CHARLOTTESVILLE | Tony Bennett glanced around his spacious office a few weeks ago and approvingly ran down what distinguished his latest rebuilding project from his last.
The new Virginia basketball coach sits in arguably the best conference in the country, works at one of the top schools in the nation and is far, far closer to a cluster of talent than he ever was when he won at remote Washington State.
“There’s a lot of things in place here,” Bennett said, a theme he would return to a few more times.
Not to mention that office, a part of the glistening and expansive John Paul Jones Arena that opened three years ago. Yet for all the reasons Virginia should thrive, the Cavaliers have not for nearly a decade and a half.
The program once built upon Ralph Sampson’s broad shoulders rarely generated attention in the past 14 years. Sure, there might be an upset here, a buzzer-beater against Duke there. But Virginia has a single NCAA tournament victory in that span, a figure that just for a second prompted Bennett to gulp.
Perhaps it was reflexive. More likely, it was for comedic effect; Washington State’s track record wasn’t any better before Bennett led the Cougars to a pair of NCAA tournaments and an NIT in three seasons.
Either way, it was appropriate. Bennett is the first to acknowledge he inherited a job requiring a well-thought-out plan and the patience to shepherd it to fruition. There is no quick fix, no easy answers for attempting to accomplish what Pete Gillen and Dave Leitao could not earlier this decade: sustain success in the long term.
Of course, taking shortcuts isn’t the meticulous Bennett’s approach, anyway.
“There’s certainly some great tradition and history here, but we have to make it more recent,” said Bennett, who was hired March 31. “There hasn’t been consistency in this program. I think when you go to a place that hasn’t had consistent success, you have to try to build it for the long haul.”
Establishing a brand
It is plain for reasons both obvious and subtle that Bennett’s greatest coaching influence is his father, Dick, a Wisconsin institution who decades ago studied the tendencies of Vince Lombardi.
The signature feature of Dick Bennett’s teams - not only at high school and small college stops but also at Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wisconsin - was tenacious defense, usually coupled with an offense predicated on smarts rather than style.
Most importantly, it worked, enough for Tony Bennett to absorb several lessons while playing for his father and a few more after becoming an assistant at Wisconsin. Later, Dick Bennett came out of retirement to take on a reclamation project at Washington State, bringing Tony along as the top assistant.
Father and son set to work, with Tony Bennett’s studious and balanced personality playing a pivotal role in the process. There were long days, tough recruiting sells and aggravating moments - a 46-29 loss at Fresno State late in 2003, an 81-29 pummeling at Oklahoma State a year later.
“He sat through that with me, and I remember saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ” Dick Bennett recalled. “That same year, we ended up winning [seven games] in the Pac-10, beating Arizona on the road. It’s never quite as bad as it seems and perhaps never as good as everybody says it is. He knows. He lives his life between those parameters.”