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September 29, 2009
The only problem was convincing Bennett.
"I think I swore to many people the last thing I'd ever want to do is coach," said Bennett, the son of longtime Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett. "I watched my dad growing up. My sister [Kathi Bennett] coached [Wisconsin-]Oshkosh, Evansville and Indiana. I said, 'That's not for me.'
"I thought I'd have a long 10- to 15-year NBA career, and after that, who knows what I was going to do? Coaching wasn't in the cards."
Yes, it was. And he has been dealing aces ever since.
When a foot injury ended Bennett's NBA career after three seasons with the Charlotte Hornets, he signed with a pro team overseas and served as a player-coach in New Zealand. He soon fell in love with the family business.
"I don't want to give him a big head, but he has a charm and charisma that translate to coaching," said Kathi Bennett, now an assistant coach for the Wisconsin women's team. "He's so genuine. He played pro ball, so he can relate to players. And he has a firmness about him. He's able to get things done.
"Deep down, I really thought he would coach.''
Bennett joined his father's staff at Wisconsin before following him to Washington State and eventually succeeding him as Cougars coach. He was the consensus choice as the national coach of the year in 2007 and has established a name for himself as one of the game's top defensive minds. He is about to put that reputation through a major test.
After posting a 69-33 record in three seasons at Washington State, Bennett has made the coast-to-coast move to Virginia. The Cavaliers went 10-18 last season while ranking last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring defense (72.5)and field-goal percentage defense (.438).
"Every coach looks at their team and says, 'What gives us the best chance to be competitive?' But every good program has some constants," Bennett said. "Can we be really good at taking care of the ball, valuing possessions, making good decisions and good shot selections? That doesn't happen overnight. You have to keep working on those things.'
As a defense-minded coach, Bennett would seem like a perfect fit to run a program that needs to do a better job of preventing baskets. The concern centers on whether Bennett can succeed in the ACC with the same style of play that worked at Washington State.
Washington State led the Pac-10 in scoring defense while never finishing higher than eighth in the league in scoring offense in each of Bennett's three seasons. Last season, the Cougars topped the nation in scoring defense (55.4) but ranked 342nd out of 344 Division I teams in possessions per 40 minutes, stats guru Ken Pomeroy's Web site (www.kenpom.com) shows.
Those facts lend credence to the notion that Bennett runs a slow-paced offense and raise doubts that he can recruit the type of players who can help Virginia get back to the upper levels of the ACC. Bennett disagrees with that sentiment.
"Guys will have a little more freedom and ability to use their creative abilities," Bennett said. "I think there's a stereotype that just because we didn't score at Washington State that all we did is walk it up. We want to give our guys freedom to play."
Bennett's new players believe him.
Cavaliers sophomore guard Sylven Landesberg admitted he had at least some concerns about Bennett's style. He talked about his new coach with Washington State guard Klay Thompson, as the two became friends after playing in a high school all-star game. Landesberg also spoke with Bennett, and he no longer has any worries about the situation.
"When he got here, it was definitely a question that popped up," Landesberg said. "He said he adjusts to the talent around him. He thinks our team is very talented, and we'll be able to have freedom to do a lot more things than his prior team. I think he's not going to try to limit everybody."
Bennett also has sent that message to recruits. Virginia already has received commitments from four 2010 prospects, including 6-foot-4 shooting guard K.T. Harrell (the No. 35 recruit in the nation) and 6-9 power forward James Johnson (No. 99). Bennett's predecessor, Dave Leitao, didn't sign a single top-50 prospect during his four-year tenure.
Bennett's status as a former Pac-10 coach now in the ACC has allowed him to recruit nationally. The four prospects to commit to Virginia come from Montgomery, Ala.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Wildomar, Calif.; and Chelan, Wash. While it's still early in the recruiting season, Virginia has the nation's ninth-ranked class.
"Coach Bennett did a really good job of identifying his targets," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "They're good players, but they're players he could get. He hasn't been spinning his wheels. He sort of figured out right away what guys he should target, so he was able to lock them down early.
"Their class probably won't be a top-10 class at the end of the day. They sort of got a head start on everyone ... but I'm surprised at the recruiting success he's had so far. I didn't necessarily expect this. Everyone knows Coach Bennett is a great coach and does a great job on the court and in practice. I think the question was how the recruiting would go. So far, it's been really good."
Bennett's knack for finding the right targets was evident in his pursuit of Harrell, from Montgomery (Ala.) Brewbaker Tech. Harrell wasn't bothered by the slow-paced offense Bennett ran at Washington State because he believed he could adapt to any style of play. Harrell was more concerned about finding a coach with the right personality, and he immediately identified with Bennett's Christian faith and laid-back demeanor.
"The first time he left a message on my phone, I just told my dad, 'There's something about that guy. I think I could play for him,' " Harrell said. "It was like God was telling me this was the right coach."
The star power of this recruiting class is impressive in many respects. Bennett had to answer questions about his style of play, and he also had to sell recruits on Virginia's potential. Although UVa was one of the nation's top programs in the 1980s, the Cavaliers have advanced beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament just once since reaching a 1995 regional final.
Bennett has sold recruits on the opportunity to study at one of the nation's most respected universities while playing against elite competition.
"Every school's different, but I liken it to what Stanford had done in the Pac-10," Bennett said. "Virginia's such an exceptional academic institution, yet it competes in the ACC. Certainly as a competitor, you want a chance to challenge yourself against the best. That's what the ACC provides."
Bennett's recruiting prowess bodes well for Virginia's future. First, he must make strides with the players already on his roster. Virginia has a potential star in Landesberg, who averaged 16.6 points per game and was named the ACC freshman of the year last season. But the only other Cavalier who averaged double figures in scoring was junior forward Mike Scott.
The Cavaliers are banking on the notion that the other guys on the roster benefited from a year of experience. Virginia returns all five starters and eight of the top nine scorers from a team that finished 11th in the ACC last season.
"There's no substitute for experience," Bennett said. "Whether the experience didn't go great and wasn't a big success or it did go great, you learn from your past experiences. Some guys got ACC court time. My hope is that they'll take that and they won't be as wide-eyed going into this. They know this is what the league's about.''
Landesberg said the team had high hopes for this season even before Bennett was hired. They have grown more optimistic since his arrival gave the program a new attitude.
"He's more laid-back," Landesberg said. "He's more the type of coach who will come up to you and talk to you about how in this situation you should do this or that instead of just yelling that you're in the wrong spot."
Bennett has the personality and charisma to make an impression on the recruiting trail and on the floor, but that calm exterior masks a competitive fire that's equally responsible for making him one of the nation's top coaches.
"You don't want to cross him,'' Kathi Bennett said. "He's not going to forget. I think playing professional ball did that. Tony's ultra-competitive."
He may have inherited that competitive nature. Bennett spent much of his childhood watching his dad's games. He played for his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he set an NCAA record with his career 3-point percentage of .497. He worked on his dad's coaching staffs at Wisconsin and Washington State.
"My father's a huge influence," Bennett said. "His advice is that when you're looking to build something, never take a shortcut on character. I watched his programs, and I've seen his emphasis on that part of it.''
The elder Bennett became something of a legend for a no-nonsense approach that helped him turn struggling programs into consistent winners.
His son no longer is reluctant about continuing the family tradition.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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