When Tony Bennett pondered whether or not to accept the head coaching position at Virginia over a decade ago, he flipped through a UVa basketball media guide.
As he went through the pages and looked through the history of the program, he was struck by the program’s lack of consistency in the ACC. The Cavaliers’ longest streak of consecutive seasons with an above .500 ACC record was three. That came from 1980-83, during Ralph Sampson’s playing days.
“One of the things that intrigued me that I maybe didn’t think, is there weren’t a lot of over .500 or .500 ACC finishes — and the league has changed I understand all that — but that was intriguing to me,” Bennett said. “Can you build some consistency?”
He’s answered his own question in the decade since accepting the Virginia job.
With Saturday’s 59-56 win over Pittsburgh, Bennett and the Cavaliers (19-7, 11-5 ACC) locked up their ninth consecutive season with an above .500 ACC record.
According to David Teel, a journalist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bennett is only the fifth ACC coach to achieve that milestone. The coach joins Duke’s Vic Bubas and Mike Krzyzewski as well as North Carolina’s Dean Smith and Roy Williams as coaches to achieve the feat.
Those four are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Since the start of the 2015-16 season, Virginia is tied with Duke and Kentucky for the fourth-most wins in college basketball with 137. Only Gonzaga (157), Villanova (150) and Kansas (145) have more victories during that span.
Bennett has turned Virginia into one of the premier basketball programs in the country.
“If he stays at Virginia, he’s on his way to the Basketball Hall of Fame,” Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner said.
Pastner is one of the ACC coaches who know Bennett’s style and success well. Virginia’s head coach has a record at or above .500 against every ACC opponent — except Duke — since coming to Charlottesville. He’s won four ACC regular-season titles, two ACC Tournament crowns and one national championship.
“I think eventually they’ll have a statue built in front of John Paul Jones Arena with Tony Bennett,” Pastner continued. “He might not want it, but there’ll be a statue there. The court will be named after him. I can just go on and on.”
Bennett isn’t so sure about the statue.
“I think they’ll put a statue of anybody if you donate enough money,” Bennett joked.
With a streak of eight consecutive 20-win seasons needing just one additional win in Virginia’s final games of the season to grow to nine, the Cavaliers have established themselves as one of the best programs in college basketball. As his 11th season as Virginia’s head coach nears postseason play, Bennett sits among an elite group of college basketball coaches.
He’s a Virginia legend for his first 10 years of work.
Bennett also is only 50 years old. His elite ACC counterparts Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams are all above — or in the case of the 69-year-old Williams — just below the 70-year mark. Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton is 71 years old, and Miami’s Jim Larranaga is 70.
“This season is making me grow older faster, but normally I say that I don’t feel old,” Roy Williams said when asked what he tells recruits who might ask about a potential retirement. “As long as my health is good, I’ll keep coaching, and that’s what I’ve said for the past three or four years. I’ve been here long enough that I used to be younger than the parents, then I became older than the parents and now I’m older than the grandparents.”
Many of the ACC’s active and historically great coaches around 70-years-old haven’t lost their sense of humor and don’t seem to be showing many signs of slowing down.
Still, it’s likely those ACC coaches are moving toward the tail end of their careers, while Bennett seems to be in his prime.
Boeheim, Krzyzewski and Williams are three living legends. They’re all-time great college basketball coaches. Bennett seems headed in that same direction.
“I think he’s already an all-time great coach,” Boston College head coach Jim Christian said. “He’s won a national championship. He’s built a program that’s done some historical things in the ACC … I think he’s a Hall of Fame coach without question.”
Bennett’s coaching acumen has paid particular dividends this season.
He’s helped the Cavaliers overcome the loss of three NBA Draft picks to win seven of their last eight games and put themselves in position to make the NCAA Tournament for the seventh consecutive season.
The Cavaliers look much better than they did in the first two months of the season. The inexperienced players have gained confidence and stepped up under Bennett’s watchful eye. Improved confidence and offensive rhythm helped the Cavaliers beat Pitt over the weekend for their fourth win in a row.
It’s been a steady improvement for the Cavaliers this season and for the Virginia program since Bennett’s arrival in 2009.
“He develops them as not just players but as young men,” Pitt head coach Jeff Capel said. “They have a system and a style that they believe in that’s incredibly effective. He’s able to recruit to that system and guys buy in. There isn’t a better coach in all of college basketball than Tony.”
If Bennett makes time to pick up a Virginia media guide ahead of Wednesday night’s game with Virginia Tech, he’ll be pleased with the ACC results.