How Tony Bennett Landed the Head Coaching Job at Virginia

Craig Littlepage didn’t write out a check for $50,000 to a search firm. The former Virginia athletic director just made a few phone calls to his buddies in the business.

Then he hired Tony Bennett without ever seeing him coach in-person.

“I remember vaguely seeing bits and pieces of his games,” Littlepage told Stadium. “But many of his games at Washington State were at 10 p.m. Eastern time. I might have seen the tip-off and then dozed off.”

Littlepage knew Bennett had won a ton of games and gone to a pair of NCAA Tournaments with what was considered one of the worst programs in the Pac-12. He knew that his father, Dick, was a successful coach at Green Bay, Wisconsin and Washington State before handing the reigns to Tony after three seasons.

But he didn’t know much more.

He called Tom Jernstedt, whom he had built up a friendship due to Littlepage’s involvement on the NCAA Tournament selection committee from 2002-07. Jernstedt was critical in the growth of the NCAA Tournament and had no shortage of connections throughout men’s basketball.

“He told me that one of the most impressive guys he had seen was this guy at Washington State – Tony Bennett,” Littlepage recalled. “He told me that he wasn’t sure I could get him, that he had already turned down Indiana and Marquette — and didn’t even look at them. Maybe he was just a guy comfortable where he is.”

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Then Littlepage reached out to another friend, Stan Morrison, a former player at Cal and coach at both Pacific and USC, and asked him if he’d do a little project: Take 24 hours and rate each one of the Pac-12 coaches at the time from 1 to 10. He didn’t tell him who specifically he was researching, but just wanted to see where this up-and-comer stacked up against the likes of Ben Howland and the rest of the league.

Howland, fresh off a Final Four appearance, was at the top. Next was the good-looking coach in his late 30s out in Pullman.

“Those two endorsements were enough for me,” Littlepage said.

That’s when Littlepage, with the help of his right-hand man, Jon Oliver, did his due diligence to find out if Virginia would have a legitimate chance to bring Bennett from Pullman to Charlottesville.

Remember, this is a guy who had already spurned multiple high-major programs.

Littlepage wasn’t aware until a couple years ago that Bennett, after visiting the campus for the first time with his wife, Laurel, was set to turn down the job on the way back to Washington State. Luckily for Littlepage and Virginia, his wife told him to take the night to contemplate the decision — and then he woke up with a different perspective on the job.

The first four years were nothing out of the ordinary. Bennett took over the program after a 10-win campaign from Dave Leitao. The Cavaliers had only been to the NCAA Tournament once in the previous eight seasons, and Bennett was 32-34 in league play over the first four years at Virginia with one NCAA Tournament appearance in Year 3.

“People were still waiting to see what is was all about,” Littlepage recalled after the first few years of the Bennett Era. “The fact we got an NCAA bid in year three gave us a little bit of breathing room. Things seemed to be on the upswing, but it wasn’t until year five that he really got it going. He had the roster composition of older guys and guys he and his staff recruited.”

Since Year 4, Bennett’s record is 170-35 and his ACC mark is 88-19. With a win this weekend against Louisville, the Cavaliers will have another ACC regular-season crown, which would be their fourth in six years.

“He’s genuine, he’s principled and he has values,” Littlepage said when I asked him what makes Bennett so successful. “He doesn’t compromise or waiver even if the face of adversity. He’s the same person and the same coach every day.”

But did even Littlepage envision this type of dominance when he hired Bennett?

“It would be difficult to say I knew that would happen,” he said. “I was hopeful. What I did know was that he had a plan and a style, and what he stood for both on and off the court. I thought he was the right fit at Virginia. There was no doubt in my mind of that.”

Bennett is No. 1 on Stadium’s list of the 10 best coaching hires in the last decade.

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