By Jeff White
EUGENE, Ore. — As the UVa men’s basketball team’s visit to the Pacific Northwest approached, Daven Harmeling went on-line to check scores from this season. He noted that Virginia’s opponents were scoring in the 30s, the 40s, the 50s. He also noted that the Cavaliers had lost only once.
“I just smiled to myself, thinking, ‘Tony’s got it going now,’ ” Harmeling recalled. “Because I can look at the box scores and tell the way they’re playing.”
In Tony Bennett’s third year as Virginia’s head coach, his team is playing the same brand of defensive-oriented basketball that made his teams so successful at Washington State. Under Bennett, who succeeded his father, Dick, as their head coach, the Cougars went 69-33 in three seasons, with two trips to the NCAA tournament and one to the NIT.
A 6-7 forward from Grand Junction, Colo., Harmeling was an integral part of those teams. He was a member of Dick Bennett’s first recruiting class at WSU, a group that arrived in Pullman before the 2004-05 school year. A shoulder injury sidelined him in 2005-06, but Harmeling returned as a redshirt sophomore in 2006-07, Tony Bennett’s first season as head coach.
When Harmeling saw that Virginia had pre-Christmas games at Oregon and Seattle, he cleared his schedule. He drove down to Eugene on Saturday and watched UVa practice at Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena, where he traded stories and laughs with assistant coach Ron Sanchez and assistant director of operations Ronnie Wideman. Sanchez and Wideman followed Bennett to UVa from WSU in April 2009.
The practice brought memories rushing back to Harmeling.
“Within the first five minutes, Tony was saying something like, ‘Hey, if you guys don’t want to bring it, we can do breakdown drills for defense all day,’ that type of thing,” Harmeling said. “I was just kind of laughing, thinking, ‘We had a few practices like that.’ It’s the same thing: ‘You come sharp and you bust it, or else we’ll just wait until we get it right.’ “
The next day, Harmeling sat behind the Wahoos’ bench and watched them defeat the Ducks 67-54. The victory stretched their winning streak to seven games. No. 24 Virginia (9-1) plays Wednesday night at Seattle (2-7), and Harmeling will be in the stands at KeyArena. (So will a couple hundred friends and relatives of UVa sophomore swingman Joe Harris, who’s from Chelan, Wash.)
Seattle is about a 2½ hour-drive from Vancouver, Wash., where Harmeling teaches at King’s Way, a Christian high school. “Honestly, if it was an eight-hour drive, I would have made it,” he said. “It just means a lot to me. I just wanted see Tony again.
“When I think of Tony, I’ll always think how he taught me how to be a man. He taught me a lot about passion. He showed me what passion looked like. He showed me what humility looked like. I know it’s almost probably a cliché at this point — the life lessons you get with Tony Bennett — but he and his father have just changed my life completely.”
Dick Bennett, a coaching legend renowned for reviving moribund programs, took on a monumental rebuilding project at Washington State. His top assistant at WSU was his son, and the Bennetts knew they had to recruit certain types of players to succeed in Pullman.
“I knew about Dick, and I figured that if anybody could go to WSU and do it, it was going to be him,” Harmeling recalled. “There’s just something about him. Being in his presence, you believed in him. He didn’t make it out to sound like all roses. He told us how hard it was going to be. You knew you were committing to something that was going to be extremely difficult and challenging and embarrassing at times.”
Tony Bennett is “a little more laidback” than Dick Bennett, Harmeling said. “He has the same expectations as his father in terms of the effort you need to play with, the passion you need to have, and other things like that. But he gives you a little bit more freedom to get the things done that he wants you to get done.”
After he took the job at UVa in the spring of 2009, Tony Bennett went looking for recruits with attitudes like those of the players who had made Washington State a Pac-10 power. His first class included Harris, KT Harrell and Akil Mitchell, now sophomores, and James Johnson, a redshirt freshman.
“It’s very similar,” Bennett recalled Tuesday. “We said, ‘This is the reality of the program. You’re going to be the reason why it turns, and that’s not for everybody. It isn’t. And if that doesn’t appeal to you, then you shouldn’t come here, because you’re going to go through the adversity.’
“There’s a saying we’ve used before: ‘You gotta recruit guys you can lose with first before you win,’ and those were those kind of guys all the way.”
In Bennett’s first season at UVa, his team finished 15-16. The ‘Hoos went 16-15 in 2010-11. Season No. 3 has brought more progress, and Virginia this week cracked The Associated Press’ Top 25 for the first time since November 2007.
Harmeling, a stellar 3-point shooter, started 41 games for the Cougars. Over the course of Harmeling’s career, WSU became increasingly proficient at the Pack Line defense that was Dick Bennett’s trademark. The Cavaliers run the same defense, and they have not allowed more than 58 points in a game this season.
“I remember it took a while before you could really trust it,” Harmeling said. “I think one of the hardest things is being off your defender so far. In the Pack Line, you feel like, ‘I’m going to get scored on.’ It’s hard to trust it at first. But I believe in the Pack Line so much. It really allowed us to beat teams that we shouldn’t have been able to beat.”
Some Washington State fans felt spurned when Bennett left for UVa. Two-and-a-half years later, “I think the emotions have kind of calmed down a little bit,” Harmeling said. “I think people have had time now to think about it more logically than emotionally. It really hurts me when I hear Cougar fans — not that it happens a lot — but every now and then I’ll hear somebody say something like, ‘Tony left us,’ and every time it just breaks my heart to hear that, because people don’t know all the circumstances. People aren’t in Tony’s life and don’t know his family and what was best for him and all that.
“Anybody that’s played for Tony or Dick just has undying loyalty to them. So it just kind of hurts me to hear anything negative said about Tony, because I believe in everything he’s about so much, and he’s changed so many of my closest friends’ lives because of playing for him.”
Harmeling’s words reminded Tony Bennett of the positive impact coaches can have on their players.
“It was great to see him, and see him doing well,” Bennett said. “That’s what you always hope. In a way it’s like it’s your own kids. You’re proud of them like a dad or an older brother. But when you see that they’ve adjusted well and are doing well and are happy in life, that’s the most gratifying thing.”