I suspect several college coaches would like to have a word with Virginia’s Tony Bennett.
The Cavaliers’ men’s basketball coach knowingly violated his association’s unwritten rules, the unspoken agreement that members will always prime the pump for the members coming behind.
That sacred code helped Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski more than double his salary, from $4.1 million in 2011 to $8.9 million last year. It allowed football coach Nick Saban to do likewise, going from $4 million in 2007 — when he signed with Alabama after leaving the Miami Dolphins — to $8.7 million this season.
Even obscure associates like Iowa State basketball coach Steve Prohm and Cincinnati football coach Luke Fickell ($2 million each) have enjoyed a hefty boost in earning power.
So imagine the guild’s chagrin at Bennett breaking ranks instead of breaking the bank. Having led Virginia to its first national hoops title last season, he was positioned to move the needle and show solidarity with his peers. All that remained was following the time-honored script for a coach in his position.
He executed the opening act perfectly, securing a contract extension that the school announced Monday. But he flubbed his lines when Virginia offered the perfunctory financial adjustment.
Bennett declined to accept a pay raise.
His fellow coaches probably likened that to blasphemy.
“[My wife] Lauren and I are in a great spot, and in the past I’ve had increases in my contract,” Bennett said in a news release. “We just feel a great peace about where we’re at, all that’s taken place, and how we feel about this athletic department and this community and this school. I love being at UVA.
“… I have more than enough, and if there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire.”
According to the USA Today Sports’ coaching database, Bennett made $4.15 million last season, including a $1 million longevity payment. The Daily Progress reports that his annual base salary was $500,000 in 2017, with the remainder of compensation paid for by sponsors and donors.
Bennett clearly isn’t hurting financially.
But that doesn’t make the act any less noteworthy. Instead of accepting an extra $500,000, he asked the school to give raises to his staff and make improvements to the program.
“This just does not happen in our industry,” athletic director Carla Williams said in the release. She could extend that to most industries and most individuals.
Turning down pay raises is antithetical to American ideas of business and capitalism. It typically doesn’t matter if you’re a cook earning $15 per hour or a CEO earning $100 million per year. More is better than less, and more is better than the same.
It’s in our nation’s DNA.
Bennett is the rare exception in this instance. And he didn’t simply refuse a half-million-dollar salary bump. He also pledged to donate that amount, out of his own pocket, to a career-development program launched for former and current UVA men’s basketball players.
“Tony’s decision – to turn down a well-deserved raise and instead invest in his players and UVA athletics more broadly – tells you everything you need to know about him as a leader and as a human being,” school president Jim Ryan said in the release. “Tony is one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met, and this is just the latest example.”
He previously displayed uncommon grace and humanity in the face of unprecedented failure, when the top-seeded Cavaliers lost to No. 16-seed UMBC in the 2018 NCAA tournament. He was rewarded the following season, as UVA survived several close calls en route to beating Texas Tech in overtime for the title.
“I know I’m a little biased,” he said in the release. “But I think it’s one of the greatest sports stories ever told.”
No argument here. Experiencing a wider emotional gulf from one season to the next is virtually impossible. Now he has put a cherry on top for the school and its fans.
Some fellow coaches might feel a bit pressured to emulate Bennet’s gesture, but don’t count on it. Either way, the grand scheme of big-money college sports will remain, a lopsided landscape in which everyone gets a paycheck except the players. (And, no, a handful being compensated for their likeness isn’t the solution).
Bennett’s choice is great for UVA and inconsequential for other members of the coaching fraternity.
Nonetheless, there’ll be no surprise if he soon receives a stern talking to.
⦁ Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.