By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He was introduced at an April 1 news conference in John Paul Jones Arena, where he charmed his audience with his smile, his Midwestern values and his lack of pretense.
Some seven months later, in the same building, Tony Bennett is about to coach his first basketball game at the University of Virginia. UVa hosts Longwood on Nov. 13, and a fan base that’s suffered through football season will watch Bennett’s team closely, hoping to spot signs of life in the program he was hired to revive.
Bennett is delighted that fans are excited, and he’s excited, too. He’s also realistic.
“You want the team to play well, you want to put on a good showing, there’s no question,” he said. “But I hope it’s been one of my strengths as a coach, and as a player, to be pretty even-keeled. You don’t let your highs be too high or your lows be too low. I’m in it for the long haul, and whether we knock it out of the park [on opening night], we don’t, or somewhere in between, it’s a long season, and I don’t think you get too carried away about that.”
Bennett, 40, speaks from experience. He saw his father, the legendary coach Dick Bennett, rebuild programs at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, at UW-Green Bay and at Wisconsin. Together they turned around the program at Washington State.
“There’s just a building process that needs to take place,” said Tony Bennett, a native of Clintonville, Wis. “Do all fans understand that? Do media? Do alumni? Not all. But you have to have a plan, and you have to stick it to it.”
When the Bennetts arrived in Pullman, Wash., they inherited a team that had won three Pac-10 Conference games — total — in the previous two seasons. For three years, Bennett was his father’s top assistant, and they made incremental progress. The Cougars didn’t finish above .500 in any of those three seasons, but they were competitive in the Pac-10.
The breakthrough came in 2006-07, Tony Bennett’s first season as a head coach. Washington State went 26-8 and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round, and Bennett was named national coach of the year.
A season later, the Cougars went 26-9 and reached the Sweet 16.
“There’s a formula we kind of follow,” Bennett said. “You get the job, and you bring in a [recruiting] class that you don’t coach the first year you come in. Usually it’s when that class becomes third- and fourth-year that, hopefully, you really see some fruit. But there is a process.”
Bennett recalls a conversation he had with UVa’s athletics director — now his boss — last spring. Virginia had parted ways with Dave Leitao after a 10-18 season and was searching for his successor.
“When I was in the interview process, I asked Craig Littlepage, ‘What are your expectations?'” Bennett said. “That was important, because I know if you’re going to try to build a program with a good base that’s hopefully going to last in a league like this, you’ve got to have the ability to build it kind of step-by-step and do it the way I thinks works best: Get a group of young men to come in, mature them, get guys that’ll buy into your style, and play in a way that gives you a chance, and that does take some time.
“Now, does it mean you don’t go after it in your first year, your second or third years? Can you have success? Absolutely you can, but there is a process that takes place.”
The process began at UVa last spring with the installation of his system. Like most coaches, Bennett preaches the importance of defense. His teams at Washington State practiced what he preached.
His first ranked 17th nationally in scoring defense. His second team improved to third, and his final group in Pullman led the nation in that category.
Bennett smiles easily and often, and curse words aren’t part of his every-day vocabulary. He’s unfailingly polite, a teacher who keeps the atmosphere in practice positive. He has little patience, though, for defensive lapses.
“He always says that his bite is worse than his bark,” UVa point guard Sammy Zeglinski said, “and I feel like that’s true. He is firm, definitely, about his principles on the defensive end. If we break one of them, he’ll definitely tell us about it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“His whole facial expression changes,” sophomore guard Sylven Landesberg said with a smile. “His face turns red. He gets that look, and you’re like, ‘Aw, man, there’s no games anymore.'”
And when the Wahoos have the ball? Bennett knows that some fans are bracing for games played in the 50s. He laughed when he recounted a question a UVa student asked him recently.
“He said, ‘We’ve heard a lot about your style. Are we going to have any fun watching you this year?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I hope you’ll see our kids play hard. Ultimately, if we’re successful, it’ll be fun.'”
Bennett’s teams at Washington State were known for their deliberate, patient offensive sets. Nationally, the Cougars ranked 208th in scoring offense in 2006-07, 221st in 2007-08 and 314th last season.
At UVa, Bennett believes, he should be able to recruit more offensively gifted players, and he doesn’t intend to rein them in. He played point guard in the NBA after a sensational career at UW-Green Bay — he’s still the NCAA’s career leader in 3-point shooting percentage (49.7) — and appreciates creativity with the ball.
“I know everybody’s got me penned in as being this guy who’s going to walk the ball up the floor every single time,” Bennett said, “and shoot with five seconds left.”
The reality, he says, is otherwise.
“I really think to be a good team offensively, you better have a balance,” he said. “I think you have to run when the opportunities are there, but you also have to be patient and sound in the halfcourt.”
When UVa hired his son, Dick Bennett talked about the similarities and differences in their approaches.
“Offensively, he tends to do things the way I wanted to,” the elder Bennett said. “But I was always sort of at the beginning of a rebuilding project — whether it was at UW-Stevens Point or at UW-Green Bay or Wisconsin or Washington State — and we were generally so undermanned that I had to be really conscious of tempo and trying to control the number of possessions.
“But with more talent I wanted to do more things, and Tony tends to do more.”
Bennett comes from a coaching family. There’s Dick Bennett, of course, and his brother Jack Bennett — Tony’s uncle — who won two NCAA Division III national championships at UW-Stevens Point. Tony’s sister, Kathi, is a former head coach of the women’s team at Indiana University.
Like many in the coaching profession, she expects her kid brother to thrive at UVa.
“He’s just so gifted,” said Kathi Bennett, now an assistant at Wisconsin. “He’s got an incredible passion and intensity, but he’s got a poise, a calmness about him, that’s special. He’s got such a great balance.”
The next chapter in Bennett’s coaching career begins Nov. 13. His first game in college basketball’s most storied conference comes about two months later at N.C. State. Dates with North Carolina and Duke and the ACC’s other heavyweights will follow.
“Right now I’m looking forward to it,” Bennett said with a smile last month. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to say that when we’re in January and February. But one of the things that drew me to Virginia was an opportunity to coach in a league like this, where nothing but your best will give you a chance.
“I’m realistic where our program is at, but also hopeful and optimistic about the opportunity that it’s front of us, if we can get something going.”
For bold predictions, look elsewhere.
“I’m not about hype,” Bennett said. “What good does that do? The proof will be in the pudding. It’s more substance than style.”
On one wall in his office at the JPJ is a large poster of Rocky from the Oscar-winning film of the same name. Bennett wants his players to embrace the boxer’s underdog mentality.
“We’ve got to earn some respectability, and that’s going to take some time,” he said. “But that’s the mentality that I want in this program. Whether the results come sooner or down the road, I want us to be about the things of quality that I know will end up working in the long haul.”