Tony Bennett, University of Virginia basketball coach

Tony Bennett, University of Virginia basketball coach (Sangjib Min, Daily Press / October 27, 2009)

Daven Harmeling eagerly anticipated his senior season at Washington State. He had been a contributor on back-to-back NCAA tournament teams and was part of the resurrection of Cougars basketball, first under coach Dick Bennett and then under his son and successor, Tony.

But Harmeling, a smooth-shooting forward from Grand Junction, Colo., didn't make the kind of competitive jump he envisioned during his junior year. He entered his senior year aiming for a third consecutive NCAA trip and hoping to make amends for a sub-par season.

As the season unfolded, however, the Cougars struggled. Harmeling pressed. His production and playing time further decreased. He couldn't disagree with the coaches' decision to limit his minutes.

Still, as his college career wound down, he found himself drawn to Tony Bennett's office, for guidance, for reassurance, for connection to the man who recruited him and coached him.

"It was an unbelievable experience playing for him," Harmeling said. "If I had a son who was going to play college basketball, I'd want him to play for Tony. I learned the game of basketball, I feel, second to none. But I also feel like I learned just as much off the court as on the court."

Nikola Koprivica, a senior from Serbia who came to Pullman, Wash., sight unseen to play for Bennett, said simply, "I would say it was an honor to play for him."

In the past decade, Bennett has left an impression on both programs and people. After just three years as a college head coach, he was lured cross country last spring as Virginia's under-the-radar choice to replace Dave Leitao.

Bennett, 40, is charged with rebuilding a program that won just nine ACC games the past two seasons, a task that some would consider part of his DNA.

Dick Bennett's specialty was reconstruction. He took three Wisconsin schools to national tournaments, including an NCAA Final Four appearance in 2000 at the University of Wisconsin, a season in which Tony served as an underpaid and overqualified team manager.

Dick and Tony then laid the groundwork for Washington State's rise beginning in 2003, with Tony elevating the program into the Pac-10 and national picture after his father's second retirement in 2006.

Tony Bennett actually came to coaching somewhat reluctantly and relatively late. He saw the work and anguish his dad and older sister endured — Kathi Bennett, too, was a successful college head coach — and initially dismissed the pursuit.

When knee and foot injuries scuttled Bennett's professional playing career, however, he first caught the coaching bug overseas in New Zealand. After he and his wife, Laurel, returned to the States to start a family, the Badgers' 2000 run to the Final Four hooked him for good.

"What I realized about coaching," Bennett said, "is that it is a roller coaster. There are such highs and lows, but it's a way to have an impact on young men's lives and at the same time do what you love to do: bring a team together and do something special."

Dick Bennett sees in his son a coach who adheres to many of the principles he taught, but with a younger man's connection to his players and willingness to experiment.

"He's much more poised than I ever was," Dick Bennett said. "I was intense to the point where I walked a fine line between focusing and not being able to focus on what mattered. When you cross that line, you lose focus, and I stepped over that line too many times. I've seldom seen him do that. He's been that way all his life. He's always been a very poised young man."

Indeed, Tony Bennett can talk for hours about the qualities and lessons his father imparted, but he greatly admires his dad's intensity, and how he handled it.

Dick Bennett, fiery Italian as Tony described him, wasn't above verbally scalding a kid in the heat of competition. But without fail, he would go back to the player, sometimes in front of teammates, sometimes privately, and apologize.

"When you see someone who coached in the Final Four," Tony Bennett said, "somebody who's a legend in the state of Wisconsin in basketball, tell an 18-year-old, 'I'm sorry. I screwed up. I made a mistake. I hope you can forgive me and we can move on.' To me, that's a good example to these young men."

Years ago, Dick Bennett implemented five pillars for his programs, a nod to the family's Christian faith and to John Wooden's famous Pyramid of Success — qualities that apply to both basketball and life.