Hoos seek U-turn II

SportsBasketballTony BennettNational Collegiate Athletic AssociationGeorge MasonUnionsUniversity of Virginia

As chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee in 2006, Craig Littlepage endured shrill, incessant and patently ignorant barbs for the panel's inclusion of several teams from so-called "mid-major" conferences.

When news broke Monday that Littlepage, the University of Virginia's athletic director, had chosen Washington State's Tony Bennett to coach the Cavaliers' basketball team, reaction was much the same.

They hired who? From where? What in the wide, wide world of sports — rent "Blazing Saddles" if that reference baffles — is Littlepage thinking?

Littlepage fervently believes that Bennett will vindicate him as George Mason did.

You remember the 2006 Patriots. Few considered them tournament-worthy, and all they did was author the most improbable Final Four run of modern times, upsetting past champions such as North Carolina, Michigan State and Connecticut.

Littlepage recalled that experience Wednesday as Virginia introduced Bennett to media, donors and athletic department staff.

"I had absolute confidence in what was being done," he said.

So Littlepage thinks Tony Bennett is another George Mason?

"If you want to make that analogy," he said. "I think the guy is a wonderful basketball coach."

Many of Bennett's peers agree. They consider his accomplishments at Washington State — he guided a program reeling from 10 consecutive losing seasons to a pair of NCAA tournaments and an NIT — borderline miraculous.

Given its resources, heritage and location, Virginia doesn't require a miracle.

"Everything is in place here at the University of Virginia," Bennett said. "You can't ask for much more as a head coach. ...

"The best thing you can sell as a new coach is (to) come be a part of a turnaround. The kids at Washington State will be remembered forever and ever."

The Cougars' U-turn from 11-17 in 2006 to 26-8 in Bennett's rookie season earned him national coach-of-the-year honors. His 2008 team made the NCAA's Sweet 16, and his three-year record was 69-33.

"He's proven he's a winner," said U.Va.'s Sylven Landesberg, the ACC's rookie of the year, "and everybody wants to win."

But no leadership change is a sure thing.

Not John Calipari to Kentucky, Mike Tomlin to the Steelers, or Tim Geithner to Treasury.

Why, just four years ago Littlepage sang similar praises of DePaul's Dave Leitao, whom he hired to replace Pete Gillen. Moreover, Leitao came with impeccable references such as Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, his mentor.

"We always feel optimistic, we always feel good when you bring new blood into the program," Littlepage said. "But you're never sure about these things."

Since he never has addressed the issue, I asked Littlepage why he fired Leitao after four years and one losing season.

"I think today should be about Tony Bennett," Littlepage said, vowing to answer the question "at some other time."

Fair enough. So let's make it about Bennett.

Like Leitao in 2005, he hit all the high notes, including a misty-eyed, and undoubtedly genuine, reference to his family. He spoke of academic integrity, faith in God and his 8-year-old daughter angling for a puppy.

He said he will hire staff with regional ties, adjust his deliberate offense to personnel and attempt to replicate the success of respected programs such as Stanford and Michigan State.

He detailed his first airline travel, to Norfolk in 1988 for a national Amateur Athletic Union tournament, where his team got trounced by a Boo Williams squad that included Bryant Stith and Alonzo Mourning.

"Us guys from Wisconsin weren't used to seeing that kind of talent," said Bennett, who played three years in the NBA.

Bennett even used the oh-so-proper "grounds" when referring to Virginia's campus.

"I came here to build a program that lasts," he said.

Such sentiment undoubtedly played well with Littlepage. Minnesota's Tubby Smith would have generated more instant splash, but at 57 he's nearing the back end of his career; Oklahoma's Jeff Capel and Xavier's Sean Miller may be more accomplished, but might their destinations be their respective alma maters, Duke and Pittsburgh?

Bennett, 39, doesn't figure to bolt Virginia for his alma mater, Wisconsin-Green Bay. Indeed, he could bring stability to the program not seen since Terry Holland's 16-year tenure from 1975-90.

Early in the search, Littlepage spoke to a trusted basketball colleague whom he declined to identify. He floated Bennett's name, and the line went silent before the reply.

"You've got to be kidding me."

Littlepage sensed his friend recoiling. Until the kicker.

"If you can get that guy, you have to."

Littlepage did just that in a whirlwind recruitment. He said he wanted a "teacher-coach" in the mold of icons Pete Newell, John McClendon and John Wooden, and believes he found that in Bennett.

"My pick," Littlepage said, "the No. 1 pick."

No mulligans this time. He'd better he right.

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.

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