“I was in the best shape of my life as a coach,” Bennett recalled this week. “The lead guard on the scout team. The first time in my career I could jack it up and not get yelled at.”
It was also the start of what turned into a memorable two-year apprenticeship under Ryan, one that would reinforce many of the principles Tony Bennett adopted from his father.
Bennett, now in his fourth season as coach at Virginia, will enjoy a homecoming of sorts Wednesday night when the Cavaliers visit Wisconsin as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. He grew up in Green Bay and, as an assistant coach under his father, went to the Final Four with the Badgers in 2000. But he has been back to Kohl Center only one time — to watch Cavaliers shooting guard Paul Jesperson in the high school state championship in 2010 — since his four-year tenure on Wisconsin’s coaching staff ended in 2003.
Outside of his father, Ryan is the only boss Bennett has known in his coaching career, and his two mentors also happen to be legends in Wisconsin basketball circles.
Ryan, now 64 and in his 12th year at Wisconsin, says now that he didn’t retain Bennett because of his last name. He simply remembered how hard Bennett used to play during his days as a star at Wisconsin-Green Bay and was immediately drawn to his passion for the game. But perhaps more important, Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan weren’t all that different from each other.
As Tony Bennett, 43, put it this week, “My Dad was a fiery Italian and Bo is probably a fiery Irishman.”
Each one’s rise to a Big Ten coaching job was similar, too. Dick Bennett was hired by Wisconsin in 1995 after attaining legendary status at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin-Green Bay. Before taking over the Badgers, Ryan had highly successful stints at Wisconsin-Platteville, where he won four Division III national titles, and Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Dick Bennett and Ryan also had similar coaching styles. They recruited hard-nosed Midwestern prospects and favored a deliberate approach based on valuing possessions. Bennett had his “pack-line” defense and Ryan used his swing offense, each of which relies on disciplined players who value the team over their own statistics.
“Some people call that a system. I just always thought it was basketball, and Tony grew up with that same mentality,” Ryan said this week. “I don’t fight anything. You could expend a lot of energy trying to convince people that what you’re doing is right. The best thing in life is to do your thing.”
Ryan and Tony Bennett often talk about this mind-set when they encounter each other on the recruiting trail, and it has helped Bennett ignore the outside perception that his methodical approach can’t be sold to today’s AAU culture. Under Ryan, the Badgers have won two Big Ten titles and have played in the NCAA tournament 11 straight seasons.
And it’s a particularly important lesson this year with Virginia in a rebuilding stage, having started this season 4-2 relying on a talented, but green, freshman class.
“The stereotype that you’re a system team, you’re gonna walk it up and stall until five seconds are left on the shot clock, you kind of roll with that,” Bennett said. “You don’t get too carried away or too shook up by public opinion. The success that they’ve had, I think that squelches any thoughts about how Wisconsin plays.”
The similarities between Ryan and Bennett did lead to some controversy over the summer. After watching four of the six players from his first recruiting class transfer from Virginia for various reasons, Bennett put in a request to contact forward Jared Uthoff when he decided to transfer from Wisconsin this offseason.
Bennett had recruited Uthoff out of high school because he fit Bennett’s style of play, but Ryan blocked Virginia and 24 other schools from speaking with Uthoff, a move that sparked national controversy. Uthoff ended up transferring to Iowa, and Bennett made it a point to tell his former boss that he wasn’t tampering.
But there are no hard feelings, Ryan said, especially when it comes to someone who “tries to play the game the way it should be played.”
Saving that first scout team probably didn’t hurt either.