- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. (AP) - Tony Bennett said Wednesday he intends to rebuild the men’s basketball program at Virginia around two basic principles: passion and integrity.

“I came here to build a great team, but more importantly, I came here to build a program that lasts, and the way you go about that is you have great integrity and you have great passion,” the 39-year-old Bennett said at his well-attended introductory news conference.

“Everything is in place here at the University of Virginia,” he said.

Bennett, a surprise choice to take over a program that has seen interest wane in recent years, replaces Dave Leitao, who resigned on March 16 after going 63-60 over four seasons.

Virginia gained a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title in 2007 under Leitao, but finished 10-18 this season, its worst record in more than 40 years, and games were often played with only half the 15,000 seats in John Paul Jones Arena filled.

Bennett likened the job to a marriage, which starts with much fanfare of a wedding, “but what really matters, quite honestly, is the marriage. That’s the daily investment, the promise over time and that commitment, and I think that is what it takes to build a program.”

The $130 million arena, along with the rigorous academic requirements of the university, will be used as drawing cards in luring talent, rather than as a detriment, he said.

“I can’t wait to get recruits here. I can’t wait to show them what this is about. You can’t ask for much more as a head coach to have a place like this that offers that,” he said.

With the Cougars, he said, four of the five first-team selections to the Pac 10 all-academic team were from Washington State this year, and they had three of five last season.

The chance to coach in the ACC made the move attractive.

“If you’re a competitor, you want to challenge yourself against the best,” he said.

Bennett had a record of 69-33 in three years at Washington State and the team twice went to the NCAA tournament, but his name never surfaced publicly in the two weeks that Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage was seeking a new coach. But the reaction to a mention of Bennett was definitive, Littlepage said, when he talked to an advisor about candidates.

“I mentioned Tony’s name and there was a silence and I was kind of taken aback because the response was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I took that to be a bad thing,” Littlepage said.

“And actually, the response was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. If you can get this guy, it would be exactly what you need,’” he said, while declining to identify the other party.

Bennett said he met with the team briefly on Tuesday, and that his primary tasks ahead were hiring a coaching staff _ at least some of whom need to have knowledge of recruiting on the east coast _ and talking to the two recruits that signed with Leitao for next year.

He said he intends to visit one Wednesday night, and the other soon after.

Among the players returning, the first meeting seemed to leave a good impression.

“Just the way that he spoke to us, as individuals, as a group, he spoke to us with a lot of respect, and I really like that,” said Sylven Landesberg, the ACC’s top rookie in 2009.

He said Bennett’s reputation as a defensive coach is trumped by his record.

“He’s proven that he’s a winner,” Landesberg said. “Everybody wants to win.”

Bennett was openly very hopeful he had convinced Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay to come be part of his staff, and McKay resigned later in the day at Liberty, although there was no announcement about whether he planned to come join Bennett at Virginia. Bennett said at least one of his assistants at Washington State, Ron Sanchez, might also join him at Virginia.

Bennett will be paid $1.7 million per year over the next five years, and receive a signing bonus of $500,000. If he stays for the duration of his contract, he’ll get another $500,000.

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