By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Next to the main court at John Paul Jones Arena, a white-haired gentleman sits in a chair and intently watches as the University of Virginia men’s basketball team practices. He’ll tell you his memory isn’t what it used to be, but, rest assured, it’s still plenty sharp.
Dick Bennett doesn’t miss much, and that’s one of the reasons Tony Bennett, who’s heading into his fourth season as UVa’s head coach, looks forward to his father’s visits to Charlottesville.
“I always ask him to evaluate us,” Tony Bennett said after practice Tuesday night.
The Cavaliers leave Monday for a trip to Europe, where they’ll play five games — two in the Netherlands, one in Belgium and two in France. Under NCAA rules, UVa is allowed 10 practices before the tour, and by the time he heads home this weekend, Dick Bennett will have watched several of them.
His son welcomes the critiques.
“As they say, wounds from a friend are better than kisses from an enemy,” Tony Bennett said. “He’s not afraid to wound me. He’ll tell me candidly what he thinks, and I know he has our best interests at heart. He wants to see us succeed, so he’s really got a critical eye, in a good way. A lot of times he’ll say, `Learn from my mistakes when I coached.’ It’s very valuable … You just can’t beat that kind of experience and that kind of wisdom.”
Dick Bennett, who retired after the 2005-06 season, had a legendary coaching career, first at high schools across Wisconsin and then at four colleges: the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Green Bay, and, finally, Washington State.
Tony Bennett played for his father at Green Bay. After his NBA career ended, the younger Bennett was a staff volunteer on the Wisconsin team, coached by Dick Bennett, that reach the NCAA tournament’s Final Four in 2000. Tony Bennett was his father’s top assistant at Washington State for three seasons before taking over as the Cougars’ head coach in 2006.
Dick Bennett’s home is in Wisconsin, but he makes it to Charlottesville periodically. He doesn’t attend many UVa games — “He’s one of those nervous dads,” Tony Bennett said with a smile — but the elder Bennett is a regular at practice when he’s in town.
“He loves it,” Tony Bennett. “That’s why I always like to have him come when we have some practices or we start the season, just for him to get a feel. It’s a way for me to, as they say, honor your father, and he enjoys it. He’s gotten to know a lot of these guys.”
In 2009, two days before his son’s debut at UVa, Dick Bennett sat in an office in JPJ’s training room and talked about the challenge of rebuilding a program. That was his specialty as a coach, and Virginia had finished 10-18 in 2008-09, after which Dave Leitao was fired.
The Wahoos would be competitive in their first season under his son, Dick Bennett said on that November day, if “they’ll stay the course and get beyond their comfort level. And that’s Tony 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.”
The third year, Dick Bennett said, should produce a breakthrough.
Things have unfolded much as he predicted. The `Hoos finished 15-16 in 2009-10 and then improved to 16-15 a year later. In 2011-12, the Cavaliers advanced to the NCAA tournament and finished 22-10 — their most wins in a season since 1994-95.
“The third year was precisely the kind of year that I have experienced myself and expected,” Dick Bennett said Tuesday. “The circumstance that hurt it was the critical injuries that kept it from being even better.”
Assane Sene, Virginia’s starting center, fractured his right ankle Jan. 19 against Georgia Tech and didn’t play again in 2011-12. Guard Malcolm Brogdon, the Cavaliers’ top reserve, missed the final four games of the season because of a broken bone in his left foot.
Swingman Joe Harris, UVa’s second-leading scorer, didn’t miss a game, but he played the final month of the season with a broken bone in his non-shooting hand.
Of the scholarship players on Virginia’s 2012-13 roster, point guard Jontel Evans is the lone senior. Harris and forward Akil Mitchell are the only juniors. Harris and Mitchell enrolled at UVa in 2010 as part of a class that also included James Johnson, Will Regan, Billy Baron and KT Harrell. But Johnson, Regan, Baron and Harrell have since transferred to other schools, and so the `Hoos won’t be nearly as experienced in 2012-13 as they might have been, Dick Bennett noted.
In his rebuilding projects, the elder Bennett recalled, “I never experienced that. I didn’t have anybody leave. But as far as the process, it’s been identical, and I can see it even in the teaching. The young kids who are coming in now are a little better as a result of [the coaching staff’s] feel for the kind of people they need here and whom they can get, and even the teaching process is better. I think they’re doing a tremendous job of teaching what they know will work at this level.
“When Tony came in, the staff was new, and there was nobody in the program who had any feel for what was going on. It was all new. Well, now, every time he teaches, even though there are five or six new kids, there are still five or six kids who have been through it.”
UVa, of course, is not the only Division I program that has had players transfer out in recent years. It’s a trend in the sport that troubles the elder Bennett.
“I think, quite frankly, I’ve seen a new population of parents,” Dick Bennett said, “and that is a generation of parents that I never dealt with.
“For lack of a better way of expressing it, I call them the `AAU parents,’ who have seen their kids succeed at the AAU level, seen them score big, and they’ve seen all of these very excellent players around the country, because they follow their kids through all the major tournaments, and they see their kids play against them. So they’re just assuming, `Well, my son is in that same category.’ But they don’t understand, when they step on the floor in a college environment, they’re going to be playing against disciplined teams who play defense and whatnot. And they don’t always understand that it’s a process, and while the AAU process helped to identify decent players, it doesn’t mean they’re ready.”
In March, Dick Bennett was in the stands at CenturyLink Arena in Omaha, Neb., to watch Virginia face Florida in the NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers’ 71-45 defeat pained the elder Bennett, but he’s confident his son will continue to elevate the UVa program.
“He was always a better player than I was, and now I think he’s a better coach than I was,” Dick Bennett said, “because he understands these kids, and he knows more offense than I did. I had no mentor other than the guys I could read about or hear at clinics. I [learned by] trial and error from the beginning, from 1965, because I didn’t even have assistants at some of the places. So he’s benefited from mentors, not just me, and I’ve seen him mature, and he’s got an excellent staff, so I love what they do.”
Assistant coaches Ritchie McKay, Ron Sanchez and Jason Williford are back for a fourth season with Bennett at UVa. They’re working with a roster that includes seven newcomers: Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Justin Anderson, Taylor Barnette and Evan Nolte, plus walk-ons Justin Miller and Caid Kirven. Moreover, first-year guard Teven Jones did not enroll at Virginia until January and has yet to play in a college game.
The `Hoos play the Pack Line defense devised by Dick Bennett, and its concepts aren’t always easy to grasp. Still, he said, the newcomers are “learning at a faster pace. Tony and I had a chance to really speak about the best ways to bring them along fast without skipping important stuff. And so that’s something that I think he’s done a great job of, with his assistants. The drills have been real good, and by and large it’s really a smart freshman group.
“And that makes a difference. These are the kind of kids he realizes he’s got to recruit. I remember him saying to me, `I want to change the culture surrounding our program and in our program,’ and I really believe he has succeeded in doing that.”