By Jeff White
MINNEAPOLIS — Dick Bennett was at UVa’s shootaround Monday at the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena. Winding down when the team arrived was a halfcourt pickup game involving, among others, assistant coaches Jason Williford and Ritchie McKay, academic coordinator T.J. Grams, operations wizard Ronnie Wideman, head manager Thomas Tudor and radio analyst Cory Alexander.
Afterward, Bennett joked with Alexander, telling the former UVa great that he’d seen some areas Alexander needed to work on.
Dick Bennett was not in such good mood in that arena on Feb. 5, 2000, according to his son Tony, Virginia’s second-year coach. Never mind that Wisconsin, where the elder Bennett was then head coach, edged Minnesota 66-64 in a Big Ten game that night in front of a capacity crowd at The Barn.
After three seasons with the North Harbor Kings in Auckland, New Zealand, the final two as head coach, Tony Bennett had joined his father’s staff at Wisconsin in 1999-2000 as a volunteer assistant. The Badgers’ freshmen that season included 6-5 guard Kirk Penney, a New Zealander whom the younger Bennett had helped lure from Auckland to Madison, Wis.
In the win over the Golden Gophers, Penney’s line looked this: 0 for 1 from the floor, 0 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist and 3 turnovers in 13 minutes. Afterward, Dick Bennett wasn’t pleased, the Badgers’ victory notwithstanding.
A decade later, his son recounted the story to Virginia’s players to try to loosen them up before their game with No. 15 Minnesota in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The younger Bennett repeated it at his press conference after the Cavaliers’ 87-79 upset of the previously unbeaten Gophers.
On that February night, his father approached him in the locker room, Tony Bennett recalled with a smile, and “he said, ‘Penney’s not good enough.’ He said, ‘You gotta send him back home. He can’t play at this level.’
“I said, ‘Yes, he can, he’s better than anybody else.’ And we had to get separated, because we were going at each other in the locker room, after a win. I remember [assistant coach] Brad Soderberg had to keep us apart and said, ‘Hey, we just won.’ So that’s my last memory with my dad here in this place, so we kept him away [Monday night].”
Dick Bennett, who has retired and now lives in Wisconsin, spoke to the UVa players Sunday night at dinner, and he was around the team hotel during the day Monday. When game time arrived that night, however, he was nowhere to be seen at Williams Arena.
That’s not unusual. Dick Bennett, who also coached with Tony at Washington State, finds it nerve-wracking to watch his son’s games in person. But the younger Bennett had a good idea what his father would think of a game in which the Wahoos allowed the Gophers to shoot 57.7 percent from the floor in the first half and 50 percent for the game.
“I’m sure he’ll say, ‘Nice defense, son,’ ” Tony Bennett said, smiling again.
That Wisconsin team, incidentally, went on to reach the Final Four in 2000. Penney averaged only 3.7 points and 1.4 rebounds as a freshman, but he soon justified Tony Bennett’s faith in him, and won over the Badgers’ fiery head coach.
Penney averaged 11.2 points as a sophomore and 15.1 as a junior. He led the Badgers in scoring (16.2 ppg) as a senior and also averaged 6 rebounds and 3.1 assists.