The University of Virginia introduced Tony Bennett as its basketball coach the week of the 2009 Final Four. Inspired and clandestine, the search lasted 14 days.
But the journey that brought Bennett to Charlottesville began at least 17 years earlier with an obscure, fifth-round NFL draft choice by his beloved Green Bay Packers.
There were random meetings at Seattle Pacific, Colorado State and Portland State. There were diversionary tactics, considerable prayer and a telling endorsement from a complete stranger.
There were days of indecision, delayed phone calls and immeasurable anxiety. There was a matchmaker with better intuition than eharmony.com, and even a late-night pizza from Charlottesville’s College Inn.
Why, this passage is so meandering and improbable as to be preordained.
“It certainly feels that way to us, for sure,” says Bennett’s wife of 22 years, Laurel.
With Virginia and Bennett the toast of college basketball and among the favorites to reach the Final Four, principals agreed for the first time to reveal details of how the search unfolded.
“It was,” Liberty University coach and Bennett confidant Ritchie McKay says with a laugh, “an interesting process, and it’s worked out. I’m happy for U.Va., but even happier for Tony because I know he loves it there. What a marvelous job they’ve done.”
Indeed, the Cavaliers are a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed for the third time in five years and just authored a historic regular season. They distinguish themselves academically and socially and thrive after graduation.
Now about the NFL draft pick that started it all.
’Twas the basketball offseason of 1992, and Bennett was preparing for his own draft, the NBA variety. He had just completed an All-America career at Wisconsin-Green Bay, his hometown school and where he played for his father, Dick.
Five hours south, in Peoria, Ill., McKay was a fledgling assistant coach at Bradley University, assigned by his boss, Jim Molinari, to study tape of Dick Bennett’s renowned defensive tactics. McKay was captivated, and when the Packers drafted his brother, University of Washington receiver Orlando McKay, he sensed an opportunity.
He called Dick Bennett and asked for an audience. Request granted.
Dick Bennett became McKay’s mentor, and Tony Bennett became his dear friend.
Four years later, in 1996, McKay landed his first head-coaching position, at Portland State. The athletic director who hired him was Jim Sterk — the two had met years earlier at Seattle Pacific, where McKay was an assistant coach and Sterk an associate AD.
McKay and Sterk forged a lifelong friendship and an essential link in Bennett’s path to Virginia.
“HE SAID HE WOULD NEVER BE A COACH”
By the time McKay went to Portland State, Bennett’s NBA career was finished. The Charlotte Hornets had drafted him in the second round, but recurring foot injuries limited his effectiveness. He was toiling for New Zealand’s North Harbour Vikings, who would eventually make him a player-coach.
Introduced by their pastor in Charlotte, David Chadwick, the Bennetts were newlyweds when they ventured to New Zealand. But coaching was not part of the plan. Tony was playing, while Laurel served as a youth pastor.
“I signed on when he said he would never be a coach,” Laurel Bennett says. “He said, ‘I’ve seen that life and what it does to my dad. It’s crazy.’ I said, ‘Good, because that doesn’t seem like a real good idea to me, either.’ ”
But McKay and others were convinced Bennett was made for coaching, and they beamed in 1999 as he returned from New Zealand and joined his dad’s staff at the University of Wisconsin. In their first season coaching together, father and son helped the Badgers, a program with minimal basketball heritage, reach the 2000 Final Four.
Tony Bennett was hooked. So was Laurel. Coaching was their calling.
Three games into the 2000-01 season, citing burnout, 57-year-old Dick Bennett resigned as Wisconsin’s coach. Tony Bennett remained on the staff as co-worker and friend Brad Soderberg guided the Badgers back to the NCAA tournament.
Wisconsin hired Bo Ryan as its full-time head coach in the spring of 2001, and he retained Bennett as an assistant. There Bennett remained until McKay called his friend Sterk two years later.
Sterk had since become Washington State’s athletic director, and McKay was the University of New Mexico’s head coach. Reeling from seven consecutive losing seasons, Washington State was searching for a new big whistle, and McKay had an idea.
Hire Dick Bennett and designate Tony Bennett as his successor. Soon thereafter, Sterk flew to Wisconsin and met with the Bennetts.
Sterk was sold but offered no guarantees of succession.
“No promises, no prenuptial going in that Tony was going to be the guy,” says Sterk, now Missouri’s athletic director. “But after a couple years I went to my president and said, ‘We need to … give assurances that he’s going to be the guy when Dick retires because if we don’t, some Big Ten school’s going to hire him out from under us.’
“I took some heat for doing it, but then Tony proved me right.”
And then some.
Located in remote Pullman near the Idaho border, Washington State is among major college basketball’s most imposing challenges. Facilities are sparse, resources limited, and there’s no natural recruiting base.
When Tony Bennett took over, the Cougars had earned four NCAA tournament bids in their history. Their only conference championship, regular-season or tournament, was in 1941.
Yet as a rookie college head coach in 2006-07, Bennett steered the Cougars to a 26-8 record, a second-place Pacific 10 finish and the second round of the NCAA tournament, the first time they’d advanced in the bracket since 1983. He was the consensus National Coach of the Year.
The next season, Washington State advanced to an NCAA regional semifinal for the first time since its 1941 squad lost the national championship game to Wisconsin. Never before had the Cougars competed in consecutive NCAA tournaments.
Bennett was winning just as his father had at Wisconsin, with a pack-line defense that clogs the interior and a patient offense that waits for the best shot, both of which slow games and frustrate opponents. Schools with far more basketball pedigree noticed.
“I WAS AMAZED”
Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and Marquette approached Bennett about their vacancies. He spoke directly with Indiana only, but the conversation was brief.
“It’s a small world,” Bennett says, “and we had had enough success … at Washington State. There were some other jobs that were high-profile that I wasn’t interested in.”
On March 12, 2009, Virginia lost to Boston College in the opening round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament to complete a 10-18 season. The record was the Cavaliers’ worst in 41 years, and four days later, the university parted ways with fourth-year coach Dave Leitao.
Virginia had shared the ACC regular-season title in 2007 and reached the NCAA tournament’s second round. But the Cavaliers were 9-25 versus their conference peers the following two years.
“It wasn’t any one thing,” says then-Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, who retired from the position last year. “It was just a view on my part that we hadn’t made progress, and in fact that we were slipping. In Dave’s first couple years I thought we were building, and then things started to erode.”
Littlepage is a basketball lifer. He played at Penn. He coached at Villanova under Rollie Massimino and Virginia under Terry Holland. He served as head coach at Penn and Rutgers.
Littlepage’s top lieutenant throughout his AD tenure was Jon Oliver, another basketball guy. Oliver played at Boise State, and before joining Littlepage’s administrative staff at U.Va., he was an associate AD at Washington State.
Knowing that Virginia’s most prominent basketball teams, during the 1980s under Holland and 1990s under Jeff Jones, were steeped in defense, Littlepage and Oliver developed a profile.
“You just can’t take any really good basketball coach, put him at the University of Virginia and expect to be successful,” Littlepage says. “It was going to be somebody that had a strong background defensively, that had a background in selecting kids that would be uniquely fitting at the University of Virginia from an academic standpoint and from a basketball standpoint as well. And someone that had a demonstrated history of being able to build programs at places that might not necessarily be top-10 programs.”
Virginia wasn’t top-10, but the Cavaliers played in 13 NCAA tournaments from 1981-97. Moreover, the program boasted one of the ACC’s best venues in John Paul Jones Arena, which opened in 2006.
“Before you make a (coaching) change,” Oliver says, “you’re wondering if you have to make a change, what are you going to do? I’d spent time at Washington State, and I knew how they were challenged from a resource perspective, and I was amazed at what Dick and Tony were able to do to improve that program.
“And I remember staying up late at night watching their games and thinking, ‘There’s something about this guy.’ And then talking to the people I knew from out there about what kind of person he was in the community, and I thought this guy would be perfect on a big stage like the ACC.”
Bennett was among three on Virginia’s immediate radar. Media at the time speculated on then-Minnesota coach Tubby Smith and then-Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel, but Littlepage and Oliver decline to confirm or deny.
“Weren’t they trying to get Tubby Smith?” Bennett says. “You know how that stuff goes. I don’t know how legit all that was. … Whether they had struck out on other guys, I don’t know.”
“This was definitely Jon’s brainchild,” Laurel Bennett says. “I don’t think anyone besides Jon would have thought of Tony at Virginia.”
THE MATCHMAKER STRIKES AGAIN
Littlepage served on the NCAA tournament selection committee from 2003-07, chairing the group during the 2005-06 season, and he mined those resources during this search. Among his first calls was to Tom Jernstedt, who as an NCAA executive oversaw the tournament from 1973-2011.
“He said to me, words of the effect, ‘Craig, I have been around so many of these teams and so many of these coaches, and literally I’ve seen every one of the coaches that have been in the NCAA tournament for 30-some odd years, and the absolute best guy that I’ve seen in terms of working with his kids and getting the most out of his kids, and the guy I think would be the perfect fit for you, is the young guy at Washington State, Tony Bennett.’
“And he went on to say, ‘Honestly, I don’t know if you’ll be able to get him. … He’s turned down some pretty good places already. It doesn’t look like he’s somebody that’s ready to move. But I’m telling you, he is the best.’ ”
Nine years later, Bennett is flattered and surprised to hear such praise.
“I don’t know who that is,” he says sheepishly and politely of Jernstedt.
Jernstedt has never met Bennett, but observations left a powerful impression.
“He appeared to be an outstanding individual,” says Jernstedt, a 2017 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, “and had all the coaching pedigrees. … He appeared to be a very bright, great defensive coach, but also knew the other side of the ball. Disciplined, very team-oriented. I just liked his style.
“Having sat at the official (scorer’s) table of the NCAA tournament for 38 years, I had the opportunity to observe coaches up close. And I always had admiration for those coaches who conducted themselves in a positive way, those who were in control and were clearly coaching. One of my favorites was Dave Gavitt. He was a pretty good friend of mine. … Tony Bennett in my mind is cut from the same cloth as Dave Gavitt.”
Gavitt coached Providence College from 1969-79, and his 1973 Friars, led by Ernie DiGregorio and Marvin Barnes, reached the Final Four. Gavitt later founded the Big East and in 2006 was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Littlepage also sought Stan Morrison’s counsel. A former University of Southern California head coach, Morrison served on the NCAA basketball committee with Littlepage, and Littlepage asked him to rank the Pac-10’s coaches.
UCLA had reached three consecutive Final Fours under Ben Howland and was dominating the conference. Cal-Berkeley had hired Mike Montgomery, who had taken Stanford to the Final Four.
Morrison ranked Bennett No. 1.
Washington State’s 2009 season ended with a National Invitation Tournament loss at Saint Mary’s on March 13, the day after Virginia announced Leitao’s departure. As Littlepage and Oliver vetted their three candidates, Bennett emerged, they say, as the clear choice.
But how to sell a coach who had already declined overtures from the likes of Indiana? The matchmaker knew.
Early during Oliver’s time at Washington State, in the spring of 1999, the Cougars were searching for a basketball coach. Then-athletic director Rick Dickson sent Oliver to evaluate Colorado State’s basketball coach.
Oliver purchased a ticket to the Rams’ home NIT game, and after the contest, with minimal experience or discernment, he approached their coach on the floor, presented his business card and walked away. Oliver laughs at the memory.
The coach was Ritchie McKay.
Washington State hired Oklahoma State assistant Paul Graham instead, but unbeknownst to all, another bridge had been built along Bennett’s path.
Virginia’s search approaching its second week, Oliver pondered how to approach his No. 1 target.
“Here’s what I did know from people out in Washington,” Oliver says. “Tony was not about money. He’s not going to go for the splashy presentation and hard-core recruiting pitch. He’s a very loyal guy. He cared about the kids; he cared about the university. …
“I was sitting in my office at home thinking, OK, I’ve got to come up with a unique strategy to try and reach out to Tony to make sure it’s impactful and he’ll at least listen. I knew if I could get him to come into JPJ in a stealth way, where he could look at it and think about what’s possible, without people asking him a bunch of questions about Virginia, and would you go there and all that, I knew if he could see himself operating on this stage with an asset to be able to recruit to. … So as I’m sitting there in my home trying to figure out what to do, I swear to you the phone rings.”
It was McKay.
Led by freshman guard Seth Curry, McKay’s Liberty team had just completed a 23-12 season, the highlight of which was a victory at Virginia. Oliver figured McKay wanted to pitch himself for the job.
“I’m thinking, I don’t have time for this right now,” Oliver says.
But McKay wasn’t stumping for himself. He was suggesting Tony Bennett.
Oliver: “I said, ‘Ritchie, you won’t believe this. I’m sitting here right now trying to figure out how to approach Tony.’ I said, ‘Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to hang up the phone, I want you to call Tony right now and ask him if he’s willing to talk to us. He needs to ask (his athletic director) for permission. … But tomorrow morning I’ll have a plane on the tarmac. We’ll have him back the next day, and no one will ever know he’s gone.’”
McKay called Bennett with Oliver’s offer.
“I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a second, Ritchie,’ ” Bennett says.
But Bennett was intrigued. He considered Virginia the Stanford of the East, and after consulting with his dad, wife and McKay, decided to listen.
“I just, I don’t know,” Bennett says. “Something was right about Virginia, and that’s when I contacted our AD.”
Sterk was realistic.
“They had a new arena,” he says, “they were in the ACC, and I thought he’d have the opportunity to succeed there. I understood that opportunity calling. I didn’t encourage him, but I knew that was one he should take a look at.”
No media outlets, none, had linked Bennett to Virginia, and Oliver wanted more of the same. Public speculation, he believed, would prompt Bennett to withdraw.
So rather than use Virginia’s private jet, which reporters and/or fans could easily track, Oliver leased a jet to bring the Bennetts to Charlottesville. And to be sure, he asked the pilot to pick them up in Spokane, Wash., 80 miles north of Pullman, and to refuel in the Midwest — Oliver and the Bennetts recall it was somewhere in Iowa.
“We were like, man, this is crazy,” Laurel Bennett says.
On March 24, at about 9 p.m., local time, the Bennetts landed in Charlottesville. Oliver greeted them and immediately drove them to John Paul Jones Arena.
They toured the complex, though the lights were dim. No need to risk attention.
“I made arrangements with the building manager,” Oliver says. “I wanted everybody out. I wanted one or two people there. I wanted to know exactly who was in the building.”
Oliver drove the Bennetts to the Boar’s Head Inn a few minutes away, and from their suite the couple ordered pizza delivered from the College Inn.
“I remember thinking, hey, this pizza is pretty good,” Tony Bennett says.
Other than Sterk and family friends who were watching the kids, the Bennetts told no one in Pullman they were flying to Charlottesville. But after scarfing the pizza, Tony called his top Washington State assistant, Ron Sanchez.
“He had not taken visits to any other places,” Sanchez says. “This was different. Then he said to me, ‘You should see this place.’ ”
The Bennetts saw even more the next day. After huddling in their suite with Oliver and Littlepage for about 90 minutes, they strolled U.Va.’s renowned Lawn and saw Jefferson’s Rotunda.
They weren’t in Pullman anymore.
But the Bennetts were confused. Why were students walking outside in bathrobes?
Oliver and Littlepage explained that rooms on the Lawn don’t have showers and that students were headed to the bathhouse. Then, fearing that Tony Bennett would be recognized, they ushered the couple to lunch inside a pavilion.
“Craig and Jon, first of all, were really good at selling the school,” Laurel Bennett says. “And then, we felt they were sincere, and it proved to be true, as far as, it was a big deal for us to feel like we trusted them, and it was a big deal for us to say, OK, are there realistic expectations? …
“You watch people at press conferences and things they say. ‘We want to win national championships.’ You want to be with people who see the world the right way, who are realistic. We felt that. We liked everything they had to say.”
Per McKay’s suggestion, Virginia included Laurel Bennett in all meetings, which she and her husband appreciated. They are a team, and a decision of this magnitude had to be made together.
Unnoticed by anyone in Charlottesville, the Bennetts flew home that evening, this time directly to Pullman. No formal offer had been extended, but the unspoken truth was the job was Bennett’s for the taking.
“Here’s how I knew we had him,” Oliver says. “When we were done, (Laurel) actually gave me a hug.”
Oliver had no idea that Laurel Bennett would rescue the search.
PRAYER AND INDECISION
Less than 48 hours after the Bennetts departed, Oliver and Bennett talked contract terms — Bennett retains Spokane attorney Brad Williams to review such documents but does not have an agent. This was Friday, March 27, and Oliver suggested Bennett take the weekend to decide.
Bennett said he would call back at 1:30 p.m., Eastern time Monday. Thus began three days of prayer, discussion and vacillation in Pullman.
“Getting back that day, that night, I said ‘I think this is right,’ ” Bennett says. “I went to sleep, and the next day, all of a sudden, I have to tell these young men and the administration that I’m leaving. After that, obviously I had a meeting with the president there (Elson Floyd). …
“It was one of those situations where you start thinking about it, and I had a really good team coming back with Klay Thompson. I really liked that team, and that’s such a hard thing. That’s where I took another day and I told Laurel I think it’s best that we just stay.”
Bennett picked up the phone to call Littlepage and decline. His wife stopped him.
“I wasn’t trying to persuade him,” Laurel Bennett says. “I felt like we needed to pray about this. We had done all the pros and cons, all the traditional stuff that way, but we decided we were going to pray about it. And part of that prayer is always, ‘Let us be on the same page.’ We kept going back and forth; we kept changing our minds. …
“He did, he had the phone in his hand. He was ready to do it. (But) so many of the cons were the people we were leaving, who we loved, and the parents and the recruits. Those people are always going to be there. And I didn’t want him to stay for reasons of things you don’t want to do. I wanted to make a decision based on going toward something, even if that meant staying. …
“And the main thing I said to him was, ‘Don’t call yet because I think you should feel the same way for 24 hours. If you had called last night, you would have taken it. We need to be on the same page, and we need to be on that page for at least 24 hours before we move on.’”
The Bennetts turned to the same page Monday, March 30. But the scheduled 1:30 p.m., call to Littlepage and Oliver was late.
Terminally stoic, Littlepage remained calm. Edgy and transparent, Oliver bounced off walls.
There was no Plan B. If Bennett declined, the search would restart from scratch.
At about 2 p.m., Bennett called. The Cavaliers had their next coach.
“We had a peace about it,” Laurel Bennett says. “That’s the only way I can explain it. … We’ve made a lot of decisions together. I feel like we’ve gotten good at trusting each other. I appreciate how he is in the process as far as really caring about my opinion.”
Bennett met with Washington State’s players that afternoon, and the school promptly announced his departure for Virginia. The following day, U.Va.’s private jet flew to Pullman to bring the Bennetts to their new home.
Though disappointed, a contingent of Cougars fans gathered at Pullman’s airport to cheer Bennett and thank him for reviving the program, which hasn’t returned to the NCAA tournament since.
On Wednesday, April 1, Virginia introduced Bennett at a news conference in John Paul Jones Arena.
‘DO IT YOUR WAY’
As at Washington State, the on-court foundation of Bennett’s U.Va. program is defense. Off the court, Bennett preaches five pillars: humility, servanthood, passion, unity and thankfulness, and the combination has elevated Virginia to new heights.
The Cavaliers, 31-2 entering Friday’s first-round NCAA tournament game versus Maryland Baltimore County, have set a single-season school record for victories and have reached five consecutive NCAA tournaments for the first time. They are the event’s overall No. 1 seed and a unanimous No. 1 in the Associated Press media poll.
Virginia has won more games versus ACC rivals in the last five years than in the previous 11 combined, and last week the United States Basketball Writers Association named Bennett its National Coach of the Year for the third time, the second while at Virginia.
“He’s special,” Oliver says. “Every single day I worked with that man, it was the easiest thing I ever knew. His questions, his thoughtfulness, how he was prepared. I would always answer, ‘Tony, do it your way.’ Because in the first year or two you could tell he was so spot-on with what he was doing.
“He just got it. … He knew what to ask. He knew when to ask for advice. It was just amazing, and then to watch Laurel standing right there with him every step of the way, it was just a blessing.”
Sanchez was a staple of Bennett’s Washington State staff and has remained so at Virginia. Yet even after a dozen seasons, he marvels.
“I never doubted he would be able to win,” Sanchez says. “Like his father, it was just a matter of time. … I knew the blueprint was already there, and I’d seen him follow it so closely (at Washington State). … So I never doubted it was going to be good. Did I ever imagine it was going to be this good? It never crossed my mind.
“I’m just so thankful that I’m a part of, that I can witness this first-hand, as opposed to from a distance, because the inner workings are what truly make it special.”
Bennett has a saying: “Give it your best and live with it.” So while others stress over wins and losses, he commits to the process.
Sure, Bennett burns to join his father as a Final Four head coach and to cut down the nets after a national championship. But the fire does not engulf him.
Here is how Laurel Bennett describes her husband’s outlook:
“This is what I do. I’ll give it my best and I’ll live with it. But the other side of that coin is who I am, which is more important than what I do. And I am a child of God, and my values come from something other than my job.”
As Bennett’s national profile has grown, so has demand for his services. College and NBA teams have inquired, but Bennett, 48, has not been interested.
Toward that end, Littlepage, Oliver and U.Va.’s administration were proactive in enhancing Bennett’s contract and remaining attentive to the program’s needs. That responsibility now rests with new athletic director Carla Williams and incoming university president James Ryan.
Oliver considers the NBA the greatest threat to Virginia retaining Bennett.
“I’m not going to say who it was or when or how many,” he says, “but I’ve been faced with that already. I don’t think that Tony feels that the time is right. I believe his thinking has evolved over time and that if this thing continues to grow as it has and he’s happy, because remember, he’s changing people’s lives right now. It’s not just basketball.
“You look at his former players, they’re all doing some pretty special stuff. I think as he sees more and more of that, it will impact his thinking on the NBA. … He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever seen, and the opportunity at the highest level is something that will probably always be there in the background. …
“I believe Tony Bennett can have an amazing, Hall of Fame career right here at the University of Virginia over time. … It would be amazing if he stayed right here.”
Ritchie McKay agrees. Final Fours, national championships and the Hall of Fame are possible.
McKay left Liberty in 2009 and spent the next six seasons as Bennett’s associate head coach at Virginia before returning to Liberty as head coach in 2015. Essential and covert, his role in bringing Bennett to Charlottesville may be the greatest assist in Cavaliers basketball history.
But he deflects credit and embraces the suggestion that a higher power has steered this journey for upward of 25 years.
“Amen,” McKay says.