When injuries derailed his brief NBA career and forced him to seek a new line of work, Tony Bennett was only sure of one thing.
Whatever he did next, it wasn't going to be coaching.
The son of legendary former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett witnessed firsthand how the pressure-packed profession can strain a family and stoke the temper of an otherwise gentle, spiritual man.
Since Dick coached at five high schools and three colleges before landing his dream job at Wisconsin, the Bennetts seldom remained in one place more than a few years. The desire to win consumed Dick so much that he'd berate his players after a bad practice or wasted possession and sequester himself in his office for days trying to find the cure for a losing streak.
"My father is one of the wisest, humblest guys I know, but he was just so intense," Tony said. "You'd be with him after a loss, and it was like the sky was falling, the world was ending and they were never going to win another game. I saw that roller coaster ride and I thought, 'Why in the world would you want to do something like this?' I swore off it. Some of my friends were like, 'Oh, you'll be a coach.' I said, 'No way I'm doing that. It's not for me.'"
Everyone at Virginia is surely glad the younger Bennett eventually reconsidered because the Cavaliers have thrived under his leadership.
When Bennett left Washington State to spearhead Virginia's rebuilding process five years ago, the program was coming off an 18-loss season and had only finished .500 or better in the ACC once in the previous eight years. He overcame a flurry of injuries and transfers early in his tenure to take Virginia to the NCAA tournament in 2012 and to lead the Cavaliers to their first outright ACC regular season title since 1981 this season.
Even though Bennett has built his program in the image of his father's Wisconsin teams by implementing his dad's trademark motion offense and pack-line man-to-man defense, Dick Bennett is just as proud of something his son has done differently than he did. Tony remains far more even-keeled on the sideline than Dick ever did, seldom alienating players with angry outbursts or moping over losses for days at a time.
"I'm mostly a pretty laid-back, quiet, calm person, but I guess through all the rebuilding jobs where I was constantly losing early, I developed a me-versus-the-world mentality and got a bit more tense on the sideline," Dick Bennett said. "I was never proud of it. I wanted to stay calm and never did. But Tony's temperament is more like his mother's. He's very calm. That side of the family is that way. My side of the family, we're Italians. My mother was real fiery, my dad had a temper and so did I."
Tony might never have discovered he had both the talent and disposition for coaching had injuries not disrupted his playing career.
When the Charlotte Hornets selected him 35th overall in the 1992 draft, Bennett expected to enjoy a 15-year NBA career by carving out a niche as a capable point guard and deadly shooter. His plans changed, however, when he realized his body wouldn't let him play that long.
Knee problems came first, leading to six surgeries. Then he developed plantar fasciitis in his right foot in 1995, robbing him of his quickness and forcing him to go to Australia and New Zealand to see if he could revive his career in a lower-level league.
Injuries continued to hamper Bennett enough that he and his wife Laurel considered returning home to Wisconsin for good, but two opportunities persuaded them to stay.
First, the Auckland semi-pro team Bennett had joined offered him the chance to serve as a player-coach, enabling him to stay involved in basketball and grow the game in New Zealand without wearing down his body so much. Second, Bennett and his wife Laurel met an American pastor named Jeff Vines, who offered them the chance to help start a church in Auckland from scratch.
"When I asked him to stay, I drew a vision of what we wanted to do on the back of a pizza box because we didn't have any furniture at the time," Vines said. "He told me he needed time to consider it. Well, four weeks went by, he was back in the States, and I assumed he was in training camp. He sends me a fax with a picture of him on top of the pile when Alonzo Mourning hit a shot to beat the Celtics [to win a playoff series in 1993]. Underneath, there was a caption that read, 'What I did here will last for a moment. What I'll do with you will last an eternity.' That was his way of saying he was going to come."
It was the missionary work that drew Bennett back to New Zealand, but the stint as a player-coach turned out to be just as significant.
Bennett received an unexpected crash course in coaching, doing everything from making in-game tactical decisions, to doling out playing time, to seeking corporate sponsors, to recruiting foreign and domestic players to join the team. Not only did Bennett discover he enjoyed all aspects of coaching more than he expected, dabbling in the profession in a low-pressure environment was the perfect opportunity to see if he was prone to the same anxieties and stress that his dad was.
"Dick really taught Tony that he had to learn to manage it better than his dad did," Vines said. "It wears on your body. It wears on your mind. Tony was able to evaluate if he could do it or not. It was definitely the time in New Zealand that taught him, 'You know what, I think I can do this and I can maintain my character, integrity and a sound mind at the same time.'"
Bennett had spent a few years in New Zealand when his dad informed him he was feeling too drained and exhausted to coach much longer and asked if his son would like to volunteer as a manager while trying to figure out what to do next.
Working with his dad for the 1999-2000 season sounded like fun to the younger Bennett even if playing for his dad sometimes had been a trying experience at Wisconsin Green Bay. Though his new duties wouldn't be glamorous and his new boss could be demanding, the younger Bennett looked forward to getting a first-hand glimpse of life as a college coach.
Bennett quickly discovered he had a knack for coaching but was amusingly ill-suited to his managerial duties. When the other managers passed him a cup of red Gatorade to hand to the player sitting next to him on the bench during one of Wisconsin's first games that season, Bennett instead gulped it down himself.
"He was so used to have people handing him stuff as a player," Dick Bennett said with a chuckle. "I never asked him if it was reflex or he actually thought it was for him. But that comes up from time to time and we just laugh about it."
If the younger Bennett was more open to giving coaching a try after his stint in New Zealand, his year as a manager under his dad solidified his intent to become a college coach. A Wisconsin program that had won just one NCAA tournament game since 1941 earned a No. 8 seed and went on a memorable run fueled by slow-paced offense and smothering defense, ousting Fresno State, Arizona, LSU and Purdue before falling to national champion Michigan State in the Final Four.
"I thought it was always going to be like that," Bennett joked. "I didn't know there would be rebuilding. I thought you always go to the Final Four.
"The experience of being around that taught me, 'I think I want to do this.' Building relationships with players and the excitement of trying to win something really was the next best thing to playing."
The euphoria of the Final Four run persuaded Bennett's father to try to stick around one more year, but Dick admitted to burnout three games into the 2000-01 season and resigned. That freed up a spot for an assistant coach on the Wisconsin staff and the younger Bennett snatched it, working first under interim coach Brad Soderberg and later under current Badgers coach Bo Ryan.
If friends or family had any doubts whether Bennett would stick with coaching, those vanished early in his tenure as a Wisconsin assistant.
"He called me with all these ideas," said Bennett's older sister, Northern Illinois women's coach Kathi Bennett. "He was always asking me, 'Hey, have you done this? Hey, have you done that? What about this idea?' Once he was a player-coach in New Zealand, I don't think there was any question he wanted to coach."
Nor was there any question Bennett was good at it either.
He helped recruit future Wisconsin stars Kirk Penney, Devin Harris, Alando Tucker and Brian Butch to Madison before leaving to join his dad at perennially rebuilding Washington State in 2003. He took over for Dick three years later and took the Cougars to back-to-back 26-win seasons his first two years and to an NIT appearance in his third. He then left the Palouse for Virginia in 2009 in hopes of building that program into a perennial ACC contender.
Even though Bennett had already enjoyed success at a school with far less basketball pedigree or resources than Virginia, there were questions when he got hired about whether a coach with roots in the Northwest and Midwest could recruit ACC country. Skeptics grew louder when eight players transferred out of the program in Bennett's first four seasons including all but two members of his highly touted initial recruiting class.
The two members of that class who stayed surely are glad they stayed patient when they didn't play enough early and didn't bolt at the first twinge of homesickness. Co-captains Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell have provided leadership on and off the floor as seniors, spearheading Virginia's rise from early-season disappointment, to surprise ACC contender, to potential threat for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
When Virginia toppled Syracuse on Saturday to clinch the ACC title, tears welled up in Bennett's eyes as he went to shake Jim Boeheim's hand while fans poured onto the floor all around him. Seeing Bennett so emotional was moving for his friends and family because they know the journey that led up to this point.
Were it not for his flurry of injuries, Bennett might never have sought a second career so early in life. Were it not for an unexpected opportunity to dabble as a player-coach in New Zealand, Bennett might never have given coaching a chance. And were it not for Wisconsin making an out-of-nowhere Final Four run in his first season on the bench, Bennett might never have fallen in love with the profession.
"It makes me feel like we were part of a bigger plan," Laurel Bennett said. "Tony didn't plan on coaching, but he got thrown into that situation in New Zealand. I'm not sure he would have gone back to Wisconsin to coach, but he'd do anything for his dad. Those two experiences built on each-other. Those weren't choices he necessarily would have made toward coaching, but looking back, it feels like it was meant to be."
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