By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After an 1,100-mile drive from their home in rural Wisconsin, Dick and Anne Bennett arrived here early this week for an extended stay with their son and his family.
So we can expect to see Dick Bennett at John Paul Jones Arena on Friday night, right?
“I don’t know,” the coaching legend said Wednesday at JPJ. “I don’t go to many of Tony’s games. I get too nervous.”
For years, the elder Bennett was the one in the big chair, first at high schools across Wisconsin and then in four college programs: the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, UW-Green Bay, UW-Madison (more commonly known as Wisconsin) and, finally, Washington State.
After the 2005-06 season, however, Dick Bennett retired a second time — this time for good — and turned the WSU program over to his son. Tony Bennett went 69-33 in three seasons in Pullman, Wash., with two trips to the NCAA tournament, before leaving last spring for UVa.
Dick Bennett’s first job as a head coach was at Mineral Point High in Wisconsin. When he was hired in 1965, the school had about 300 students in grades 9-12. So when he looks around at the practice gym and weight room and coaches’ offices and locker rooms at the JPJ — not to mention the main court itself — he marvels at his son’s work place.
“It’s overwhelming when you think about the very humble places that we’ve been, and that even includes Wisconsin. This engulfs Wisconsin’s facility, which is wonderful,” said Dick Bennett, who’d never been to Charlottesville before this week.
“I literally came from the bottom up, so for me it’s overwhelming. I don’t know how Tony feels. He had some experience in relatively glamorous spots, including the NBA. For me, it’s a little intimidating. Hopefully it’s not intimidating for Tony.”
Tony Bennett played for his father at UW-Green Bay and was a staff volunteer on the Wisconsin team, coached by Dick, that advanced to the Final Four in 2000.
He was his father’s top assistant at Washington State for three seasons before ascending to the head job.
From his father, Tony has learned many things, humility among them.
“He’s very passionate, a fiery Italian guy,” Tony said. “He’d get after his guys with great intensity. But whenever he’d really get after a guy and maybe step over the line — whether it was at the end of the practice that night, the next day, sometimes in front of the team, sometimes one on one — he’d apologize and say, ‘I’m sorry, I made a mistake. Forgive me. I didn’t mean to act that way. I lost my temper.'”
It impressed him, Tony said, to “see someone who is that successful with that much wisdom have the humility to do that. I always thought it was a great example, a life lesson to the young men. When someone’s not afraid to admit, ‘I screwed up, I made a mistake,’ I think that really validates them and gives them some more substance with the players.
“I always marveled at that, and I thought that was an awesome attribute. He was a humble man, but the other thing is, he always found a way [for his teams to be competitive]. He knew what he wanted. He didn’t get too swayed by what other people were saying. He knew what needed to be done to give them a chance to be successful.”
Those who’ve observed father and son include Tony’s sister Kathi and Brad Soderberg.
Kathi Bennett, who’s about seven years older than Tony, is now an assistant coach on the women’s team at Wisconsin.
“My dad, he’s got that fiery passion,” she said. “Tony, his bite might be worse than his bark. Be careful. My dad’s bark might have been worse than his bite.”
Soderberg, one of Tony’s closest friends in the coaching profession, can attest to that. He played for Dick at UW-Stevens Point and later was on his staff at Wisconsin. Soderberg was named the Badgers’ interim coach, in fact, after Dick unexpectedly retired early in the 2000-01 season.
“Tony doesn’t bark as loud as Dick does, but he’s got strong jaws,” said Soderberg, now the head coach at Lindenwood University, an NAIA school in Cape Charles, Mo. “He’ll bite you too.”
From his father, who was renowned for his ability to revive moribund programs, Tony also learned the importance of recruiting selfless players of high character.
“My dad said, ‘I gotta recruit a group of guys I can lose with first before I win,'” Tony said. “The point was, you’re going to go through that adversity in this building process, and you better have the kind of players that, whether it’s going really good or not going good, they’re just going to stay together. Because eventually when they get mature, some good things are going to happen.”
The Cavaliers, 10-18 in 2008-09, were picked to finish 11th in the 12-team ACC this season.
“I would think that this club would be very competitive the last third of the season, if they aren’t before then,” Dick Bennett said, “if they’ll stay the course and get beyond their comfort level.
“And that’s Tony’s job. He’s got to stretch them and take them out of their comfort zone. He’ll find a real core from this group to go with some nice recruits, and the upward trend should continue next season.”
By Tony’s third season at UVa, his father believes, the work put in during the first and second years should pay significant dividends.
The younger Bennett plays the Pack Line defense devised by his father and now used by such teams as Wake Forest. Like his father, Tony favors an offensive system that limits turnovers and produces high-percentage shots.
“I believe it’s necessary to have a system,” Dick said, “be it up-tempo, pressure-oriented, motion, whatever. But team defense has to be one of those cornerstones. I don’t know how you can do it without defense or without taking care of the ball.”
In his UVa golf shirt, the elder Bennett looked very much at home as his son ran practice nearby. About 50 hours later, Virginia would open against Longwood. Nervous or not, Dick allowed that he might attend the game after all.
His brother Bob is coming down from D.C. for the opener. “If I don’t go, I might not see him,” Dick Bennett said with a smile.