Today, I learned from The Sabre, is the ninth anniversary of Tony Bennett's hiring as University of Virginia men's basketball coach. While I don't have exact recall of my thoughts and feelings about the coaching search, I do recall not being crazy about Tubby Smith or Jeff Capel, but wanting a young, up-and-coming guy from a mid-major, because I always want a young, up-and-coming guy from a mid-major. I believe that if one of those guys builds something at the University of Virginia, he will stay for a long time because he will have little incentive to leave. UVA, contrary to the beliefs of most outsiders, is not a stepping-stone institution; it is a destination institution. So I was not upset that we took some guy other than Smith or Capel, neither of whom I really liked. What I do remember is not having an opinion on Tony Bennett, because before the announcement I had never heard of the basketball coach and knew absolutely nothing about him. What I learned upon a little research gave me a relatively positive impression, but I was far from certain that being able to make Washington State competitive in the Pac-10 meant he was going to be able to make UVA competitive in the ACC. It was a good sign, sure, but uncertain.
Having gotten excited and then crushed by Jeff Jones, Pete Gillen and Dave Leitao, I did decide that I was not going to get sucked into being excited about UVA hoops until we did one of two things under this coach or his successor:
1) Win the ACC Tournament; or
2) Make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, meaning a Final Four.
I'd gotten way too excited about regular season successes that translated into nothing. Jones had decent post-season success but never was able to do one of those two things, and look how his program wound up dissolving. No, not worth getting excited without one of those accomplishments if the chance of ultimate despair was so high.
So I stayed aloof. Through 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12, I didn't even pay much attention, just kept tabs. What I saw was very encouraging, but I was not getting sucked in. Nope. Then in 2013 I watched Joe Harris torch Duke and tuned in for the rest of the season. Bad time to tune in, but I still liked what I saw. Then came 2013-14, and it happened. I remember first watching a UVA game in mid-January. My recollection is that not a lot of them were even on TV in Seattle. I was not yet sophisticated on streaming and could not tell you if the games were being streamed that year. Maybe they were, because I do recall finding out I could watch most of the rest of the games. That might be when I took the trouble to figure out this new-fangled streaming thing.
That first game I watched hooked me, because that team was good. I mean, really good. I was shocked at how fundamentally sound they were. The cuts, the reads, everything. Watching us play that night was like flashing back to watching Dean Smith's teams. We used to scrap and use grit to try and overcome the smooth execution of simple fundamentals that Smith's teams used - but on this night WE were the smoothly executing, fundamentally sound team against a ragged opponent. I broke my rule. I got excited. I went around the office one day that month and told people: "Watch Virginia. They're going to win the ACC. They're a Final Four team."
I always had concerns. I always had things I worried about or disagreed with. But it was clear from the beginning that he was a good man and an excellent representative of the community. Regardless of the points of disagreement, it was obvious from watching that one game in January, 2014, that he could flat out coach. Maybe his in-game tactics weren't elite (Jeff Jones was a better game closer at that point), but his teaching was clearly first rate, and I've always believed that the teaching is the core of coaching. If a coach is a great teacher, you hang onto him unless he is simply atrocious at everything else.
Today, having disagreements and criticisms, I am more thankful than ever that Tony Bennett is our coach, because beyond the wins and losses I am thankful that I am confident we are being led by a great person who is doing things the right way and who is bringing outstanding people into the family of Wahoos. I may be disappointed with some of the results and have worries for the future, but I am thrilled with the process and the stewardship, and the results as a whole have been fantastic. I look back on the last nine years with thankfulness and forward to the next with hope and confidence in the leadership of Virginia Basketball.
Thank you, Tony Bennett, and Happy Tonyday, Hoos!