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.”
Indeed, Tony Bennett saw both good and bad at Washington State, where he took over in 2006-07. Winning - and reaching the Sweet 16 in 2008 - only further validated the methodical process of constructing a program in the proper fashion.
Bennett scoured the globe for players, eventually emerging as a known quantity for both style of play and performance - a reputation that should help Virginia emerge as a destination.
“I think the best thing Virginia and Tony Bennett have going for them is they have an established brand and a head coach with a specific style of play,” said Dave Telep, the national basketball recruiting director for Scout.com. “It is very difficult to recruit until you establish your identity. What Virginia got was an immediate identity of who they are and guys they’ll recruit and the way they’ll play and what they’ll do on the floor.”
The Cavaliers also added a coach unlikely to panic at the prospect of taking over a bunch that scuffled to a 10-18 record last season, posting Virginia’s worst winning percentage (.357) since 1967.
It was and still is a young roster, with only one of the top nine scorers (Mamadi Diane) departing. Both members of the recruiting class (Jontel Evans and Tristan Spurlock) remain en route despite Leitao’s departure. It isn’t the most ideal short-term scenario, yet Bennett’s calm and analytical approach could prove a solid fit.
“He has a softer side to him,” Dick Bennett said. “He doesn’t overact. That has really I think enabled him to deal with difficult circumstances wherever they might be. That has impressed me. He was that way as an athlete. There’s a quiet fire to him.”
Quality over quantity
As impressive as Bennett is, he inherits a program mired in a sustained run of mediocrity - one others with solid credentials couldn’t shake.
Jeff Jones, now at American, endured losing seasons in two of his last three years. The energetic Gillen quickly revitalized the Cavaliers, but the program crept back toward .500, and Gillen left after seven seasons.
Leitao exceeded expectations for two seasons before the loss of guards J.R. Reynolds and later Sean Singletary - not to mention dwindling crowds at John Paul Jones, which averaged more than 4,000 below capacity last season - led to diminishing fortunes and another coaching change.
A single season doesn’t stand out, but Virginia has a basketball image to replenish after going 222-200 (and 88-136 in the ACC) the past 14 years. Virginia earned three NCAA invitations since an Elite Eight run in 1995, fewer than every ACC school besides Florida State and Virginia Tech.
“It is shocking and unacceptable,” said new assistant Jason Williford, a member of the 1995 team. “We’re hoping to correct that.”
It will take time and an extended recruiting push. The Cavaliers earned a commitment from Buffalo, N.Y., forward Will Regan this past weekend, but that’s only the start for Bennett - who assembled an interesting blend of assistants for his first East Coast job.
Williford, previously an assistant at American, is well-connected locally. Ron Sanchez, one of Bennett’s assistants at Washington State, began his career in New York. Ritchie McKay, a veteran head coach, spent the past two years at Liberty and recruited Seth Curry to the Lynchburg, Va., school.
But Virginia doesn’t exist in a vacuum and has not distinguished itself in recent years.
“On the surface, it looks like it’s well-positioned geographically,” Telep said. “It’s a product of competition for players. You’re competing against D.C.- and Baltimore-area colleges for players. North Carolina and Duke have lived in the state of Virginia the last decade. It’s been a tough row to hoe. I think the first thing that has to happen is Virginia has to become at some point the No. 1 option for players in its state.”
At this moment, trying to create a lasting program might prove more crucial. It’s a matter of finding players who will embrace Bennett’s defense-first philosophy and help create a stable, fundamentally sound program capable of weathering occasional problems.
“To me, it’s more about right now qualitative versus quantitative,” Bennett said. “I learned long ago to concentrate on the process and fall in love with that process. Be consumed with quality and how we do things, and the end results will wind up taking care of themselves.”
Such an approach makes it difficult to pin a timetable on the Cavaliers’ resurgence, but the course of action appears wise. Bennett dispelled ideas that his offense is merely a plodding slow-down system, and Williford noted that the last time Virginia was consistently good - in the Terry Holland and Jones years - defense was the team’s hallmark.
Tough, sound play (especially on the defensive end) is near the top of Bennett’s list of non-negotiables, pillars he intends to instill. It’s a similarity to his last rebuilding stop - and if things unfold as they did at Washington State, could be the reason all the things in place in Charlottesville finally lead to better results.
“As those things hopefully come together, then we’ll see some results,” Bennett said. “I think it’s not wise to say ‘I expect us to finish in this spot in the ACC’ or ‘I expect us to be here for postseason.’ … You’ll be judged by that and people will look at that, but there’s a process here and a long-range plan.”