By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
CHARLOTTESVILLE, March 30 -- After a two-week search, Virginia is set to hire Washington State's Tony Bennett as its new men's basketball coach. Washington State Athletic Director Jim Sterk confirmed Bennett's decision to take the Cavaliers job.
Bennett will replace former Virginia coach Dave Leitao, who resigned March 16 after Virginia's worst season in four decades.
Bennett, 39, was 68-30 in three seasons at Washington State. He led the Cougars to the NCAA tournament in his first two seasons and to the NIT this season. He succeeded his father, Dick Bennett, in 2006 and won Associated Press coach of the year in 2007.
Tony Bennett reportedly rejected overtures from Indiana, Marquette and Louisiana State a year ago. Sterk said Virginia requested permission to speak to Bennett on Thursday, and Bennett visited Charlottesville on Friday. Sterk said he expects Virginia to pay Bennett's $400,000 buyout at Washington State.
Dick Bennett said he and Tony spoke five times about the job during the weekend, and Monday morning, Dick still did not know which way Tony was leaning. Tony Bennett informed Sterk and Washington State President Elson S. Floyd of his decision Monday, and informed his players shortly afterward. Virginia refused to confirm the hire Monday.
The Cougars had 10 consecutive losing seasons before Tony Bennett became head coach. In his first season, Bennett led Washington State to its first national ranking since 1983. In Bennett's second season, the Cougars achieved their highest national ranking in school history (No. 4, from Dec. 4, 2007 to Jan. 13, 2008).
"It's a shock. I can't even explain it," Washington State senior Daven Harmeling said. "He turned the program from absolutely nothing into a contender. We were in the NCAA two years in a row, and people thought we had the least amount of talent. We were beating teams, so it's scary to think what he'll do when he has talent."
Harmeling said Bennett emphasizes defense and "valuing the basketball." The Cougars led the Pacific-10 in scoring defense in each of his three seasons. They led the Pac-10 in turnover margin in his first two seasons, but fell to last in the conference in the 2008-09 season.
"He really tries to find out what kids can do and give them those opportunities to use their abilities," Dick Bennett said. "He's not a run-and-gun-type coach. He will assess the talent. He's always been that way. He's not locked into specific way of building a team."
Nonetheless, Bennett's name remained under the radar publicly during the coaching search. He has never coached east of Wisconsin, where he was an assistant coach for four seasons before coming to Washington State as an assistant in 2003. He also coached a professional team in New Zealand, where he played from 1996 to '98. Bennett played for the NBA's Charlotte Hornets from 1992 to '95.
Although Bennett does not deliver the name recognition for Virginia fans, former Saint Louis coach Brad Soderberg, who played for Dick Bennett at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, considered him a good fit for Virginia's vacancy.
"He is as quality a person, as quality a coach as anyone could ask for," Soderberg said. "He is a relentless recruiter. If people saw the players at Washington State, they'd say he didn't exactly set the world on fire. When you consider where that university is located, I think he did a remarkable job of bringing in great players. Now that he is in a more attractive community to recruit to, with a higher population of players in the adjacent areas, I think he is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the ACC."
Dick Bennett said because of Tony's lack of experience in the region, Tony will likely assemble a coaching staff with connections to the recruiting base.
Bennett will also inherit an established nucleus, including ACC rookie of the year Sylven Landesberg.
"He's had plenty of experience in the Big 10, the Pac-10. He's played in the NBA," Dick Bennett said. "He has a great deal to offer along with what the school offers."
Staff writer Eric Prisbell contributed to this report. For more on Virginia's hire, check out The Post's college basketball blog, Press Break, at http://washingtonpost.com/press-break