Charlottesville officially is gaga over UVA Men’s Basketball Coach Tony Bennett.
“If you had to call anybody a saint, I’d put that in front of his name,” said Barry Parkhill, a star UVA basketball player in the ’70s and the second in school history to have his jersey number retired.
It’s been a long, dry 38-year season since UVA’s basketball team last won an ACC Tournament title, and Bennett’s team just danced its way through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament to the Sweet 16 with the same grit and determination that marked its run through conference play.
The words used to describe him—humble, passionate, faith-driven—cast a beatific aura on a man who has projected a remarkably clear vision for how to build a successful college basketball program without a team of NBA prospects. Parkhill, now UVA’s associate athletic director for development, was Bennett’s neighbor in Glenmore when the coach and his family moved to Charlottesville in 2009. Like many of the coach’s admirers, Parkhill has been caught up in UVA’s success story as much because of how Bennett has gone abou his work as his results.
“It wasn’t hard to figure out this guy was something special,” said Parkhill. “He’s a great teacher because our players get better every year. Tony recruits character kids. That’s very important.”
One other word frequently used to describe Bennett: competitive.
“He’s got a fire in his belly,” noted Park-hill. “He’s incredibly competitive—I’ve seen that playing nine holes of golf with him.”
Bennett comes by that fire honestly. His father is former Wisconsin and Washington State coach Dick Bennett. His sister, Kathi, is head women’s basketball coach for the Northern Illinois Huskies.
Even at an early age, his competitive nature was apparent. Ben Johnson met Bennett in the seventh grade in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and went on to play with Bennett at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay before becoming an assistant coach to Bennett and his father at Washington State.
“He was absolutely obsessed and absolutely driven to be the greatest player he could be… spending endless, endless hours in the gym,” said Johnson in an e-mail from Australia, where he now coaches. “Day after day, week after week, month after month. It was crazy! He was crazy!”
Bennett’s drive spilled onto his young cohorts, who didn’t have much choice but to get better, said Johnson. He remembers as eighth and ninth graders, Bennett’s gang would sneak into Berg Gym and Quandt Fieldhouse through cracked doors or open windows.
“And sun up ’til sun down, we were always hoopin’,” said Johnson.
Bennett recorded the highest three-point field goal percentage in NCAA history during his career with the UW-Green Bay Phoenix, before going on to play three seasons for the Charlotte Hornets in the NBA.
Danville native Johnny Newman played with Bennett for the Hornets, where his character made as much of a mark as his three-point stroke.
“You could tell he had been around basketball,” said Newman. “I remember Tony being a consistent guy. Being a pro as long as I was, I appreciated a really genuine guy because there aren’t a lot of those in pro ball.”
Ben Johnson sees Bennett’s continued ability to inspire buy-in as the key to his coacing success.
“He did it as a player, some 30 years ago, with a bunch of snotty-nosed, pimple-faced eighth graders and now he’s doing it as a coach with a bunch of players and a community that seems to be on fire with his way of doing things,” said Johnson. “Good stuff.”
And it is Bennett’s way or the highway. He came to UVA with a record-breaking contract, stressing that character was the one essential to building a successful basketball program, and he laid out five pillars his program is based on: humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness. Servanthood means making your team better, he explained to the University of Virginia Magazine, and thankfulness applies to both wins and to losses, because there are lessons to be learned there, too.
His first recruiting team had four out of six players ditch UVA. WINA sports director Jay James pointed out that the two who stayed—co-captains Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell—can say, “Hey, we’re ACC champions because we stayed with Tony.”
Bennett doesn’t promise recruits they’re going to end up in the NBA, said James. He tells them they’re going to get a great education and a chance to play, that they’re going to be part of something, that “it’s not about me, it’s about us.”
Bennett has made no secret about the importance of faith in his life. After the March 16 win over Duke, he told ESPN, “I’m so thankful for my faith in Christ. That really kind of sustained us when we struggled.”
Bennett has attended Trinity Presbyterian Church, and in media accounts, his players frequently mention discussing faith with their coach.
“He doesn’t try to impose it,” observed James. “I think his faith gives him a quiet strength.”
James has watched Bennett build his program over five seasons and he sees this year’s team as the culmination of a long-term project.
“What’s different this season is seeing Tony’s vision come to fruition,” he said. “The thing that jumps out is that his style is in line with the great coaches, which Tony has the potential to be. Tony is a teacher. He’s very passionate and he’ll get in a player’s face. But he never degrades them. He’s not a curser or a berater. He’s a teacher.”
That style was something UVA was looking for after the departure of Dave Leitao in 2009 following UVA’s worst season since 1967. At the announcement of Bennett’s appointment, UVA athletic director Craig Littlepage said Bennett, who was named National Coach of the Year at Washington State, was his “No. 1 choice,” and that he wanted a coach who would “give love and respect to players and to fans in good times and in bad times.”
Certainly that was something that attracted then-UVA president John Casteen, who said the University wanted to hire a coach for a long tenure at the relatively new John Paul Jones Arena. Casteen continues to be impressed with the 44-year-old Bennett.
“I like the steady hand,” said Casteen. “I like the fact he’s engaged in a positive way with the players. I like the way he communicates integrity. I like that students are excited about him.”
Bennett reminds Casteen of someone else: Terry Holland, the coach who led UVA to its last ACC tournament title in 1976.
“He has some of the laid-back star quality Terry had,” said Casteen.
Casteen isn’t the only one who has compared Bennett to Holland. Barry Parkhill sees the same emphasis on defense that Holland had.
“If you play good defense every night, you’re going to win,” Parkhill said.
Former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan agrees with the Holland comparison and believes Bennett’s focus on team concept has been refreshing to watch in an era of stars. “They’re a complete team. Teamwork is so important; his team exemplifies that to the highest level,” Corrigan said.
Another Bennett trait that Corrigan thinks plays well at Virginia: “I honestly think he’s a gentleman in the way he conducts himself in every way in games and under pressure. He’s a man I’d like my grandson to play for.”
Terry Holland, athletic director emeritus at East Carolina University, used to do color commentary for ESPN and remembers doing UW-Green Bay games when Dick Bennett was coach and Tony was a player.
“His dad is a terrific basketball coach and he learned a lot on defense from him,” Holland said.
Holland was at the ACC Tournament final in Greensboro when UVA took down Duke 72-63 and won its first title since his tenure. His reaction? One that any Wahoo fan could get behind.
“It’s about time,” said Holland.
And his take on Bennett?
“[Bennett] seems so cool under fire in all situations,” he said. “He doesn’t get sidetracked by bad calls or plays. He’s got a quiet intensity that’s very comforting for fans and players.”