The University of Virginia is a destination job for most head coaches. George Welsh and Terry Holland. Ace Adams and Dom Starsia. Debbie Ryan and Jane Miller. Julie Myers and Brian O’Connor. George Gelnovatch and Brian Boland.
For more than 50 years, coaches who thrive at Virginia rarely have job-hunted. That speaks to the quality of life, professional and personal, offered by the university and Charlottesville communities.
Oh, there are exceptions. Art Guepe exited for Vanderbilt after guiding the Cavaliers’ football team to six consecutive winning seasons from 1947-52. Bruce Arena coached Virginia to five national soccer championships before heading to D.C. United in 1996.
Yes, Holland resigned as basketball coach in 1989, but that was for a career change — he became athletic director at his alma mater, Davidson, and never coached again. Besides, he later returned to Virginia as AD.
Which brings us to the current basketball coach. Tony Bennett has just signed, with stylish penmanship by the way, a seven-year contract extension.
After last season’s ACC regular-season and tournament championships, Virginia’s first such daily double, and subsequent NCAA Sweet 16 appearance, many Cavaliers faithful pine for Bennett to be a U.Va. lifer. Seeing the talent he has stockpiled and the manner in which he leads, they envision a return to the 1980s and ‘90s, when Virginia was a NCAA tournament staple under Holland and Jeff Jones.
Combine the aforementioned history with a long-term contract, and perhaps Bennett will be just that. Perhaps he can sustain this promising start and keep the Cavaliers among the elite in a conference that includes perennials Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh.
But let’s not forget: Gray hairs aside, Bennett is young — he turned 45 Sunday — and fairly new to the corner office. He’s been a head coach for eight years, three at Washington State and five at Virginia, which ranks 13th among the ACC’s 15 big whistles — only Virginia Tech’s Buzz Williams (seven seasons) and Wake Forest’s Danny Manning (two) are less experienced.
In short, Bennett likely is far from his prime — he’ll be 52 when this contract expires — and if he succeeds at Virginia, will not lack for suitors.
Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski rattled some Cavaliers fans last month when he tweeted that some NBA teams are intrigued by Bennett. Wojnarowski is wired for sound in NBA circles, and sources have since confirmed that multiple NBA franchises have sought to gauge Bennett’s possible interest.
Some dismiss the notion, opining that Bennett’s devotion to team defensive principles and patient offense would not fly in the ego-driven NBA. But if Bennett ever coaches elsewhere, I suspect it will be in the NBA.
He played three seasons for the Charlotte Hornets and has an enduring respect for the league. He’s smart enough to adjust Xs and Os to talent and depth, witness last season, and he might embrace not only the challenge of coaching the world’s best but also bidding farewell to year-'round recruiting.
Look at it this way: If the NBA could lure Brad Stevens from Butler, it certainly could Bennett from Virginia.
Not to suggest any such move is imminent and that Bennett’s new contract is a sham. Bennett’s statement Tuesday about his love for U.Va., and Charlottesville rings as genuine, and his competitive side understands that one landmark season does not a program make, that work remains to reach the clear potential.
Much has been, and will be, made of Bennett’s modest, by industry standards, salary, bonuses and perks. His annual base pay of $1.924 million is a bargain for Virginia, represents a 13-percent bump from his previous salary of $1.7 million and lags behind the $2.3 million, with annual $100,000 increases, that Virginia Tech has committed to Williams.
But Bennett has a keen appreciation for his staff — assistants Ritchie McKay, Jason Williford and Ron Sanchez have been with him at Virginia throughout — and in advocating handsome raises for them, he likely sacrificed a few pennies. Indeed, the combined $785,000 that McKay, Williford and Sanchez will earn next season makes them among the ACC’s top paid staff — Virginia Tech has pledged $725,000 for Williams’ three assistants.
Such benevolence doesn’t make Bennett unique or saintly — Hokies football coach Frank Beamer also is a fierce advocate for staff — but an old soul wise beyond his years.
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
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