ACC tournament 2012: Virginia’s Tony Bennett buoyed by his faith


Tony Bennett tries to keep his cool as Virginia men’s basketball coach. (Andrew Shurtleff/AP)
March 8, 2012

Dick Bennett, a man who spent 28 years of his life using as many decibels as his voice would carry, has given away all his files. The longtime college basketball coach owns no old game tapes or practice plans. He threw away those memories after he retired in 2006.

“I save only the important stuff,” Bennett says as he walks into the den of his home.

There, he reaches into a side drawer of his desk and, one by one, retrieves three items from a manila folder: an old quote of his memorialized on laminated paper, a plea from one of his grandchildren written in crayon and a handwritten note from his son. This is the “important stuff” that helps explain how Dick’s son, Tony, came to be a successful college basketball coach in his own way.

To be clear, Tony Bennett burns just as intensely when his team is on the court as his excitable father used to. But Tony possesses a poise founded on a faith-based perspective that, he and others who know him well say, enables him to persuade his players to buy into a style of play — and a style of life — fueled by selflessness and collective will.

He did not guide an injury-depleted Virginia men’s basketball team to a 22-8 record and first-round bye in the ACC tournament in his third season in Charlottesville by making sure his message was heard. Rather, Bennett steered the Cavaliers to the verge of their first NCAA tournament appearance in five years by ensuring his message was absorbed.

Bennett spoke about his faith for this story hesitantly. He said the last thing he wants to come across as is holier than thou. “But,” he said, “this matters to me.”

‘My life really changed’

During the summer before Tony’s eighth-grade year, Dick Bennett took his family to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in Colorado. It was there, Tony said, that he felt for the first time a deep spiritual connection.

“That’s where I became a Christian and a believer in Christ,” Tony said. “I know a lot of people look at that, and they’re like, ‘Oh, what’s he talking about?’ But from that moment on, my life really changed. . . .

“I had been all about basketball and being about mine and getting whatever I could. That’s where it shifted for me.”

His family took notice. Anne Bennett, Tony’s mother, said her son no longer was afraid to talk about his faith, regardless of what his friends thought.

“You can always tell when someone is just a little bit surer, a little more confident, just secure in who he was and what he wanted,” said his oldest sister, Kathi Bennett, who coaches the women’s basketball team at Northern Illinois. “His perspective really changed about what mattered.”

Dick Bennett estimates that Tony influenced him and Anne more than any church they ever attended. Tony never evangelized, according to his father, but his tranquility was contagious.

After Dick’s Wisconsin team defeated Purdue to advance to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament in 2000, he was asked in the postgame news conference whether the victory was the achievement of his life.

Dick offered a response his son can recite verbatim to this day and one that is printed on a laminated sheet of paper that is kept in Dick’s desk.

In part, the quote reads: “I guess from a feeling state, euphoria, yes. But it doesn’t compare with children and grandchildren and faith. I would hope I would always have the sense to know what really matters, and that enables me to enjoy what seems to matter . . . like this.”

‘He wasn’t a ranter’

After injuries cut short Tony Bennett’s NBA career in 1995, he joined a semipro team in Auckland, New Zealand. There, he met an American pastor named Jeff Vines.

Soon, Bennett and his wife, Laurel, were helping Vines create Shore Community Christian Church, whose non-denominational services drew roughly 80 people at the outset. When locals saw Tony Bennett, the face of their city’s basketball team, handing out flyers and talking openly about his faith, they were drawn to him and, by extension, the church.

But Bennett “was very cautious,” Vines said. “He didn’t want to use his position to beat people over the head with a Bible. At the same time, he did want to say: ‘Hey, there is something that I’ve found in my life that this is where my integrity, my character and my honesty come from. If you want to know about that, then come.’ ”

Bennett never wanted to get into coaching. He’d seen the toll the profession had taken on his father and older sister. But when a knee injury kept him from playing part of his second season in New Zealand, the team asked Bennett to become a player-coach.

“He doesn’t shout. He’s not a screamer. With his pedigree, he naturally had the respect of the players,” said Kurt Dammers, who also coached in the club program in which Bennett played. “He wasn’t a ranter, but he demanded excellence in his own way. In a quiet, forceful way.”

Dammers described himself as an atheist who thinks churches sometimes can be overbearing. And though he noted Bennett did use prayer in the locker room, Dammers said he “never felt that Tony ever pressed his religion on people that didn’t want it.”

In 1999, Bennett decided he wanted to be a coach after all. So he moved back to the United States and joined his father’s staff at Wisconsin. By then, Vines’s start-up church included 450 members.

‘He can deal with failure’

Back in his den, Dick Bennett pulls out a sheet of green construction paper with crayon writing on both sides. It’s a note from Tony’s daughter, Anna, written when she was 5.

At that point — Christmas of 2005 — Dick was in his third year coaching at Washington State. He says now that he “didn’t do a good job out there.” He implemented the pack-line defense, which he figured Tony, his top assistant, would use when Tony took over.

But “I felt like [the players] had kind of turned me off, because I had had a lot of angry outbursts after games or in practice,” Dick said. “Tony, he saw it. He was sitting right next to me” on the bench.

Washington State went 11-17 that season, the program’s worst mark in Dick’s three seasons at the helm. He had cited burnout when he retired the first time, from Wisconsin in 2001. Those same feelings were present again, and Anna’s note only fostered them.

“Papa, I wish you wouldn’t get mad at the basketball team,” the note read. “Please control your temper. I love you. Please be happy. Love, Anna.”

When Tony was Dick’s assistant, he routinely tried to patch up relationships after his father’s eruptions. The father told his son things would be different when Tony was the one in charge, and while that has proved true, Dick said Tony handles the job’s stresses better than he ever could.

“He can deal with failure,” Dick said of Tony. “A lot of people can’t.”

‘We’re still okay’

With all-ACC forward Mike Scott returning for a fifth year and a core group of players well-versed in the pack-line defense Tony Bennett had adopted from his father, Virginia entered this season poised to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.

The road has not been smooth. A roster that contained 11 scholarship players in November is down to seven because of attrition and injuries. Virginia’s second-leading scorer, Joe Harris, has played with a broken non-shooting hand for the past four weeks and suffered a concussion near the end of the regular season. The Cavaliers have lost six games this season by three points or fewer.

“Every game we lose that kind of feels like a heartbreaker, my expectation is still a little bit for Tony to come home and be a little depressed,” said Laurel Bennett, Tony’s wife. “But he walks in, and his demeanor — I immediately feel better. . . . He’s able to feel the hurt of it, but keep it in the forefront of his mind that, ‘Yeah, but we’re still okay.’ ”

Bennett’s voice grows stern and his face turns red from time to time, players said. But if Bennett ever feels he crosses a line, he apologizes soon thereafter. That, Scott said, shows respect and builds trust.

Off the court, Bennett participates in the team’s prayer sessions. He draws examples from his faith, but begins those talks with, “For those of you that believe . . .

“Everybody’s at different places; everybody has different beliefs,” Bennett said. “You can’t impose that. That’s something between them and God.”

During a team shoot-around before Virginia’s home game Jan. 31 against Clemson, Scott approached Bennett and informed his coach he had accepted Christ.

“I’m still learning and still going down that road,” Scott said. “I wasn’t, like, an atheist or anything. I don’t know why I didn’t go to church or read the Bible that much. Coach has shed some light on me. Being around him so much, I wanted to be just like him.”

‘I won’t change’

Before the 2010-11 season, Tony Bennett sent his father a hand-written note, and Dick Bennett still has the steno pad sheet of paper saved in his desk. He pulls it out last.

In part, it reads: “You and Mom don’t need to worry about me. No matter how difficult it gets or how good it goes, I won’t change. . . . You have shaped and molded me more than anyone except for the Lord. Love, Tony.”

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