By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
After accepting the Virginia men's basketball coaching position almost two months ago, Tony Bennett outlined three goals he needed to accomplish immediately, the coaching version of an agenda for the first 100 days in office.
Bennett sought to quickly assemble a staff with ties to Virginia's recruiting territories; he wanted to keep the pair of high school seniors who had signed letters-of-intent to play for the Cavaliers; and he pledged to familiarize himself with his new players and prospective players.
Bennett succeeded with each goal. He hired a staff that includes former Liberty coach Ritchie McKay and former American assistant Jason Williford, a U-Va. alumnus. He kept recruits Tristan Spurlock (Word of Life) and Jontel Evans from fleeing elsewhere. And he used a collection of spring practices and off-the-court icebreakers to learn the team.
Bennett's next task in rebuilding the program?
"Recruiting," he answered, without a moment of hesitation. "Familiarizing yourself with the university. Just basically getting to work doing what coaches do when they are trying to build teams."
Virginia's men's basketball history is marked by blips of success interrupted by periods of decline. Bennett aspires to a steadier level of success, one that has eluded other coaches who arrived in Charlottesville with plans that sounded hopeful at the outset. Bennett, who has never coached east of Wisconsin, answered plenty of questions about his inexperience in Virginia's recruiting territory as he crisscrossed the state meeting with alumni and fans.
"College basketball is such a national, international game," Bennett said. "I have some ties with [area coaches]. Maybe not ties like the guys in the ACC do, but that's why you hire a Jason Williford and a Ritchie McKay. And [assistant coach Ron Sanchez] is from New York, so he has some ties there. Because of who I hired, it's not like we're coming into here blind without any ties."
Instant headlines in recruiting will be difficult. The player chase begins early, and 46 of Rivals.com's top 100 prospects for the class of 2010 have made oral commitments. Bennett insists he cannot take shortcuts with character and must identify the players who fit with the program's profile.
"Top 100, four-stars, five-stars -- yes, that's important," Bennett said. "But there's also hidden gems. There's guys who will fit. Hopefully, there will be so many commitments that some kids will really explode this summer and you'll be left standing."
The critical classes will be 2010 and 2011, when at least seven scholarships will open for the Cavaliers. Williford will be counted on to help the Cavaliers institute a stronghold in the Washington area and throughout his native Virginia. Williford's experience as an American assistant allows him to navigate the area without needing to ask for directions, although the caliber of player he's pursuing has been elevated.
"Absolutely, it's different," Williford said. "At the same time, I was in DeMatha's gym. I was in Gonzaga's gym. I've watched the D.C. Assault. I've been following those kids. But the difference now is what I can offer. And when they see Virginia, I have" more credibility.
In addition to remaining visible to the power brokers on the recruiting scene, Bennett spent his first two months in office meeting Virginia fans. A spring tour included stops in all corners of the state, including a recent visit to Rosslyn. The itinerary has been particularly important for Bennett, whose hiring surprised many observers.
Athletic Director Craig Littlepage and executive associate athletic director Jon Oliver conducted a stealth coaching search. They were wary of forcing Bennett to respond to speculation after his name came up in connection to vacancies at Indiana, Marquette and Louisiana State in 2008.
"As people have gotten to know Tony and know what Tony is all about, they feel good about who's leading the program," said Dirk Katstra, the executive director of the Virginia Athletics Foundation who played for the Cavaliers from 1987 to 1991. "I think people feel good about all the things he's had to do up to this point. And obviously, the results will ultimately be how he's evaluated on, which is what we all know. But that's where we've probably seen the most impact: how people feel about the program."
Earlier this month, Bennett attended the ACC coaches meeting in Amelia Island, Fla. A glance around the room indicated the difficulty of the Cavaliers job. Despite Virginia's location in a fertile recruiting base, it has not been able to maintain a place among the top teams in the conference.
"Following it, listening to the coaches talk, the top-to-bottom quality of the league, you go on the road and one through 12, there's just very good depth in the league," Bennett said. "That is the challenge to me: to consistently put yourself into consideration for postseason play."