LOUISVILLE, Ky. — With Virginia and its vaunted rarely-give-up-60 defense on the cusp of a Final Four, maybe we should listen to Coach Bennett explain his philosophy.
“It’s not hard to get kids to play defense. I think every good player wants to play defense. He recognizes the value and the need to complete his game. That has not nearly been as tough a sell as people realize. The toughest part of the defense is once you make a commitment to it, or offer lip service to it, you have to work on it.”
Wait a second. That was Dick Bennett, 19 years ago, when he was taking Wisconsin to the Final Four. He had a young son hanging around the program then, Tony. The apple doesn’t fall far from the coaching tree, does it?
Clearly, the irony department has been working overtime in the South Regional. Or else how to explain the family that once more stands in Purdue’s way to the Final Four?
The father is long retired, and now at the age of 75, is known for often suffering through his son’s games in hotel rooms. But there he was behind the bench Thursday night for the 53-49 win over Oregon, and didn’t the Virginia players notice.
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“I heard him,” Kyle Guy would mention later in the locker room. “He screamed close out hard! He made his presence known, which isn’t like him. But he loves us, and he’s told us many times how much he wants us to succeed.”
Now here’s the good part. Purdue hasn’t been in the Elite Eight since 2000. So the question to take to these Cavaliers — what coach beat Purdue back then in the regional final to get to the Final Four?
Kyle Guy first. “Is it Dick Bennett?”
Ty Jerome next. “I know his legacy,” he was saying of Bennett. “I know he’s been to a Final Four.”
Know who he beat to get there?
“I didn’t know that, but it was a guess.”
Ah, the great circle of NCAA tournament life, that Purdue could finally have claw its way back to the Elite Eight, and run into the same clan again.
That first time didn’t work out so well for the Boilermakers. It was a surprise regional final in Albuquerque, with No. 6 seed Purdue and No. 8 seed Wisconsin. Bennett’s team — this might sound familiar — lived and died on its defense. Purdue was stifled and shot under 40 percent, and the Badgers won a grinder 64-60, to get to their first Final Four in 59 years.
“Whatever superlative you can think of, use those words. I feel indescribably happy,” Dick Bennett said that day. He was 56, and he had waited a long time.
Some had been critical of his team’s plodding ways, and how so many games were turned into low-scoring slugfests. “I’ll trade the 35 years of criticism for this moment any day,” he said then.
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Esteemed Purdue coach Gene Keady didn’t know it, but he had just seen his last real chance to get to the Final Four pass him by. Many were beginning to wonder if the void haunted him, if it would always haunt him. “You know how hard it is,” Keady said after the loss. “And if that bothers a coach, he probably ought to get out of it.”
Watching that game from the Wisconsin bench was a new kid on the Badgers staff. During Final Four week, Dick Bennett told the world a story about him.
“For the benefit of others, Tony is my son and he played for me at Green Bay. He played three years with the (Charlotte) Hornets, got bad knees and then played over in New Zealand and decided he might want to coach, so we brought him back as a manager. He and his wife Laurel are living with us and he’s trying to decide whether he’s going to go into coaching.
“He’s honest with me. If he thinks I’m overdoing it, he’ll tell me that. If he thinks I’m underdoing it, he’ll tell me that. And he’s had to learn what it means to be a manager. When I told him the first time to pass the water, he passed it to the players and he drank it.”
On Friday, Tony Bennett looked back on those days.
“The only way I got to be on the bench is I got to give the water bottles and put the stools down. That was my role. There’s a picture floating around of me in that game.
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“That is my greatest memory, watching my father achieve that, because I knew that was a dream of his.”
Wisconsin later lost a truly ugly Final Four game to Michigan State 53-41. Three games into the next season, Dick Bennett suddenly retired, citing burnout and saying the euphoria of the previous spring had temporarily made him forget how drained he was. Two years later, he returned for a three-season encore at Washington State, then retired for good, handing the program over to . . . Tony Bennett.
And now, having moved to the other side of the continent, Tony has Virginia one win from the Final Four, under his father’s watchful eye. “Probably I’ll get chewed out when I get back (to the hotel) for the bad offense,” Tony said Thursday night after the escape over Oregon.
That it’s Purdue Saturday conjures up more than one unusual connection. Take Guy and Boilermaker guard Ryan Cline. They grew up 20 minutes apart around Indianapolis, played on the same AAU team and went against one another in high school. Guy said Friday once he made Cline fall down with a cross-dribble move. “He could be right. I just don’t remember that part,” Cline said.
Meanwhile, like his father before him, Tony Bennett wants badly to get past Purdue and move on. But Dick Bennett never had to live with losing to UMBC as a No. 1 seed in the first round. To listen to his son describe the road from that awful night last March to this one is to realize how the water bottle-passing manager of 2000 has grown into a remarkably grounded man.
“After last year, I told our guys, what did that experience teach me? It created a fire in me that wanted to become a better coach and pursue trying to get these guys as far as they can; a Final Four, a national championship. It’s burning hot. But it did something I think maybe as significant, or greater. It made me realize that if that never does happen, I’ll still be OK, because I’ve been blessed beyond what I deserve. And I think it’s freed me to go after this as hard as we can.
“Would I love to be a son and father who coached in the Final Four? Be great. But if it doesn’t happen, you have to say you’re going to be OK. And that’s what I learned, and that’s invaluable.
“So I’m at peace, but I’m very hungry.”
He mentioned Friday how his father’s advice comes “from a place of a love. He would always quote a proverb to me. He’d say, `Son, wounds from a friend are better than kisses from an enemy.’ So that meant I was going to be told I’m doing a crappy job or something.”
And also how he started into this profession because he wanted to be with his father at the end of his career. “I just wanted to be by his side and enjoy that. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Bang, the first year I’m a volunteer manager, he goes to the Final Four. I’m like, this seems pretty easy, pretty fun. Maybe I’ll get into this coaching thing. I didn’t realize how tough it was.”
So now it might be Tony Bennett’s time. Or Purdue’s Matt Painter, who once played for Keady with the Boilermakers — including the time Dick Bennett brought his Green Bay team to West Lafayette and Purdue was torched by . . . Tony Bennett. “It was pretty earth-shattering for a guy to come in at 5-11 and we absolutely couldn’t stop him,” Painter said Friday. “I think our whole team tried to guard him.”
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Now they meet again, older men who have traveled roads that have not always been smooth. One of them reaches a new level Saturday night. And about Tony Bennett’s father actually coming to the game?
“It will be a mystery if he shows up for the next one.”
Well, he did the last time Purdue was trying to get to the Final Four.