The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tony Bennett and Virginia hoops aren’t for everyone, but ‘it’s okay to be different’

In a profession full of self-promoters, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett prefers privacy. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Most everyone had taken shelter by now, but Tony Bennett was walking in the rain. In his mind, some things are worse than a downpour.

Bennett was making his way to work 87 minutes before tip-off against Virginia Tech, a late arrival for most college basketball coaches but early for the Virginia coach, a man who detests idle time. And though a cozy security tent sat a few dozen yards away, a crowd was beneath it on this February afternoon, so Bennett made his way between a wall and a television truck.

Even Bennett’s staff used to find some of his quirks odd, but when you’re the coach of the nation’s No. 1 team and the architect of an ACC powerhouse, it’s all part of the plan.

“Certain things are sacred to me,” Bennett would say a bit later, and among those are efficiency, maximizing potential and — perhaps most precious in a profession filled with self-promoters — his privacy.

Bennett is perhaps college basketball’s most public mystery. He actively avoids the spotlight for himself and his program, believes pregame theatrics and between-game hype are pointless, and doesn’t see how interviews and television appearances can benefit his team. And with the Cavaliers having captured their third ACC regular season title in five seasons, maybe he has a point.

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Even on this day, with ESPN’s “College GameDay” at John Paul Jones Arena and Hokies Coach Buzz Williams seizing any chance for national exposure, Bennett declined to appear on television and mostly stayed home to review game notes. He operates no social media accounts, has tended to avoid top-50 recruits (and the hysteria and entitlement that often accompany them) and arrives at the arena as late and as stealthily as possible.

“A lot of people live for that,” Bennett would say of the more public parts of his job, but he learned a long time ago to find comfort in his own skin, even as the game he coaches becomes more and more public — and success often seems directly tied to face time and branding.

Bennett has crafted a program in this image, even as his two most powerful instincts occasionally seem at odds with each other. Bennett is ruthlessly competitive and driven to prove that his name belongs among the game’s great coaches (or at least that of his father, Dick, who in 2000 led Wisconsin to the Final Four), but he is almost defiantly unwilling to conform to the trends that seemingly would make that rise easier.

Anyway, regardless of how or when he got here, Bennett has made it — both to the arena and to the college game’s mountaintop — so if he is using this season to conduct a social experiment aimed at challenging the game’s traditional norms, he has the nation’s attention.

“We can, in this climate, in this crazy world that we’re in — and we’re in a crazy time — we can be different,” said longtime Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford, whose boss has taught him one prevailing lesson. “It’s okay to be different.”

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Knowing himself

Not long after Bennett arrived in Charlottesville nine years ago, assistant coach Ritchie McKay approached him with good news. Sports Illustrated, the venerable national magazine, was interested in writing about Virginia and a changing ACC.

“I’d rather not,” McKay would remember his boss telling him.

“Tony, man, this would help recruiting,” said McKay, himself a former longtime head coach, but Bennett said his program wasn’t ready.

McKay went with it, but Bennett’s style took some getting used to. He wondered aloud what the purpose was of turning down the lights during pregame player introductions, why it was necessary to play videos and music before games, what benefit was in shooting things from the scoreboard.

“This isn’t the NBA,” McKay would recall Bennett saying, and indeed the coach seemed to be a walking rejection of a sports league he once had inhabited.

Bennett, in his younger days, had been a point guard blessed with average talent but an unholy work ethic. As the son of a famously demanding college coach, Bennett teased his friends for wanting to attend the high school dance; he had left a window unlocked at Wisconsin Stevens Point, where his father coached. While they were soft-shoeing, he’d be slipping through the window to fire up the lights to practice basketball alone. Even as he played for his father at Wisconsin Green Bay before coming off the bench for the Charlotte Hornets, he’d find a racquetball court that would allow him in so he could turn off the lights and practice dribbling in the dark.

Players were built, as he saw it, not born — and though he enjoyed competition at the highest level, the NBA lifestyle made him feel out of place. While the Hornets’ superstars hit the town, Bennett — who had decided his future was either as a pastor or a coach — watched movies, ordered takeout and went to bed early.

“There’s a lot of things, just like in sports and our society today, that weren’t as interesting to me,” Bennett would say much later. “I felt comfortable, but I also knew who I was.”

Then and now, almost nothing was more important to Bennett than knowing himself. He was a worker, not one of the gifted. He was a preparer, not a character. A man, not a celebrity.

When he left Washington State, where he had succeeded his dad as coach, to take over at Virginia, he would rebuild a program that had reached the NCAA tournament twice over the previous decade in just that image. The Cavaliers would run a most unglamorous version of the man-to-man defense called the “Pack Line.” They would minimize possessions, even as successful programs took more shots. They would be slow, not fast. They mostly would avoid blue-chip recruits and the entitlement he had witnessed in the NBA. “We have to lose before we can win,” Bennett told his confused staff in those early days.

They would bring in blue-collar players such as Mike Tobey and London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon — not a McDonald’s all-American among them — to build a foundation and establish a culture.

“Guys who are so committed to your buy-in,” McKay would recall, “and are process-over-results-oriented.”

And they would not change. Because before anyone else knew who the Cavaliers would be, Bennett knew. They would resemble Tony Bennett himself.

An agent of change

Almost 18 months ago, Bennett heard about a photograph of U-Va. players circulating on social media. In it, they were wearing black and kneeling, and the message was consistent: “Kneel for Injustice. Kneel for Equality.”

Bennett, at first surprised by the players’ decision and then whipsawed by how public it had become, called African American friends and community officials and reporters, asking them for their opinions. He contacted university officials and advisers and members of the clergy.

Had players overstepped? Or was this justified?

“Let me know what I don’t know,” Wes Bellamy, a member of Charlottesville’s city council, remembered Bennett asking during a phone conversation, which led to an invitation to hold an impromptu panel discussion alongside the city’s police chief.

During the conversation, Bellamy would recall, Bennett said virtually nothing. He sat and listened to the guests and to his players, who would later agree to link arms during the national anthem instead of kneeling.

Then in August, after a group of white nationalists marched in Charlottesville and incited protests in and around the city, Bennett again initiated a listening session. This time, it came during a coaching staff meeting, and Bennett encouraged his assistants to be honest. What didn’t he know? What, considering his experience as a white Midwesterner in his late 40s, was he naturally unable to relate to?

“When something like that happens, it’s real,” Bennett would say months later. “I’m going to be compassionate, but I want to understand and open up the dialogue. It’s awful that it happened, but what can we learn from it?”

Williford, who is African American, spoke first. He described growing up in Richmond and the feeling of shopkeepers following him around a store. He told his boss that someday he will have a conversation with his two sons about what to say and do if police pull them over. Ron Sanchez, who has worked with and for Bennett since their Washington State days, told his boss about occasionally hearing derogatory language when he traveled around the country.

Afterward, Bennett gathered the entire team. He told players it wasn’t enough to post a photograph or say things need to change. Bennett challenged his players to be the agents of improvement in a city under siege.

“You can’t just be a picture,” Williford would remember Bennett saying, and players spent time at children’s hospitals and elementary schools. They became involved in the area chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, participated in mentoring sessions and volunteered during a clothing and shoe drive.

If a basketball staffer suggested involving media, the answer was no. If someone pointed out it’d look good for the program or for Charlottesville, Bennett pointed out that didn’t matter.

Months later, that hadn’t changed.

“It’s ultimately about promoting the right stuff. I thought that was powerful. I saw — talked with our guys . . .” Bennett would say recently, temporarily losing himself in the moment. “To me, it’s important that it’s not publicly known.”

After a moment, he continued.

“I’d rather do that in private.”

The lesson

Three years ago, long before Virginia entered this week’s ACC tournament as the top seed with a good chance of being the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, Virginia cut down the nets for the last time.

It was, of course, classic Bennett.

A year earlier, the Cavaliers had clinched the 2014 regular season conference championship by drilling Syracuse at home. It was the culmination of Bennett’s vision and the program’s first outright conference title since 1981.

Anyway, after the game, fans stormed the floor at John Paul Jones Arena and celebrated with Brogdon and Perrantes and Tobey. Somewhere in a back hallway, a staffer pleaded with Bennett to allow players to cut down the nets; it’d be good for fans, memorable for players, a milestone for the program. Bennett didn’t like it, but he relented.

Then eight days later, Maryland handed U-Va. its first loss in nearly two months, and that’s what Bennett would remember.

So the next year, when the Cavaliers again clinched the regular season championship at Syracuse, the team returned to Charlottesville that night, and Bennett led the group into the arena. The seats were empty. The building was silent. Just as he liked it.

When the lights came on, players saw that a ladder had been set up beneath a basket. Every player, coach, walk-on, manager and staffer would be invited to climb up and snip a piece of the nylon, but before the first cut, Bennett addressed those surrounding him.

He told them this wasn’t about the fans or the media or even the school; that a moment didn’t need to be widely viewed to be special; and that these next few moments would forever belong to the people gathered here and no one else.

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