By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Two doors down from Brad Soderberg‘s new office in John Paul Jones Arena is the office of fellow assistant coach Jason Williford, a football fanatic whose display of Pittsburgh Steelers memorabilia includes a black helmet with the team’s iconic logo.
For Soderberg, that will take some getting used to. He’s a native of Wausau, Wis., and his football loyalties lie many miles west of Pittsburgh.
“I have stock in the Packers,” Soderberg said, smiling. “The last time they put out shares, I bought one so that I can say I’m an owner, and for Father’s Day I asked that it be framed and matted so I can put in here. Because Jason’s got that Steelers helmet in his office.”
When it comes to basketball, no such conflict exists. Soderberg, the newest member of Tony Bennett‘s staff, wants exactly what Virginia’s other assistants, Williford and Ron Sanchez, want: to continue elevating a program that has captured back-to-back ACC regular-season titles, won 60 of its past 71 games, and made two straight appearances in the NCAA tournament. Moreover, the Wahoos won the ACC tourney in 2014.
“It’s obvious Tony has figured out what works for UVa,” Soderberg said.
Bennett, who’s heading into his seventh season at Virginia, hired Soderberg last month to replace Ritchie McKay, who left to become head coach at Liberty University. As McKay did in April 2009, when he joined Bennett’s new staff at UVa, Soderberg brought considerable head-coaching experience with him to Charlottesville.
Soderberg, 52, has been the head man at five schools: Loras College, South Dakota State, Wisconsin, Saint Louis and, for the past six seasons, Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.
“There’s no substitute for that head-coaching experience that he has,” Bennett said. “There’s no clone of anybody, but with that experience, it’s a natural fit.”
In 2014, “when Ritchie was involved with the College of Charleston, I thought Brad would be a terrific candidate. And so he was always on the speed dial,” Bennett said.
“He knows the [Pack-Line] defense well, and he’s very sharp. He’s a gifted communicator. He’s a student of the game and has some recruiting ties in the Midwest.”
Soderberg also, of course, has strong ties to the Bennett family. He played at Wisconsin-Stevens Point for Bennett’s father, Dick, and later was an assistant on the elder Bennett’s staff at Wisconsin, which in 1999-2000 made an improbable run to the Final Four.
Tony Bennett was a volunteer assistant on that team and had the same role when the 2000-01 season started. Three games in, however, Dick Bennett unexpectedly retired, citing burnout. Soderberg was named interim head coach, and Tony Bennett became a full-time assistant.
The Badgers finished 18-11 and advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2000-01. The seniors on that team included Mark Vershaw, now an operations assistant at UVa.
“One of the reasons we had some success that year was the transition was an easy one for the team,” Vershaw recalled. “Brad took over and we had five seniors, and that was not an easy thing to do, and I thought he handled it extremely well.”
Reunited now with Soderberg at UVa, Vershaw has reflected on their time together in Madison.
“One of the things I remember from when I was getting recruited and then my four years was, every guy on the roster loved being around him,” Vershaw said.
“Rosters are made up with guys with a lot of different personalities and backgrounds, and he connected with every one. Looking back and being around him again, you remember that. It really was the entire roster. That’s not the easiest thing, to have everyone liking and respecting [a coach].”
That was the case with McKay during his six years at UVa, and Vershaw expects the same to be true with Soderberg, too.
“All the players on the roster will like him, and they’ll respect his knowledge,” Vershaw said. “That’s the other thing: He has an unbelievable knowledge of and background in [Bennett’s] system. He’s lived the system.”
Wisconsin chose not to retain Soderberg after the 2000-01 season, and he took the head job at Saint Louis, then a member of Conference USA.
“I don’t think people realize how good that league was,” Bennett said.
Saint Louis’ rivals in Conference USA included Memphis, Cincinnati, Louisville and Marquette, whose head coaches then were John Calipari, Bob Huggins, Rick Pitino and Tom Crean, respectively. In five seasons with the Billikens, Soderberg compiled an overall record of 80-73, and his teams went 42-38 in conference play.
“He’s been in coaching battles against some of the coaching greats, and has held his own,” Bennett said. “We’re fortunate to get him.”
From Saint Louis, Soderberg went to Lindenwood, then an NAIA school. In 2011-12, as the Lions were transitioning to the NCAA’s Division II, they finished 28-3. The previous season, their final one in the NAIA, the Lions had gone 29-6. Their standouts included Soderberg’s son Kramer, a guard who had begun his college career at Miami University in Ohio.
Kramer Soderberg later joined his father’s staff at Lindenwood as an assistant, and they flew to Charlottesville in May 2014 to learn more about Bennett’s offense. They spent five hours with UVa’s coaching staff in a JPJ conference room.
“Kramer literally made me bring him out here after our fifth year together at Lindenwood,” Soderberg recalled. “He said, `Dad, we don’t have the guard play we had a few years ago.’ And he was right.”
Lindenwood’s move from the NAIA to Division II “may not seem like anything to people who are only Division I fans, but that’s a big step,” Soderberg said. “Now we’re going to play against people that are bigger, stronger, quicker. So we had to find a different style, and Kramer kept saying, `Dad, we’ve got to go talk to Tony, even if we can only get an hour.’ ”
When the news broke this spring that McKay was returning to Liberty for a second stint as head coach, Soderberg saw the reports.
`I always keep track of the goings-on of college coaches,” he said. “I follow different websites, just to know the business. As a matter of fact, it’s really funny, about a month ago, I don’t know the exact date, but I said to my wife, `Honey, I’m done pursuing jobs. I’m going to lock and load at Lindenwood, unless someone calls me, and then I’ll listen. But I’m not going to be an assistant coach again, unless one guy calls.’ ”
That guy, of course, was Bennett.
“But when I saw that Ritchie left I didn’t call Tony,” Soderberg said. “He knows where I am, I know where he is, and if he wanted me, I was going to listen, of course, but my friendship and my respect for Tony is such that if I wasn’t in his plans, I have enough respect for him to not go, `Tony, please.’ ”
Soderberg, who played football and basketball for his father at Pacelli High in Stevens Point, is seven years older than Bennett. They met when Soderberg joined Dick Bennett’s program at UW-Stevens Point.
“I just knew him as Coach Bennett’s kid,” Soderberg said. “I knew Coach had two daughters and a son. And then I got to know Tony more when I was on the roster and he was hanging out. And then when Coach left Stevens Point to go to Green Bay, that was right at the time Tony was going to high school. I went on to graduate school [at Colorado State], but I followed from a distance, and his high school career blew up. He could hoop, man.”
Bennett, one of the finest 3-point shooters in NCAA history, starred for his father at Green Bay and then played three seasons in the NBA.
“He willed himself to become great,” Soderberg said. “I’m so proud of him.”
The call for which Soderberg was waiting came a couple weeks after McKay left for Liberty.
“The longer I do this, the more I realize it’s always about the people,” Bennett said. “There’s not even a close second. It’s about the loyalty, it’s about the trustworthiness, it’s about being able to go through adversity [together].”
Soderberg will bring some “different ideas,” Bennett said, “which I like, but there’s got to be some likemindedness, and I think he’s a really good blend of that.”
At Lindenwood, Soderberg’s teams played the Pack-Line defense, devised by Dick Bennett, that has become a trademark of Tony Bennett‘s teams at UVa. The Lions scored more under Soderberg than Virginia has under Bennett, but that was dictated by their personnel, Soderberg said.
“Tony and I are going to be on the same page,” Soderberg said. “I think the job of a head coach — and I’ve talked about this at coaching clinics for as often as they’ve allowed me to speak — is to figure out the best way, where you are, to give your kids a chance to win the championship.
“The coaches that make the mistakes are the ones that say, `Come hell or high water, when I get my next job, I’m going to play like Tony Bennett,’ or `I’m going to play like Coach K.’ No. You have to figure out what works at your school, your geographic location, your player base.”
Bennett has figured that all out at UVa, said Soderberg, whose excitement about this new chapter in his coaching career was palpable during a recent interview.
“I’ve said this a hundred times since I left Stevens Point: `I’m a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, but I’m an alum of Bennett basketball.’ ”