Finding direction on an unexpected path
This really wasn't the way Tony Bennett had it planned. It isn't that he didn't love basketball. The game has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember, which tends to happen when you're a coach's son. The gym is as much a part of your boyhood as your mom's kitchen table. Growing up while his dad, Dick, was coaching high school ball, then National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics ball and then Division I ball, he was the classic gym rat, the kid who makes himself a great shooter by spending hours and hours alone with a ball and a backboard.
Bennett would have been something straight out of "Hoosiers," if he had been in Indiana instead of Wisconsin. But coaching wasn't in his blood. Playing was what he was about.
"When I was a kid, the last thing in the world I thought I'd ever do was coach," he said, relaxing in the Virginia coaches' lounge at John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday after the Cavaliers had upset 20th-ranked Georgia Tech. "I loved being a player. I guess in my mind I was going to play forever -- go from college to the NBA and just stay. I saw close-up what a roller-coaster ride coaching was for my dad and for my sister Kathi [who won a Division III national title at Wisconsin-Oshkosh and later coached at Indiana] and I said, 'That's not for me.' Then I got hurt and things changed."
To put it mildly. As a kid, it certainly never occurred to Bennett that he would be coaching in the ACC at the age of 40, having already been a national coach of the year two years earlier. Now, 15 games into his first season at Virginia, Bennett has people noticing him and his team, which is 3-0 in the ACC (11-4 overall) after Saturday's 75-57 rout of Miami. No one would have been surprised if the Cavaliers had started conference play 0-2, given that they had to play at North Carolina State and then come home to play a Georgia Tech team that has been ranked most of the season
Except Virginia started 2-0 and found itself the only unbeaten team in ACC play after tacking Wednesday's 82-75 victory over the Yellow Jackets onto a come-from-behind win in Raleigh the previous Saturday.
"We really shored up on defense in the second half," he said after the Cavaliers had pulled away to win in the final minutes. "That's probably the best team we've played so far. We made them earn what they got. And we made the kind of hustle plays you have to make to win a game like this."
If nothing else, Bennett has learned to sound like a coach even though he's only been in the business for 10 years -- the last four as a head coach. He was a truly gifted player, scoring 2,285 points in four years at Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he played for his father. As a junior in 1991, he led the Phoenix to its first NCAA tournament appearance, and his career .497 shooting percentage from three-point range is still the best in NCAA history.
All of which led Bennett exactly where he wanted to go -- the NBA. He was picked in the second round by the Charlotte Hornets and started what he was hoping to be a 15-year career in 1992. Except his body wouldn't let him play that long. There were knee problems -- six surgeries. Then, in 1995, he had developed plantar fasciitis in his right foot and never regained his quickness. He kept trying, going to Australia and New Zealand to play, but was never the same.
"My body just couldn't hold up over the long haul," Bennett said. "I backed up Muggsy Bogues in Charlotte and averaged about 14 minutes a game. But when I got hurt, I was never the same."
He did some coaching in New Zealand because it was a way to stay in the game, then came home in 1999 to decide what to do next with his life. By then, his dad had moved on to Wisconsin and had taken the Badgers from near the bottom of the Big Ten to near the top -- and into the NCAA tournament. He asked Tony if he'd like to volunteer as a coach for a year while he figured out what to do next. Tony thought working with his dad would be fun, even though playing for him had frequently been anything but fun.