First Season of ‘Inside UVA’ Podcast Wraps With Wahoo Basketball Coach Tony Bennett
Audio: ‘Inside UVA,’ with Tony Bennett, UVA Men's Basketball head coach(24:27)
In President Ryan's season-finale podcast, he chats with Bennett about his career so far, including a national championship.
Tony Bennett: Can I ask a question to you, President Ryan? What is your favorite candy?
President Jim Ryan: Peanut M&Ms, actually!
Bennett: Are you serious?
Bennett: Oh, I might have to try that.
Ryan: Yeah, but I definitely recommend try freezing them. They’re very good.
Bennett: You know what, when I get home, there will be some in the freezer. And I will let you know.
Ryan: Hi, everyone. I’m Jim Ryan, the president of the University of Virginia, and I’d like to welcome all of you to the final episode of our first season of “Inside UVA.”
This podcast is a chance for me to speak with some of the amazing people that are part of the University community, and to learn more about what they do and who they are. My hope is that listeners will ultimately have a better understanding of how UVA works and have a deeper appreciation of the remarkably talented and dedicated people who make up the UVA community.
Today’s guest truly needs no introduction. But, per tradition, here it goes: a 2016 Vogue magazine headline called our guest the “George Clooney of March Madness.” He is a former NCAA and NBA sharpshooter, coaching legend, husband, father, man of faith and national champion. He has a .730 winning percentage at UVA, is a two-time AP National Coach of the Year, and is someone I’m absolutely honored to call the head coach of the University of Virginia men’s basketball team: the Tony Bennett.
Welcome, my friend.
Bennett: No, I’m the other Tony Bennett, let’s get that straight. That’s for sure. I’ve met him twice. And I actually got to introduce him. And that was awesome. I got a great picture of that, too. So that was impressive.
Ryan: Well, I think at UVA people would say you’re “The Tony Bennett,” so that’s all I’ll say about that. So Tony, I wonder if we could just start at the beginning. Tell me a little bit about your hometown.
Bennett: My hometown? Well, you know, my father was a coach. I was born in Clintonville, Wisconsin, home of the Clintonville Truckers, a small town of about 4,000 people in central Wisconsin. But I moved around a lot.
My dad took different high school jobs, and then a small college job and then went to Green Bay. But the majority of my life was in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, from first to ninth grade. And then we moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and then I was a high school and college player there.
My wife is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So we talk a lot about how you’re shaped and formed by where you grow up, but I’m very fortunate to have a wonderful family and be around people with – maybe it’s because I’m biased – but good Midwestern values. It’s just the way you’re brought up, or maybe it’s more of the timeframe.
Ryan: Yeah, well, I’ve been thinking a lot about hometowns. I went back to my high school in Midland Park, New Jersey, to give a graduation speech. And I realized just how much that place has shaped me. So I’m not surprised to hear you say something similar.
So you mentioned your dad. So basketball is a little bit of a family business. Your dad was an amazing coach, and your sister as well. And I’m curious, when did you first start playing basketball? And was it always sort of assumed that that would be your sport? Or did you play other sports when you’re growing up?
Bennett: Yeah, I think there’s a picture when I was maybe three minutes old, and my dad snuck a little basketball into my crib at the hospital. So I’m laying there, and there’s this ball next to me, and who knows what’s going on. But you just can’t help it, when your father is a coach, growing up around the game.
But the good thing is, when I grew up, I loved playing football, baseball. I played a little bit of tennis and golf later. But I mainly played three sports, then really started focusing on basketball in ninth grade. That’s when I said, “I’m just gonna play basketball only.” And I was fortunate enough.
You know, my sister was seven years older, and I got good playing with the girls. My sister was one of the best players. She was Player of the Year in the state, and would have probably been in the WNBA if they had it back then. And that’s how I developed. She influenced me because she dragged me along, and I played with all of her friends. And it was just perfect. Like, they were a lot better, but they weren’t so dominant that I could still improve.
Ryan: Yeah. And then you went on, and you played for your dad at Green Bay. So what went into that decision? And what was the experience like?
Bennett: Yeah, it was. My coaching philosophy is shaped a lot on what I learned playing for my dad. And I tried to make sure that the guys I recruit understand that the most important thing is to play for a coach that sees something in you, a coach that believes you can touch greatness or be special in your role or in your area. That doesn’t mean everyone’s going to be the All-American or the superstar. But I went to play for my dad and turned other schools down because of that. And also, I knew I could trust him.
It was obviously built-in, and my mother would have killed him if he did me wrong. So I had that as a backup.
But I do think it’s important when people know, or young men that I coach know, “Well, this coach and his staff, man, they see something special in me, and I can trust them.” Because it’s gonna get hard at times, and you’re gonna have to be critical. You’re gonna have to correct them and push them out of their comfort zone. There’s gonna be times they’re gonna doubt and that’s when they’ll return to that. So that’s why I chose to play for him, and anybody who’s either worked with their parents or played sports for their parents knows. To me, everything’s always a little exaggerated. You know, the good is great. And when it’s not good, the bad can be rough. You know, you just feel stuff a little more.
Ryan: I bet. And how did your teammates respond to it? I mean, did your dad just treat you like any other player? Or was it different?
Bennett: Yeah, pushed me hard. He was probably the hardest on me. But when I went to play for him at the time, I said, “Look Dad, I want to make this team win from a basketball standpoint. And I want a chance to maybe play in the NBA. So you have a green light. Do what you think it takes.”
And at times, he dangled me over that edge. And I remember thinking, “What am I doing? Why am I playing for him?” But Al McGuire, a great coach at Marquette, said, “Your son’s got to either be the best player, or he’s probably got to be the worst player, and there’s no gray area. Everyone knows it.” And I always found that interesting, because it gets hard.
I was always the last one in the locker room. I’d stay in the gym working on my game after practice. I let the guys have their space. If practices are intense, sometimes the players need to vent a little bit about the coaches. I’m sure my players do that often. And I just tried to protect and keep those boundaries, and give them space. And yet, with the way I played and the way I was coached pretty hard, I think the guys, more often than not, felt sorry for me. It’s like, “Geez. I’m glad that’s not me at the end of that one.”
Ryan: You mentioned the NBA. I’m curious, was that a goal of yours going into college? If it was, you obviously succeeded.
Bennett: When I got to college, I think it was a dream. It wasn’t like I knew. And then, after my freshman year, I played pretty well and I got invited to a USA Basketball event. And there were a lot of these guys that were going to schools like Virginia, Carolina, Duke. These big names that were projected to be pros. And I played against them. And I realized I can play with these guys. I don’t have to back down.
And that’s why I have above my office a picture of Rocky on top of the steps, you know, with his hands up. That mentality. That’s how I recruit. I’ll tell guys, “I want blue collar guys, I want guys that have a chip on their shoulder that just want a chance at a title fight.” We talk about it a lot.
So that’s where I started getting a taste – “maybe if I keep developing, I’ll have a chance.” But I didn’t have unrealistic expectations. My father wouldn’t. We didn’t even talk about that. But in the back of my mind, I saw some things and then just kept working and trusted it. And it happened.
Ryan: And what was it like? Did you enjoy it? Is it just a tough job? Or do you still find joy when you’re a professional basketball player playing the game?
Bennett: It’s not as glamorous as people think. It’s a grind. My rookie year, we played 100 games. You play the 82 regulars and the preseason, and we made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals. I only played 15 minutes a game. Roughly 1,350. And I started a few. I was in the rotation, but it wasn’t a lot. But still, it’s a lot on your body. That’s 3½ college seasons. And then there’s the games and the planes. And then we got to the playoffs.
Whenever I still watch the playoffs in any sport, but especially in the NBA, I’m like, “This is the best and I can feel it.” But there’s a lot of downtime. You’re in hotel rooms, you’re traveling, and you’re trying to take care of your body. And obviously, you know, it’s nice to be compensated for that. It wasn’t like the money is now. You kind of did it because you just wanted to test yourself against the best.
I played against Michael Jordan 15 times in my career. I played with Dell Curry. His son, Stephen Curry was 5 or 6 years old and he’d come to practice. We’d be like, “Oh, look at this cute little guy. His shots are pretty good!” Like, who would have known, you know?
You see some of the stories and think about your experiences. But there’s just something in you that wants to challenge yourself against the best if you love what you do. And when you have that opportunity, and you get a chance to do it in that kind of setting. That has always driven me to see, “Can I do that?” And I enjoyed that challenge a lot.
Ryan: And when did you decide to become a coach? And where did you first get your start?
Bennett: Yeah, I swore it off. I was like, “That’s the last thing I want to do.” I watched my father. My sister was head coach at Indiana and won a Big 10 conference championship. She went to one or two national championships at Division III. She was at Evansville.
I watched her. I watched my dad. My uncle was also a pretty well-known coach. And I was like, “No way. I just want to play in the NBA for probably 10 or 15 years. And then when I’m done, I’m either going to retire in Hawaii on the beach and just volunteer and do some fun stuff or I’ll get involved in something. But coaching? That’s nuts. Playing is the best and I’ve seen my dad go through this roller coaster.”
And it really wasn’t until I played in the NBA for three years and I had some injuries that I decided. I was overseas in New Zealand and Australia, and I couldn’t really get healthy, and they said, “Hey, would you consider being a player-coach? When you’re healthy, play, but when you’re not, you can coach.” I said “sure,” and that was where I realized this might be the next-best thing. And I started enjoying it.
Ryan: Interesting. And was it the sort of thing where once you started, you knew, “OK, yeah, this is for me”? or was it like, “Oh, I’ll give it a few years”?
Bennett: I did. I was over in New Zealand for, you know, three years. And I knew I couldn’t go back to playing. I wasn’t healthy enough, and my playing was getting less and less. And then I knew my father was getting close to retiring. He was at Wisconsin as a head coach. And I said, “You know what? I’m gonna go back to the States. I’ll figure out what I really want to do. I’m gonna just volunteer and be a volunteer manager.”
I knew it was getting close. I wanted to just finish his last year with him. I just sensed I wanted to do that. So that year, I joined his staff, and it was a little bit, too, to see if I wanted to see this coaching thing through. And they went to the finals for that year. And then I was done. I remember being like, “Well, jeez. This is what coaching is. It’s my first year at a college, and we go to the Final Four.” I had no idea how hard it was. But once I saw that, and continued to see the relationship-building, the intensity, the challenge. And then when you taste something like the Final Four – I just was captivated. That competitive part of it, and then seeing the other things is what made me say, “You know what? I believe I really want to do this.”
Ryan: At what point did you decide to make defense so central to your teams? I mean, your teams are famously ferocious on defense. And I’m curious where that began? And how do you persuade players that this is the right way to play? Because, you know, offense is pretty fun as well.
Bennett: Yeah. Good question. For sure. You know, we are influenced by what we observe. And I think I had the privilege to observe my father, either when I played for him or watched him. He always took programs that were the have-nots, they were really the bottom of the league when he took over. Playing for him, I saw it. Watching him, he always had to first figure out a way to just get competitive. “What can we do to get competitive with our program and hopefully become successful?” And when you watch, even in pro sports, the teams that advance and win championships, they do not do it without being very good defensively.
And so that was one of the things I watched my father do. He just poured himself into building a great defensive team. And his teams all of a sudden became competitive, and then successful. And when I took over from my father at Washington State, and when I came to Virginia, I took that with me. I love the game and, of course, you have to be creative offensively and let guys go. But you have to have some things that are your non-negotiables or staples to give yourself a chance. And I thought that was a great equalizer in the game.
And then you talk about recruiting. And the thing that I tell you about that is, we’re fifth in the country for the most active current NBA players. We’re fifth in the country, and we’ve never had a five-star recruit here for us. There have been three-stars or four-stars, but they’ve learned how to play defense. They’ve learned how to be sound offensively.
And then we have a saying: “First comes discipline, then comes freedom.” And we talked about that a lot in our program. You know, you have got to be able to do certain things well defensively and take care of the ball. But when you do that, then you’re going to have the freedom to expand your game and really push it. And I think that’s why our guys are getting to the NBA and sticking. They are sound defensively. They’ve been disciplined.
And then that’s what the teams want. There’s only a couple of LeBrons and Jordans, where they can come and do anything. So that’s how you sell it to young guys. They all want to play and you say, “We’re gonna have a chance to win; this is going to develop you for your pro career, and there’s probably more freedom than people realize in terms of, you know, offensively in the stuff we do.”
Ryan: So your mention of “discipline and then freedom” reminds me of the Five Pillars that you use to guide your coaching and the development of your team. Can you talk a little bit about where they came from, and how you use them?
Bennett: Yeah, another great story. I’m talking about my father a lot, but he’s influenced me. He probably told me this when I was in my 30s. Because I asked him, I said, “Where did you get these?” I knew they were Biblical pillars and all that. And I lived them through playing for him.
He was a small college coach at the time. But he said, “My faith was important to me.” And he said, “Somehow I wanted my faith to play out in my vocation and what I did.”
And, you know, he was always respectful. And I understand this is a public institution. I think you have to be wise. But he said he just studied the Bible and asked, “What would make a great basketball team? What would make a great basketball player?” He just sort of went through and said, humility. A player and a team that know their identity. They don’t think too highly of themselves, but they don’t think too lowly of themselves, either. A team that is passionate. A team that’s unified. and there’s, you know, some Bible verses that represent each pillar.
Regardless of what you believe, whether you have a faith or you don’t, those are things that are character-building. They’re life lessons, but they really are good. When I speak to some of the businesses, they can’t get enough of those. Because it’s team-building. It’s stuff that lasts, and I just love how he discovered those by just paging through stuff and thinking, with his basketball mind: “All right, my faith is important to me. Here’s how it can play out in a non-threatening way.” And I just love it.
And, you know, I think everyone has to have some foundation or non-negotiable core values. And you have to not just have them as words on the wall. They’ve got to be stuff you really believe in and you think they work. That’s a long answer, but it’s pretty cool how they developed.
Ryan: Yeah, I didn’t realize they had come from your dad.
Bennett: Yep. And it’s funny, a lot of pro teams, college teams, they’ll use them. He’ll be at a coach’s convention or certain things. And a few times when I spoke about him here in these meetings, you know, they start writing down Bible verses.
But again, you can use them however you want. But I think it’s powerful, because they have stood the test of time. I mean, they suggest a different way for our young people. In the sports world, they say, “It’s about me, and that’s how you’re going to be good.” But this pillar of unity says, “It’s about us.”
And then there’s the pillar of servanthood. The word “entitlement” comes up a lot – “Well, it’s our brand, we’re entitled to it.” Well, this pillar of servanthood says the way to greatness is through serving others.
Humility. It says those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. And it suggests a different way.
But these are positions of strength. And when these things are followed, you still can have great success. You can still have pro careers or successful business careers. But when those things are at the foundation, you can’t go wrong. And then they apply to so many things. So I love how they suggest a different way, but are very sound.
Ryan: Right. So you mentioned success. I’m curious, how do you define success, vis-a-vis individual players? That is to say, when someone graduates from UVA, having been coached by Tony Bennett, what is your hope for them? What do you hope to see in them? And how would you say, “I really felt like I did my job”?
Bennett: Yeah, well, we were talking a little before, and we’re not on a Zoom. But this Prefontaine poster behind me says, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” I look at each young person that I coach as incredibly gifted. They all have their gifts, and it’s not just my job, it’s our job to help them maximize their gifts in all areas. And I think it’s the whole person.
When a young man leaves, I look at him and, first there’s the physical part. The basketball. The strength and conditioning. Developing every gift that they have physically. Then there’s the mental part. Just to help them mentally and academically pursue something they love, become educated at one of the world’s greatest institutions. To really advance and network and really help them mentally.
And then there’s the character or the spiritual part, or whatever you want to say. Help them grow in who they are. Who they become. Realize what matters. Those values that we talk about. Understanding those things that we’ve tried to pour into them. They understand those things, and they’ve learned how to handle failure. They’ve learned how to handle success. And that’s a hard one to handle, too. But they’ve learned how to battle through adversity, and stay true to what matters. Then I feel like that’s a great measuring stick of success.
Of course, we want him to go and play pro and win championships here. But I did an interview yesterday with a boy who’s got 280 campers and then there’s like 50 coaches and we did a little session with the coaches and someone asked me a question: “What’s most important?”
And I answered it by saying a piece of advice I’d give to high school coaches and young coaches. I said that the best compliment I can get is if you walk into a gym, you see that they are competitive, they work, they are businesslike in their approach, but there’s still a spirit of joy in that gym. The players enjoy it. The way they interact, the way they coach. And I tried to think of my own situation, but I challenged him to say, “Go after it. Be intense. Do however you’re going to do it. But do not ever compromise. Make sure your young people feel a spirit of joy and hope in your gym.”
And I think that’s the best advice. When I think about whatever we do, I ask if there’s still a spirit of joy in it, while you are still intense and pursuing excellence. And is there hope in that environment? And I think for these young people, as you and I know, with all the things coming at them, it’s different. All the pressures. If they can feel a sense of hope and joy, and still be held accountable and challenged, I think that’s a good way to go.
Ryan: Yeah, I agree.
So speaking of pressures and a lot coming at players, college athletics is in a period of intense uncertainty and change, as you know. I’m thinking of the changes to NIL and the changes to the transfer portal. And I’m curious how you feel about the overall state of college athletics? Are you worried? Does it change the way that you coach or recruit? Do you think this is all going to settle out at some point? How do you feel about it all?
Bennett: I wish I could answer that. I don’t know. Am I worried or concerned? Yeah, I think there’s been issues that have happened in years past and things do kind of settle down. But there are some concerns.
When you look at some data and stats about this, the amount of transfers and how many young people are leaving is a concern. For the name, image and likeness, you know, I’m for a lot of things in the way they’re intended. But things get stretched out of the realm. You can’t stick your head in the sand and say, “I’m not going to. We’re going to do everything the same.” You have to adjust. You have to be aware. You have to provide opportunities. And I think young people should have access to certain name, image and likeness opportunities, the way it’s intended. But when it just becomes a negotiation, and in some of the stories you’re reading it’s getting out of hand. And they’re not just stories, you know. We know what’s going on, and you hear things. And it’s disturbing in that regard. But I worry about the young people.
I think there’s certain situations where young people may need a new scenery, maybe a change. They can get a waiver. But when there’s instant gratification and a young person can leave, I worry about that rule. This one-time transfer is a tough one. And I hope the name, image or likeness stays the way it’s intended. But there are some concerns.
But I think it almost makes you double down on what matters in your program and recruit the right kind of guys that will certainly have those opportunities. But if that’s their sole reason to come, to get as much name, image and likeness, and they’re not worried about the whole person, then I have to question if that’s the right one. Maybe the pool has shrunk a little bit for who we can recruit, but we’re going to find them. And this is too good of a place. And there’s too good of things that are represented here to not want to come here.
Ryan: Yeah, you really do have to hope that players can take a longer perspective. And in some respects, it’s the combination of NIL and the transfer opportunities that have to be pretty tempting for some student-athletes who, for whatever reason, are not happy where they are. I’m glad that’s the way you feel about it. But I wish you the best of luck in navigating it.
So I want to end with a lightning round of some questions. I’ll start with an easy one that goes back to the very beginning. So your favorite 95-year-old big band crooner? Who would that be?
Bennett: The real Tony Bennett.
Ryan: All right, how about the best moment of the epic 2019 national championship run?
Bennett: Well, I’ll start with the most daunting moment. That’s when we were down 14 against Gardner-Webb, who were seed 16. And it looked like it could happen again, that was unbelievable. And once we handled that pressure, the rest was there.
There’s so many, right? But I would say after we won it in our locker room. Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, Devin Hall, and many of our former players, and some of my former coaches all came in the locker room. And I just remember all of us standing up and I said, “Put your arms around each other.” I said, “Look each other in the eyes. How does this feel?” And I said, “But promise all of us that, no matter what, we will never ever lose our humility from this and we will realize how much of a gift this was.” And we just talked about it. And it was a painful gift to lose to UMBC, but how much of a gift it still was, and how thankful we should be. Just looking at each other. It was all done and there was this peace. Like, these are the guys we did it with in here, and some of the guys from before who helped build it. And it was just one of the most satisfying moments. Along with when you get to embrace your people, and your family and your loved ones, your friends. All that stuff.
Ryan: Yeah, it’s an unforgettable run. All right. Is it true that you eat Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on the bus?
Bennett: Whoa, how do we get this information here? Yes, after a game. Ronnie Wideman, who’s our chief of staff, he’s unbelievable. He was a manager for my father at Washington State and when I took the job, he’s been with me for 20 years. He has this little container and you know he’ll always sit right in front of me on the bus. And win or lose. It’s got my two favorite things. peanuts and M&Ms. Unbelievable, peanut M&Ms. And he’ll, he’ll always hand them over the seat. And I’ll usually take, you know, three or four and then give them right back and put away because I can go through those. Those are like that’s weakness to me, though. That’s kryptonite.
Ryan: All right. So you mentioned your chief of staff. I have a question for you from my chief of staff, Margaret Grundy Noland, and she’s curious about what is the earliest age at which you start looking at basketball players as potential recruits, and I’m asking because she has a 6-month-old who is in the 99th percentile of height.
Bennett: Well that’s good. If there’s a picture where a ball was put in the crib, you know, at, you know, a minute or two minutes old, I’ll take a look.
Ryan: All right. Last question. Your unbiased prediction for the 2022-23 NCAA men’s basketball season and the national championship?
Bennett: Oh, boy. Well, on paper, they’d probably say it’d be North Carolina. They got everyone coming back and all that.
I hope it’s us. That’d be good, right? It’s so hard because – and I’ll tell you why it’s hard. And this is not what you probably wanted, but because of one-time transfer, name-image-likeness, you don’t know teams.
It’s how they form. We’re going to Italy, so that’ll be good. We got some new faces. But I will say, back to that 2019, that might have been the last year where there was not name, image and likeness. So players weren’t negotiated for. And I’ll always be thankful for that. But this one, I think it’s wide open.
Ryan: Yeah. Well, Coach Bennett, thanks so much for spending time with me. And for everyone listening, I hope you enjoy the rest of your camp. And I know how busy you are in the summer. And so I appreciate you taking some time.
Bennett: Thank you. And thanks for what you do for the University.
You know, we talk about leadership. I always tell recruits, “If you get the people right, the rest takes care of itself.” And you know, to have Carla Williams, our athletic director, to have you as the president, people that you trust, you know, when it kind of comes down to that trust thing? You know, do you trust the people that are you’re working for and with? And, you know, you’ve made some great changes, and you’ve given us the freedom to do the things we need to do. So I really appreciate being here. And this is a unique place that has its challenges, but it also has some wonderful things. So thank you for all you’re doing.
Ryan: Well, I appreciate that. And it goes both ways. I think UVA is enormously benefited by the fact that we have really outstanding coaches and an outstanding athletic director. And it’s not just that you don’t have to worry about scandals and the like, which I don’t worry about, but it’s a really strong aspect of the University. It’s a strength. It’s more than just something that’s neutral, and you are our ambassadors most often to the rest of the world and you consistently put UVA in a great light. So it’s a total pleasure being president of UVA in part because of the athletics teams.
University of Virginia President Jim Ryan ended the first season of his “Inside UVA” podcast with one of the more recognizable faces on Grounds.
Cavalier men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett joined Ryan for a conversation that touched on everything from Bennett’s Wisconsin roots to his NBA career to the changing landscape of college athletics to, of course, UVA’s magical ride to the 2018-19 national championship.
This upcoming season will be Bennett’s 14th with the Wahoos and 17th overall as a head coach. He’s won 385 games and five Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championships, taken 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament and earned one national title.
Not bad for a guy who told Ryan he once “swore off” coaching because of watching his father, Dick Bennett, and sister, Kathi Bennett, grind through the profession at various colleges.
Bennett said, “I was like, ‘No way! I just want to play in the NBA for 10 to 15 years and then when I’m done, I’m either going to retire in Hawaii on the beach and just volunteer and do some fun stuff or get involved in something else. But coaching? That’s nuts.’”
He obviously changed his mind – and UVA is forever grateful.
Bennett’s Cavaliers will travel to Italy next month for four exhibition games against European competition.