timberland pathlite faith at core of Tony Bennett the man and coach
A 1971 University of North Carolina graduate, Chadwick played basketball for iconic Tar Heels coach Dean Smith and gave the invocation at Smith’s memorial service last month.
“He reminds me a lot of Coach Smith,” Chadwick said of Bennett. “He deflects praise. He doesn’t want that to be a part of his life. He wants the kids to receive the glory. That’s genuinely who Tony is. He’s not coaching to be in the spotlight. He’s coaching as a sense of calling. There’s something interesting in the Christian faith, you really understand that everything you do is not work, it’s a calling.
As a rookie head coach in 2006 07, he was the consensus national Coach of the Year at Washington State. He led the Cougars to consecutive NCAA tournaments, a program first, and their first Sweet 16 in 67 years.
Bennett is the only coach to guide Virginia to four consecutive winning ACC seasons. The Cavaliers last season won the conference tournament for the first time since 1976 and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1995. This after finishing 10th and 11th, among 12 teams, in the ACC standings the two years before he arrived.
Yet when ESPN’s College GameDay descended upon Charlottesville this season to hype Virginia’s game against Duke, providing both teams an hour long infomercial, Bennett insisted on the shadows, appearing only briefly, and reluctantly.
“Don’t be captivated when you hear their cheers,” he said during a rare, in season sit down, citing Biblical admonitions of vanity in Ecclesiastes. “And don’t be destroyed when you hear their jeers, because you’re going to get both in this profession.
“There’s such joy and celebration in seeing the team play well. That is more than enough for me.”
Bennett’s modesty is rooted in his youth.
Dick Bennett, Tony’s father, is revered in coaching circles. He led high school programs in small town Wisconsin before moving to NAIA Wisconsin Stevens Point, mid major Green Bay, the Big Ten’s Wisconsin and the Pacific 10’s Washington State.
Tony and his two sisters Kathi Bennett is the women’s coach at Northern Illinois grew up in the gym. Tony played for his dad at Green Bay and worked for him as an assistant coach at Wisconsin and Washington State. Together they helped Green Bay make the 1991 NCAA tournament, the school’s first, and Wisconsin reach the 2000 Final Four.
Dick Bennett built his college programs on five pillars: passion, humility, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. They ring of the Bible, a tone for which Tony deserves some credit.
While in junior high, he attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp and left deeply moved and committed. His parents couldn’t help but notice, and be affected.
“He had as much of an influence on his mother and me as we had on him in that particular area,” Dick Bennett said.
But equating Tony’s faith and kindness to a soft touch would be a mistake. “Blessed are the meek,” does not apply to competition in his world.
Virginia practices, from all accounts, define intensity, Bennett’s face reddening at lapses. But he rarely curses “and is not demeaning at all,” junior Evan Nolte said.
Brad Soderberg noticed Bennett’s spirit from the start. He played for Dick Bennett at Stevens Point, and he and Tony worked together as assistants to Dick at Wisconsin.
“I remember Tony when he was just a snot nosed coach’s kid hanging out at practice,
” said Soderberg, the head coach at Lindenwood University, a Division II program in Missouri. “And I mean this very sincerely, you could already tell the drive to be great. I knew no matter what he aspired to do, he would be exceptional, and how much that has to do with his parents, especially his dad.”
By basketball standards, Bennett was, and is, short and slight. Listed at 5 foot 11 in college he playfully claims he’s 6 foot he aimed for the NBA nonetheless.
Bennett graduated from Green Bay in 1992 as the Mid Continent Conference’s career scoring and assists leader and still holds the NCAA Division I record for career 3 point shooting accuracy at 49.2 percent. The Charlotte Hornets drafted him in the second round, but chronic knee ailments shortcircuited his NBA career.
“To be 5 11, to play mid major college basketball, to make it to the NBA?” Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford said. “There’s something that burns inside, and not many people get to see that. We see it in practice. We see it in his preparation. He hates losing at anything. Ping pong, tennis, you name it. Shooting drills, H O R S E.
“I think the fear of losing drives him, at least on the basketball floor. But then in life he’s got a calm about him, and he’s at peace, and I think that’s his faith. I’m a work in progress in that regard, but Tony’s really at peace with who he is. He knows there’s something bigger and higher than all this.
“He’s just a good guy. He’s an old soul.”
Bennett’s three years in Charlotte forged his faith. The Hornets’ strength and conditioning coach, Chip Sigmon, introduced him to Chadwick, and soon Bennett was a regular not only at Chadwick’s church, but also his home.
Bennett vacationed with the Chadwicks and their children he had never been to the beach or seen the ocean and bonded with David over the Bible and basketball.
“We grew to deeply and dearly love him,” Chadwick said. “He became, in a way, like our third child, like a big brother to our two children and a deep friend to me.”
Speaking to a Forest Hill youth group one afternoon, Bennett noticed Laurel Purcell, an LSU graduate interning at the church. They were an ideal match, and not because of her sweet jump shot.
Laurel, too, was steeped in faith, and the couple grew together. Indeed, when Bennett’s post NBA playing career took them to New Zealand, they helped establish a community church there.