NCAA Sweet 16: Virginia’s Tony Bennett stays close to his father, even if Dick Bennett can’t help but keep his distance

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the University of Virginia or Michigan State will advance to the Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
March 26

He almost made it out of the hotel room Sunday, farther than he had made it two days earlier.

Dick Bennett drove from Charlottesville to Raleigh, N.C., last week, even though he wouldn’t attend Virginia’s first-round NCAA tournament game against Coastal Carolina on Friday. Wouldn’t watch it on television, either. It was just easier that way, even for the former coach who led Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000. Coaching was nerve-wracking enough, but it was nothing like watching his only son, Tony Bennett, lead the top-seeded Cavaliers. Usually, he only checks in toward the end, seeing whether Virginia won, which on Sunday it did easily in the second round against Memphis.

“There’s an old Shakespeare line, that a coward dies many times before his death,” said Dick Bennett, 70, whose son’s team will play Michigan State on Friday in the Sweet 16. “And when I watch his games, I am that coward.

“So I figure I’ll just die once — if they lose.”

Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers’ fourth-year coach, has learned to understand his dad. He has his own competitive streak, but Dick Bennett said his son is better at hiding it. He said he must’ve inherited that from Dick’s wife, Anne. “Thank God for that,” Dick said.


When Coastal Carolina built a double-digit lead Friday, Tony Bennett didn’t panic. That has become a hallmark of the younger Bennett, along with a team crafted in his unflappable image. On Friday evening, rather than screaming or pouting as his father might have once done, he quieted a bickering locker room. “I said, ‘You have to come together in a way that you haven’t all year because of what’s at stake,’ ” he said after his team’s come-from-behind 70-59 win.

Years ago, Tony Bennett couldn’t envision himself as a coach. He wanted to play basketball, not teach it, and besides, look at his dad. Dick Bennett was a head coach for 28 years, and every game was agony. If winning was sweet, losing was murderous, unshakable torture. For years, he tried to hide this side of himself from his three children, though his son couldn’t ignore the profession’s apparent side effects.

“I was like: ‘Ah, I don’t want to subject myself to this roller-coaster ride. It’s just too much; why would you do it?’ ” Tony Bennett said this week.

Not that his dad ever pushed him toward it. “I never wanted that for him,” the elder Bennett said.

Tony played point guard for his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay, going on to become a second-round draft pick of the Charlotte Hornets in 1992. His talent was limited, but former Hornets coach Allan Bristow appreciated his poise. Bennett had inherited his dad’s competitive drive, but it didn’t corrode his insides or affect his game; instead, his desire to win led him to seek solutions.

“Always steady, calm — he gets upset, especially when he bangs around, you see that competitiveness come out of him,” said Muggsy Bogues, whom Bennett played behind in Charlotte. “Don’t back down from nothing, from no one. It’s like he’s always thinking: ‘What’s that next step, that next move, the next way of getting out.’ ”

Tony Bennett later played for a professional team in New Zealand, performing some coaching duties, too, and after returning home he went against his father’s wishes and pursued coaching, asking for a spot on his father’s staff at Wisconsin. It was a chance to teach his son the game’s finer points, but Dick Bennett knew his son would see the weaknesses he had for years tried to conceal.

“I lived too long with losses. I lost my temper. I perhaps was a bit prideful at times,” the elder Bennett said, “and I never wanted my own son to see that so vividly.”

Dick Bennett retired in 2001, but hoping to advance his son’s career, he took the coaching job at Washington State in 2003. Tony came with him, joining the staff as a top assistant — with administrators agreeing to consider Tony for the head coaching position when his father again retired.

“He wanted to try it again, he wanted to help Tony get started and we had a place that desperately needed him and Tony to come,” said Jim Sterk, who hired Dick Bennett at Washington State and is now athletic director at San Diego State.

Not that Dick’s return to coaching came easily. Sterk said his former coach would become “physically ill” before games, and when Tony introduced his dad to his future wife, Laurel, he did so after a loss; Dick could barely muster a hello.

“With so many coaches — and it’s sad to say — we become what we do,” Dick said.

Tony questioned why his dad’s strategy emphasized defense and frowned upon players who liked to shoot. He asked why his dad refused to recruit high-scoring stars. And Tony, whose even-keeled demeanor is rooted in his strong Christian faith, asked why Dick took the losses so hard, refusing to lighten up.

“Always asking, searching for answers,” Dick would recall later. “He understood it and stayed with me through it all — the losing, the anger, the frustration, the whole bit that goes with losing. . . . I wanted him to realize you can do this without losing your soul.”

When Tony Bennett succeeded his father at Washington State in 2006, he found himself using the same careful approach; the Cougars stressed defense and passing, and in 2007 he led Washington State to 26 wins and was named national coach of the year. No matter the success, Dick Bennett found that the only thing more difficult than coaching games was watching his son coach them; Sterk said Dick once asked him to ban him from the arena.

Virginia hired Tony Bennett in 2009, and although he has changed the Cavaliers’ trajectory, calming his father’s nerves remains a challenge. Dick Bennett said he attended a game last season in Miami, getting into a shouting match with a fan who had been critical of his son. He said he doesn’t trust himself to avoid altercations with game officials or to shout at players, and so he just doesn’t come.

“It’s hard for me. I don’t know,” Dick said. “As I say, I should apologize to all those who love to watch their children perform or coach or whatever. I guess I just — I just worry.”

Last Friday, he couldn’t relax until he knew the Cavaliers had beaten Coastal Carolina. He hoped to attend Virginia’s second-round game against Memphis, but no, he never did leave his room; he said Tony told him not to feel as if he needed to be there. “A great relief to me,” said Dick, who did watch the first half on television, turning off the broadcast once the Cavaliers had taken a comfortable lead.

Dick said he can’t say whether he’ll attend or watch his son’s team this weekend at Madison Square Garden, beginning with Friday’s high-profile contest against Michigan State. He just can’t make promises like that, he said. Only if Virginia wins two more games, reaching the Final Four, will Dick force himself to attend.

“Probably something,” he said with a sigh, “I couldn’t miss.”

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