kids in the school.”

With the increased numbers and a more serious approach, Stuart has earned numerous Prep B titles in indoor track, outdoor track, and basketball during Leith’s tenure. In addition, the field hockey team advanced to Mercer County Tournament final in 2019 and the basketball squad made the MCT title game in 2020.

Now, Leith, 41, is looking to impact a new athletic culture as he is leaving Stuart at the end of the month to become the athletic director of the Bullis School in Potomac, Md.

Noting that Bullis reached out to him and the selection process included a number of Zoom interviews and a full-day session on campus, Leith is excited for the challenge of running the school’s big-time sports program which competes in both the Interstate Athletic Conference and the Independent School League and has sent a number of athletes to the college and pro ranks.

“I think that my greatest strength as an athletic director is vision and implementing that vision,” said Leith, who will be succeeded as Stuart AD by Frances Lyons, the associate athletic director at The Brearley School (N.Y.). “It is a place that is certainly rocking and rolling but there are places where we can make things better.”

Leith demonstrated his ability to implement a vision in building the Stuart hoops program into a powerhouse.

“I enjoyed every up and down and obviously particularly the ups,” said Leith, whose team won state Prep B titles in 2018, 2019, and 2020 in addition to making the program’s first-ever trip to the MCT final in 2020.

“First and foremost, they were wonderful kids. Every kid I have coached since I have been at Stuart from the star player to the last person off the bench has been just a pleasure to be around. That is a testament to Stuart. It was a fun ride.”

While the wins were fun, Leith is just as proud of the impact the team’s success had on the Stuart community.

“The back-to-back-to-back Prep B titles were great as was the county final,” said Leith, who will be succeeded as Tartan hoops head coach by assistant Mandrele Hansford. “The biggest accomplishments are when I think back to flashes and moments like when I was a player. Beating Notre Dame during the regular season one year, that was a great win. I think they were a top 20 team in the state at the time and that put us on the map a little bit. That same thing happened with Saddle River Day. When I think back to those games, I think of the environment of the school where the whole school is packed in this tiny little gym and they are so excited. The way that the school rallied around those teams was really exciting. It wasn’t just basketball, it was field hockey. There is something special about seeing a kid that you see in the third grade gym class screaming her head off.”

Noting that guiding Stuart was the first time he had led a girls’ program, Leith grew as a coach and a person through the experience.

“I have become more patient and more thoughtful,” said Leith. “I did a lot more professional development, pre-COVID. I was going up to UConn to watch their practices. I have been to Rider and Rutgers and up to Merrimack, my alma mater, and watched practices. I went to a lot of coaches’ clinics. I can sit there for three hours and not learn a thing and then at 3:02, I learn one thing and add it to the bag and get all the better. I spent a lot of time with that and it pays dividends.”

Applying that knowledge, Leith was better able to have a lasting impact on his players.

“I am proud of all of the championships of course and getting to county finals and those things but I am really happy that the kids that are going through the program are having a true athletic experience that will carry on even if they are not playing sports at the next level,” said Leith.

“Those life lessons through athletics that we preach all of the time. They are really getting those in whatever program they are playing. When you win that is great but that is the ultimate goal.”

As Leith looks ahead to guiding Bullis athletics, he is hoping to create that same kind of balance.

“I want Bullis to be Stanford,” asserted Leith. “I think across the board we can be an academically rigorous institution but at the same time have every single sport be highly competitive all of the time.”

It will be quite a different institutional situation for Leith, who essentially had a two-person administrative staff at Stuart with trainer Megan Cianfrone serving as associate director of athletics.

“I will have an associate AD, three assistant ADs, and administrative assistant at Bullis,” said Leith. “There are 49 or 50 head coaches and there are a bunch of assistant coaches. It is really like a small college. This is an all hands on deck thing, we are a team. It is like being a coach. I don’t have an ego about taking banners down or cleaning the floor before basketball games. Whatever has to be done, I am willing to do. There is not a hierarchy in that sense but at the end of the day but I am the one who has to make the decisions and I don’t mind doing that, I am comfortable doing that.”

When Bullis Head of School Christian Sullivan asked Leith to coach the girls’ varsity hoops team, he was excited to add that to his AD portfolio.

“I don’t treat this at all like roll the ball out there in November,” said Leith. “This is an all-year thing. He said I know what you can do as a coach and I want you to be an example. I am pumped, I have a couple of freshmen already. I think it will be easier, not that it is ever easy at all, because of the amount of help that I have. I will be able to delegate during the season whereas it is very difficult in the season when it is just myself and Megan and she is a trainer too. It is larger but I will have more help.”

While Leith is pumped for his new job, it wasn’t easy for him to leave Stuart.

“I will really miss the kids; when I first started it was shocking to people that I was working at an all-girls school,” said Leith. “I never once in my time here during the day or during sports thought about that fact. They are a bunch of really great kids. They are impressive, they are kind, they are funny and they all have different personalities. It is a special place for sure.”

And under Leith’s leadership, Stuart became a better place for sports during his time there.