How Early Struggles Paved the Way for Tony Bennett’s Success at UVA

January 11, 2023 By Jeff White, jwhite@virginia.edu Jeff White, jwhite@virginia.edu

In the spring of 2009, Tony Bennett left Pullman, Washington, and moved across the country to Charlottesville – leaving behind the successful men’s basketball program he established at Washington State University. There, he had succeeded his father, Dick, as head coach and posted a 69-33 record, with two trips to the NCAA Tournament and one National Invitational Tournament appearance.

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Upon arrival at the University of Virginia, he went to work with a roster filled with players recruited by his predecessor, Dave Leitao. Not all of them embraced Bennett’s approach to basketball – or the pillars upon which he based his program: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness.

Several players who began that year in the program, including Jamil Tucker and All-ACC selection Sylven Landesberg, were gone by season’s end.

"It wasn’t a fairy-tale ending for everyone on that team," recalled Jerome Meyinsse, whose final season at UVA, 2009-10, was Bennett’s first.

"We went through a lot in that first year," said Bennett, whose staff still includes such "day ones" as Jason Williford, Ronnie Wideman, Mike Curtis and Ethan Saliba.

The early struggles didn’t deter Bennett. Thirteen-plus years later, he’s still in Charlottesville, and Virginia’s 73-66 victory over Syracuse on Saturday night made Bennett, 53, the winningest coach in the program’s history. Along the way, he’s guided the Wahoos to five ACC regular-season championships, two ACC tournament titles and one NCAA crown. Early in his tenure, though, it was far from certain that he’d build a Hall of Fame résumé at UVA. Bennett’s current team, which defeated ACC rival North Carolina, 65-58, Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena, is 12-3 and ranked No. 13 nationally. But his first team at Virginia finished 15-16, and his second finished 16-15. "It was like a roller coaster ride," recalled Jontel Evans, a freshman guard on the 2009-10 team.

"We definitely had our ups and downs," said Evans, who works in his hometown of Hampton, "but it was a process, and to have a successful process we just had to get the guys that wanted to buy in, and those who didn’t want to buy in, here’s the door. Simple as that."

For Bennett’s first six years at UVA, his associate head coach was Ritchie McKay, who left in 2015 to begin a second stint as Liberty University’s head coach. Ron Sanchez was a Virginia assistant for nine seasons before leaving in 2018 to become head coach the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

"We always knew it was going to be hard," said Sanchez, who’d followed Bennett from Washington State to Virginia. "We were very honest with ourselves, and even in conversations with Tony’s dad, he was like, ‘Man, you guys gotta get better. This isn’t good enough right now.’ Dick was always very honest with us, too."  

Ritchie McKay talking to player

Former associate head coach Ritchie McKay, right, said Bennett’s unwillingness to sacrifice his principles for short-term success set an important tone for the team. (UVA Athletics photo)

It started well. The Cavaliers opened the Bennett era with an 85-72 victory over Longwood at John Paul Jones Arena and started ACC play 3-0 for the first time since the 1994-95 season.

"I remember Sports Illustrated called and they wanted to do an interview with Tony about how well the season was going," Sanchez said, "and I remember Tony saying, ‘No, it’s not time for that yet.’ He knew that it was going to be a challenging road ahead, so I think he’s always had great perspective as to what’s going on."

McKay said he urged Bennett to talk to Sports Illustrated, arguing that it would help the Hoos’ recruiting. "He said, ‘No, no, no. You and I both know we haven’t arrived,’" McKay recalled, "and, boy, was he ever right."

Three days after defeating North Carolina in Chapel Hill for the first time since January 2002, Virginia beat North Carolina State at JPJ to improve to 14-6 overall and 5-2 in ACC play.

Tony Bennett on the sidelines

Assistant coach Ron Sanchez, right, said Bennett kept a realistic attitude toward the program, even after some fleeting early success. (UVA Athletics photo)

Then came the crash. The Hoos didn’t win again until the ACC tournament. They dropped their final nine regular-season games, the last of which was against Maryland at JPJ. About an hour before tipoff that day, Bennett announced Landesberg had been suspended for the rest of the season for failing to meet his academic obligations.

"Coach Bennett had to make some tough decisions," said Meyinsse, who’s had a long pro career and now plays in Israel.

"No coach ever wants to deal with having to suspend a player, and Tony’s in that same boat," McKay said. "Yet I think Tony is always going to choose what he thinks is best for the group. And what was best for the group then was holding our group in account for what we felt was going to be foundational to Virginia basketball, and that was the pillars. If there was an in-adherence to that, and it was continual, it had to be addressed, and I think Tony did that."

The Landesberg suspension proved pivotal.

"I think that’s when guys realized that this guy is serious about what he’s trying to build, the type of character he wants on and off the floor," Evans said. "And from that moment, I think that’s when guys started to really buy in. But before then, there was a lot of pushback, and it just wasn’t working until Coach Bennett really had to bite down."
Holdovers in 2009-10 from Leitao’s final team at UVA included Meyinsse, Landesberg, Calvin Baker, Will Sherrill, Assane Sene, Mustapha Farrakhan, Sammy Zeglinski and Mike Scott.

What stood out to him about Bennett was "just how consistent he is on a day-in, day-out basis," said Sherrill, who works in New York City. "We had an interesting season where we started off really hot and then lost [nine] games in a row, but he never changed and never wavered in terms of how he was going to build his program and how his team was going to play each night. At the same time, his approach in terms of treating players on a personal basis never changed; always treating us with respect, but demanding that we work our tails off and buy into his vision."

Meyinsse remembers a practice early in Bennett’s first season in which a player was heard cursing loudly. Sprints followed for the culprit, "and right there I was like, ‘OK, this is very different,’" Meyinsse said, laughing.

"Otherwise, just his demeanor was different, how he communicated with us and how he treated us," Meyinsse said. "And for me personally, I thought my [basketball] career was dead in the water. I was already interviewing to go maybe to Wall Street, I’d gotten accepted into grad school, so I thought my career was over. But when Coach Bennett came, and after talking to him and his staff, I was like, ‘I still got one more shot. Let me lace up the sneakers and give it one more try.’ So, it was definitely special to me."

Zeglinski, who works in his hometown of Philadelphia, remembers the team meeting at which Bennett first laid out his vision for the program.

"You could tell it was very different from day one," Zeglinski said. "It was just pretty cool to witness over the three years I was there with him how the whole program started to change, the whole culture started to change."

"Tony was just unwavering in his belief that this is the way he was going to build the program," McKay said. "I think for us as a staff, there was a little bit of an adjustment to recruiting at that level because you have access to more players in the ACC. I think we quickly realized, yes, it’s great that these guys are available and may be accessible and they’re talented, but we can’t compromise on the right kind of people."

After the 2009-10 season, Bennett’s first recruiting class joined the program. It had six members: Akil Mitchell, Joe Harris, Billy Baron, Will Regan, James Johnson and K.T. Harrell.

Only Mitchell and Harris were still at UVA four years later. Baron left in February 2011, Regan in April 2011, Harrell and Johnson in December 2011.

"We ended up having a lot of turnover," Mitchell said from Athens, Greece, where he’s playing professionally. "I come in as a first-year, and my head is up in the clouds. I think everything is going to be sweet and we’re going to win games from the jump, but it didn’t happen that way. And some guys didn’t want to stick around to see the end result, but I don’t think any of the guys that stayed in the locker room ever really worried. We continued to just grind it out.

"Coach Bennett would always say, ‘Keep knocking.’ We put the knocker in [the locker room], and every day we would just keep working. That was the formula."

Harris and Mitchell, Sanchez said, were "perfect fits for Virginia and perfect fits for Tony."

Two players side by side action image

Players like Will Sherrill, left, and Jerome Meyinsse (No. 55, right) bought into Bennett’s system and laid an early foundation for those who followed. (UVA Athletics photos)

McKay agreed. "Those two were foundational to the success of Virginia basketball, in terms of the way Akil sacrificed and bought in and really branded the defensive identity, and the way Joe cultivated the locker room and a connectivity that’s lasted a long time there."

There were setbacks as Bennett built the program, but also encouraging moments. In 2009-10, in addition to upsetting UNC, Virginia defeated No. 24 University of Alabama at Birmingham and swept North Carolina State.

In 2010-11, No. 13 Washington humbled UVA, 106-63, at the Maui Invitational in Hawaii. But Virginia bounced back to win at No. 15 Minnesota, beat Virginia Tech twice, and knock off then-ACC foe Maryland in College Park. The Hoos won four of their final five regular-season games and headed to the ACC tournament hoping that, with an extended stay in Greensboro, North Carolina, they could earn an invitation to the NIT.

Instead, they suffered a monumental collapse in their first-round game against Miami. The Cavaliers, who led by 10 points with 40 seconds remaining in the second half, ended up losing by seven in overtime.

"I’ve never been part of anything like this," Harris said afterward. "It feels horrible."

The defeat "was deflating," Sanchez said.

"But there were tremendous lessons there, and I remember us coming back the following season and applying things literally the first week of practice that we’d learned from [that] game," Sanchez said. "Everybody wants success, and nobody wants the adversity or the obstacles, and I’m not sure you can have one without the other. The beauty about Tony is that he’s always embraced the obstacles as opportunities to learn and get better."

From his father, who had a legendary coaching career, Bennett learned that it was essential to "hire staff and recruit players that you can lose with first before you’re going to win."

"And I’ve had guys that I’ve been able to go through the hard stuff with and they stayed true, and the players have, and then when you learn from that and you keep staying together, good things happen," he said.

Bennett’s breakthrough at UVA came in 2011-12, his third season. Led by Scott, who’d missed most of the previous season with an injury, the Hoos advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006-07.

"It was little milestone after little milestone," McKay said. "The wins kept layering on top of one another."

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A historic moment for the future of health in Virginia. | Learn more about the new UVA Manning Institute of Biotechnology.

In 2012-13, Virginia upset Duke at JPJ on a night when Harris, who now plays for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, scored a career-high 36 points. The Hoos missed the NCAA tournament that year but advanced to the NIT quarterfinals with a roster that, in addition to Harris and Mitchell, included such players as Evans, Justin Anderson, Mike Tobey, Darion Atkins and Evan Nolte.

Malcolm Brogdon sat out 2012-13 while recovering from foot surgery, but he returned to play a leading role in a season that ranks among the greatest in program history. With a 75-56 win over Syracuse on March 1, 2014, at JPJ, Virginia clinched the outright ACC regular-season title for first time since 1981. Two weeks later, in Greensboro, UVA defeated Duke to capture the ACC Tournament championship for the first time since 1976.

"That was something that Coach Bennett spoke to us about early on in our careers here," Mitchell said, "and to actually see it come to fruition and to win the ACC Tournament and regular season, to actually do it all, was pretty surreal."

"It was marvelous," McKay said. "That was such a memorable moment for me just because I saw someone stay true to his convictions, build a program the right way, produce some unbelievable kids that were going to be great parents, leaders in their sphere of influence, and represent the University and its academic mission with prowess and in the right way."

The Cavaliers advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in 2014 before losing to Michigan State and they became fixtures in the NCAA Tournament. There was heartbreak in 2018, when Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, but a historic triumph followed a year later.

Tony Bennett on the sidelines focused on game
Bennett, now the winningest men’s basketball coach in UVA history, remains committed to the program’s foundational pillars: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

With numerous alumni of the program watching from the stands at U.S. Bank Stadium, many of whom had played for Bennett, the Hoos defeated Texas Tech in overtime to win the NCAA championship.

"We hit rock bottom with that first-round loss, and then a year later we’re national champs," Evans said. "It just shows that you just gotta keep knocking and his system works."

When he left UVA in 2010, Meyinsse said, he wouldn’t necessarily have predicted that Bennett would win an NCAA title and become the program’s all-time leader in coaching victories.

"Who could see that far ahead?" Meyinsse said. "But I definitely knew he was taking the program in the right direction and would have a lot of success."

So did Zeglinski, who credits Bennett’s pillars for helping him navigate life after college.

"From day one I knew he was going to be a great coach," Zeglinski said. "He already was a great coach, and I knew he had a plan for the program, and just to see it come to fruition was pretty cool to witness."

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Jeff White

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