By Matt Norlander
The evidence of Tony Bennett's coaching ability can be found, permanently, in his patience. And with that patience, and his quiet, kind conviction, comes results. They don't pore in; they germinate. Bennett is not college basketball's Jim Harbaugh -- in pretty much every possible sense. He does not arrive at a program with bombast or swagger and promise to turn things around immediately and with grand success.
Not that there's anything wrong with that process. It's just not Tony. He's affable yet bashful. After all, this is a guy who just equated one of the biggest wins in Virginia history to the fervor of … a Taylor Swift concert. It was a college basketball first. Hell, it was a sports first.
Bennett's found peace in pace, both how his team plays (at 60.8 possessions per game in his coaching career, Bennett's teams are among the slowest and most methodical in all of college basketball) and in the way the rebuilding process must come about. As his dad, legendary coach Dick Bennett once told him, you better pick a group of men you can lose with first. If a team can buy in, endure the slog and play for something bigger than themselves -- if they can play for those who will come after them, and perhaps achieve more than they will -- that's when everyone eventually wins together.
The principle is as much a platitude as it is a necessary bedrock for many a college program, regardless of sport. Bennett's adapted to it extremely well during his life, like his father did, back when Dick changed the culture at Wisconsin. That was before Bo Ryan seamlessly took the baton and kept the Badgers nationally viable. Tony dedicated himself to the approach as a player at Green Bay, leading the program to its first NCAA tournament in 1991.
After he left, the school made three more NCAA tournaments in the ensuing four years. Here's a nice coincidence: Long after the residue from the Tony Bennett era has worn away, the Phoenix this year are on pace to make it back to the NCAAs after an 18-year hiatus.
"Those experiences of rebuilding programs is huge," Bennett said. "It helps you along the way. There are times when it's not going to look like it's going to happen, but it helps you stay faithful."
And now, at two very tough coaching gigs (Washington State and Virginia), Bennett has shown to be quite the basketball architect. He coached in Pullman, Wash., for three seasons, and in 2008 took the Cougars to the Sweet 16.
It was the school's first trip to the Sweet 16 in its 107-year history of playing college basketball.
The only other second-weekend appearance came in 1941, the third year of the NCAA tournament's existence. That tournament field began with eight teams.
Bennett's quick Cougars stint accounts for 33 percent of the school's NCAA tournament appearances. The achievement ultimately led to his hiring at Virginia, and since Bennett arrived in 2009, the program's flowered with each successive season. It was 15 wins in the inaugural year. Sixteen in 2010-11. Then 22 the next year, 23 a season ago and now, in year No. 5, 25 wins (the most in 19 seasons) and counting for the Virginia Cavaliers, who on Saturday methodically suffocated Syracuse to the rhythm of a 75-56 victory.
It was a program-record 13th straight ACC win that gave Virginia its first outright league title since 1981 -- which is the only other time the Hoos have solely reigned over the proud, historic conference during their 61-year inhabitancy.
There is something about Tony Bennett and the way he obliterates low expectations and redefines success at dormant programs. There are no coincidences at play here.
As the game drew to a close Saturday night, fans full throat at what this team had done, Bennett couldn't help but get emotional. He gave senior Joe Harris a bear hug as he came off the floor to a standing ovation, the men embracing at the culmination of what they sold each other on the spring before both of them left the Evergreen State for a risk on the other side of the country.
"One of the main reasons I came here, and I know that Akil [Mitchell] came here, was to be the foundation for Coach Bennett's program and turning this thing around back to what it used to be," Harris said. "For us to go out this way with an ACC crown is unreal. I can't even describe it."
After the game, Bennett said on TV he didn't deserve all this, the admiration and attention. It was an interesting thing to say. When do you ever hear a coach say he doesn't "deserve" the achievement he just helped create?
"I said it, I guess, because in the moment I was overwhelmed with thankfulness," Bennett said by phone Monday afternoon. "Really, for the guys I have on the team, my staff and the Lord. My faith is really important. I was thinking, my life, just how blessed I am to experience that. Here I am, who am I to be coaching in this setting? It was a powerful moment."
A few tears got away in the closing seconds as he looked over to his wife, Laurel, who was a few rows back, behind the team bench. She was smiling and her "eyes might have been watering as well," according to Bennett.
"You see your dear friends, people who have meant a lot to you," Bennett said. "As a player I was poised, and even on the sideline I have a pretty good temperament, but I don't know. I guess sometimes when you see something you're thankful for, you get [emotional]. After 33 years, that happened. And if you could have been in that building, it was palpable. The electricity and joy."
Dad, now closing in on 71, wasn't there Saturday. He doesn't attend any games these days.
"He rarely watches them -- but he saw Saturday," Bennett, who refers to his dad as a "lighthouse," said.
And now, with Virginia becoming a national story, Bennett's sheepish to embrace what comes with it: all that publicity. He'd rather be clamping down on the next game and worrying about keeping this streak going than spending an entire morning with a myriad of media members discussing the season so far.
"To me, you get so much attention when you play well, we get more than enough because of the league we're in, and that's enough," Bennett said. "That's the reward. As far as talking about myself, what's going on, I don't enjoy that, I'll be honest with you. … Beating the bandwagon will not help us anymore."
Still, with this ACC title, and a possible No. 2 seed awaiting the Cavs in 12 days, it is time to stop and acknowledge how big a deal this is in that league and for that program. And yet, despite this run, because Virginia's ACC schedule hasn't been as rigorous as Duke's or Syracuse's or North Carolina's, UVa's still not seen as a viable national title contender. That's also based in part on Bennett's reputation as a coach without stars and without sexy offense. Ironic, considering he's still the all-time leader in three-point percentage in college hoops history (49.7) and led the Mid-Continent Conference in points and assists during his Phoenix days.
Converting the masses to Virginia's basketball tenets isn't necessarily a hurdle Bennett sees as a mandatory obstacle. Green Bay had never made the NCAA tournament. Until it did. Washington State had never earned a No. 4 national ranking and back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. Until it did. Virginia had not won an ACC regular-season title in the expanded NCAA tournament era. Until it did.
With Bennett, they did.
Virginia's not won an NCAA tournament game under Bennett. Until it will. Slowly but surely, he'll grow the program, and then more and more people will buy in. He'll be patient with the process, even if many others can't.
And if he stays in Charlottesville, those fans won't have to wait another 33 years.
Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is obsessed equally with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.