Sept. 23, 2009

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — At some schools, the relationship between the head basketball coaches is superficial at best.

Not so at UVa. Debbie Ryan’s office is near Tony Bennett’s at John Paul Jones Arena, and they talk regularly.

“She was just in the office today,” Bennett said Wednesday morning. “She’s been a friendly face, and it’s been good to feel comfortable about her.”

After a stealthy courtship, UVa hired Bennett in late March to replace Dave Leitao, who’d coached the men’s team for four seasons.

Until Bennett came to Virginia from Washington State, Ryan had never actually met him, but “I felt like he was my brother by the time he walked in here,” she said, “because I knew so much about him.”

That’s where Kathi Bennett comes in. “Tony and I are related through his sister,” Ryan said with a smile.

In 2003, Ryan was head coach of the U.S. women’s team that won the silver medal at the Pan American Games. Her assistants included Tony’s sister, then head coach at Indiana.

“Kathi is someone who just idolizes him,” Ryan said, “and every time we’d do something, she would say, ‘Well, Tony does this, and Tony does that.’

“And I’d be like, ‘OK.’ So that’s how I got to know Tony, and then since he got here, obviously, we’ve spent a lot of time doing things together. We’re trying to help out any way we can.”

When he was talking to UVa about its coaching vacancy, Bennett confided in virtually no one. He told his father, but not his sister, who’s now an assistant at Wisconsin.

“Then when I got the job, Kathi said, ‘Oh, man, I worked with Debbie,'” Bennett said. “And I remember when she did that, because was that a great honor, to be part of USA Basketball and the Pan Am Games.”

Ryan has quite a head start on Bennett, whose first season as a head coach was 2006-07. That was Ryan’s 30th season at UVa.

“I’ve picked her brain,” Bennett said. “I told her, ‘You’ve been here 33 years. You know a lot of the ins and outs. You’ve seen what works, what doesn’t.’

“I’ve asked for advice from her, and I’ve appreciated her input. She’s great.”

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