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Nov. 21, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — At 4 p.m. Saturday, UVa hosts Liberty in men’s basketball at John Paul Jones Arena. Ritchie McKay will be on the Cavaliers’ bench, as usual, but he could easily be on the visitors’ side.

McKay was the Flames’ head coach in 2007-08 and 2008-09. He went 39-28 at Liberty, where his tenure included an 86-82 upset of Virginia at JPJ on Nov. 25, 2008.

“There was honestly not a day that I thought I would leave Liberty, except for the day or day and a half prior to leaving,” McKay recalled this week. “I was very fond of the people there, the mission of the university, the players that we had.”

In the spring of 2009, however, UVa hired his close friend Tony Bennett to replace Dave Leitao as head coach. One of Bennett’s first calls was to McKay.

“I took the job thinking that would be a great hire if I could get him, but not expecting it,” Bennett said Wednesday. “But I took a shot at it. I said, `You and I have known each other for a while. You have some familiarity with the state. Let’s try to do something together and build a program that does something special.’ “

Bennett’s sales pitch intrigued McKay, who had compiled a 204-186 record in 13 seasons as a head coach at five Division I schools.

McKay knew, as he told a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter in April 2009, that in his “profession not many people go from head coach to assistant voluntarily.” Still, that didn’t deter McKay, who accepted Bennett’s offer to become associate head coach at UVa.

“It was really the toughest professional decision I’ve ever had to make,” McKay said this week. “My friendship with Tony prompted us to make the move, to feel like it was an assignment that we were supposed to venture into.”

His assistants at Liberty included Brad Soucie, who had also been on McKay’s staffs at Portland State, Colorado State, Oregon State and New Mexico.

Bennett had met Soucie on the road recruiting and, in conversations with McKay, learned how highly McKay valued Soucie as a coach and as a friend.

“I didn’t feel like I could leave [Liberty] if Brad didn’t have a place to go as well,” McKay said.

Bennett did not have an assistant’s position open on his new staff, but he hired Soucie as director of basketball operations.

“That’s how much I respect Ritchie’s opinion of Brad as a coach and a person,” Bennett said. “I knew if we could make that happen and we could get two quality people, that would be a wise move.”

McKay said: “I was very blessed that Brad and I had a chance to continue our working relationship. Tony made a way for him to join our staff, which has been neat, because I work with two of my better lifetime friends every day.”

Soucie’s title at UVa is director of basketball operations. He works extensively with video and serves as a liaison to the program for many former Virginia players. When Mike Scott, Travis Watson, Sean Singletary and Mamadi Diane, among other alumni, come back to town, Soucie is often the coach who works them out at JPJ.

“Brad’s greatest strength is he’s real relational,” Bennett said. “He’s carved out some niches that utilize his strengths. What he’s done for Mike Scott is tremendous.”

Bennett and McKay met in the early 1990s. McKay was an assistant coach at Bradley and Bennett was a star point guard at Wisconsin-Green Bay, whose head coach was his father, Dick.

Dick Bennett became a mentor to McKay, whose brother, Orlando, a wide receiver from the University of Washington, was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1992.

“I just saw in Tony’s dad the most humble, authentic, genuine man that I think I’d been around since my own father,” McKay said in April 2009.

At Virginia, McKay joined a program that was coming off a 10-18 season. The Cavaliers have steadily improved since then, finishing 15-16 in 2009-10, 16-15 in 2010-11, 22-10 (with a trip to the NCAA tournament) in 2011-12, and 23-12 last season.

As one who knows what it’s like to run a Division I program, McKay is a tremendous asset to the staff, Bennett said, and has contributed significantly to the Wahoos’ success.

“I can’t say I’m this young head coach anymore, but I would say that’s absolutely true,” Bennett said. “All our staff is great, but that head coaching experience, it’s so valuable.”

The `Hoos are 3-1 this season. Their loss came Nov. 12 at JPJ against Virginia Commonwealth, which is ranked No. 10 in the latest Associated Press poll.

Liberty (1-3) is in its fifth season under McKay’s friend and former colleague Dale Layer. They first worked together at Queens College in Charlotte, N.C., in 1989-90, when Layer was head coach and McKay one of his assistants. Later, Layer was an assistant under McKay at Colorado State (1998-2000) and at Liberty (2007-08).

“He’s a dear friend,” McKay said.

The Flames’ roster includes two players McKay recruited: John Caleb Sanders and Joel Vander Pol.

McKay has other ties to the program. In August, he was head coach of an Athletes in Action team that played five games in Jamaica, and his players on that trip included two who’ll suit up for Liberty on Saturday: Davon Marshall and Antwan Burrus. McKay’s assistants in Jamaica included Matt Olinger, the Flames’ director of basketball operations.

Moreover, Liberty assistant Omar Mance and McKay traveled to Kenya together with Athletes in Action in the summer of 2008.

“I’m very fond of the program,” McKay said. “I always root and will always root for the Flames, except for when I have to compete against them.

“In hindsight, there’s a lot of things that I miss about that place. However, I know that we were supposed to be here, and I feel like I’m a lot better coach now than I was five years ago. I hope my family and I have been able to add value to our community and UVa basketball.”

Had this game been scheduled in 2010-11 or 2011-12, it would have been more awkward for McKay and Soucie. But most of the players they coached at Liberty have graduated.

“There will be some mixed emotions, for sure,” McKay, “but it certainly would have tougher one or two years in.”

McKay and his wife, Julie, have three children: daughter Ellie and sons Luke and Gabriel. Ellie is a freshman at Liberty, and she’ll be at JPJ on Saturday afternoon.

“I was asked if my daughter was going to be wearing Virginia stuff or Liberty stuff, and I clearly said, `Well, she’s not on scholarship at Liberty,’ ” McKay said, then laughed.

“She might have to don the V-Sabres.”

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