CHARLOTTESVILLE – His office is closest to Tony Bennett’s at John Paul Jones Arena. That says a lot about Ronnie Wideman’s standing in the men’s basketball program at UVa.
He’s on the Wahoos’ bench during games, but Wideman, 26, is not a coach. His official title is assistant director of operations/video coordinator. His unofficial title: Bennett’s right-hand man.
As such, he’s a busy guy, but Wideman stopped moving long enough to sit down with VirginiaSports.com before a recent practice and talk about his gig at UVa.
ROOTS: Wideman, whose parents now live in Seattle, was born in Enterprise, Ala. His father was in the U.S. Army, and Wideman also lived in Alaska, Kentucky, New York, Germany (twice) and Georgia before his family settled in Washougal, Wash., across the Columbia River from Oregon. Wideman was an eighth-grader when he moved to Washougal, and he stayed there through high school.
EDUCATION: Pullman, Wash., is about a six-hour drive from Washougal. Seattle, home of the University of Washington, is much closer to Washougal, but Wideman has an older sister who “went to U-Dub, and I didn’t like it,” he says. “Didn’t even apply there.” He ended up in Pullman, at Washington State, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 2006 with a bachelor’s in health and fitness education. Like its arch-rival Washington, WSU competes in the Pac-10, which Wideman, who’s still finding his way around the ACC, proudly calls the “Conference of Champions.” At UVa, he’s continuing the work he began at WSU on a master’s in higher education administration.
CAREER PATH: As a freshman, Wideman became a manager on the WSU men’s basketball team, whose coach then was Paul Graham, a protégé of Eddie Sutton. Wideman was the Cougars’ head manager during his junior, senior and fifth years, when he was also doing his student teaching. He now supervises the managers at UVa and fully appreciates their value to the program. “I couldn’t do my job without them,” he says. Dick Bennett, Tony’s father, replaced Graham as Washington State’s coach after the 2002-03 season. The elder Bennett hired Ron Sanchez, who’d been at Indiana, as his director of operations. “Ron took me under his wing,” Wideman says. “He gave me a lot of responsibility. I was his right-hand man.”
PROMOTION: When Tony Bennett took over for his father at WSU after the 2005-06 season, that “opened up a spot for Coach Sanchez on the staff and opened up the operations position,” Wideman says. Sanchez, now a UVa assistant, recommended Wideman for the job. Bennett liked the idea, but Wideman wasn’t an easy sell. “I actually turned it down twice,” he recalls. “I had committed to go to the University of Tulsa as a graduate assistant in compliance.” That appealed to him “because, again, it was the administrative side of things,” said Wideman, who wasn’t interested in coaching. “I thought it was a good next step to get into administration.” His mentor thought differently. A week before Wideman was scheduled to leave for Tulsa, Sanchez cornered him in the coaches’ locker room. “I didn’t let him walk out until he said he’d do it,” Sanchez says. Wideman remembers the day well. “He was, like, ‘You can’t go. You can’t go. This will be something you’ll never forget.’ He sold me right there. Right there I had a change of heart and went and asked Tony if the job was still open.” It was. “If not,” Wideman says, “I wouldn’t be here.” When he took over the operations job at Washington State, he was only 22. “I was almost the same age as some of the players. I had been friends with a lot of the players. When you have to be an authority figure, it changes the dynamic.”
TOUGH CALL: One of Bennett’s first moves after leaving Washington State last spring was to offer Wideman a position on the UVa staff. Ultimately, of course, Wideman accepted, but initially he questioned whether it was the right move for him. “I’d been in Pullman for eight years. My family was close by, and lots of friends,” he says. “I was in my comfort zone.” Bennett’s successor at WSU, Ken Bone, wanted Wideman to stay in his operations post there. “I worked a few days with him, and we got along well,” Wideman says. “I helped in the transition. I really gave it a lot of consideration, but to have the opportunity to work with Tony again in one of the best conferences in the country, meet new people and try to turn this program around was something I couldn’t pass up.”
ON THE JOB: Wideman, who’s single, lives near Monticello High School. He works a lot at home at night, but he tries to be in the office by 8:30 a.m. He usually heads home, if the ‘Hoos don’t have a game, by 7:30 or 8 p.m. “First in, last out,” he says. “That’s the standard I set for myself.” One day he’d like to become an athletics director, or perhaps an associate AD. For now, he happily juggles myriad responsibilties in the basketball office. “I assist with all the day-to-day stuff: Tony’s schedule, the assistants’ schedules and recruiting. Anything I can do to make their jobs easier,” Wideman says. He also keeps the program within its budget, acts as a liaison between players and academic coordinators, works with UVa’s facilities staff, and plans the team’s road trips. His organizational skills and attention to detail ensured the Cavaliers’ visit to Mexico for the Cancun Challenge in November came off without incident, no small feat. “That was an interesting dynamic,” Wideman acknowledges. “With the passports and all of that, it was kind of a mess.” The biggest challenge he’s encountered at his new school? “Learning the Virginia way,” he says. “Different schools just have different ways of doing things.”
WHY HOOPS? “Because it’s indoors. I like to be warm,” Wideman says, smiling. That’s not all he likes about his job. He says he enjoys “being around the players, building relationships with them. Just being part of something bigger than myself.” Three of the basketball staff’s members — Bennett, Sanchez and Wideman — were at Washington State last season. Ritchie McKay and Brad Soucie were at Liberty. Two others — Jason Williford and Mike Curtis — are former UVa players. Together, Wideman says, the staff is “trying to build relationships with the [players] and build trust. Show them they can trust us.”
BABY STEPS: The Cavaliers, 10-18 last season, were picked to finish 11th in the 12-team ACC this year. Virginia (1-0, 9-4) hosts 20th-ranked Georgia Tech (1-1, 12-3) on Wednesday night. “With my competitive nature and the staff’s competitive nature,” Wideman says, “it’s obviously a little more fun when you’re winning games. But we’re taking steps in the right direction.” In Pullman, the Bennetts — Tony was his father’s top assistant — inherited a team that had won a total of three Pac-10 games in its previous two seasons. The Cougars didn’t finish above .500 in any of their three seasons under Dick Bennett, but they were competitive in the conference. And under Tony Bennett, WSU went 69-33 and twice advanced to the NCAA tournament. “Being part of this at Washington State was such a special experience,” Wideman says. “That’s part of the reason I came here. That kind of experience doesn’t come around too often. I believe this program is a sleeping giant.”