HOTSEAT- The best is yet to come: To Cavs fans, he's <i>the </i>Tony Bennett
When Tony Bennett was announced as the new head coach of the University of Virginia's men's basketball team in April, the name was instantly recognizable to Cavs fans, but not one associated with college hoops.
"I get it all the time," says Bennett. "I'm no relation to the singer."
Indeed, on the coffee table in his office at John Paul Jones Arena is a book about the famous octogenarian crooner sent to him by a member of Wahoo Nation. But this Tony Bennett's demeanor is much more akin to that of a wide-eyed newcomer than a veteran celebrity.
"I've been in Pullman, Washington for the last six years, where there's 7,000 people and about three places to eat," says Bennett, alluding to his coaching tenure at Washington State University. "I get here and I'm saying to myself, 'There's an Outback Steakhouse here! There's a Target!'"
Bennett assures the Hook that he's been able to sample more local fare as well, but that most of his time has been spent at the JPJ, trying to get his bearings after making a career move he didn't anticipate.
"I had planned on staying at Washington State for the rest of my career," says Bennett. "I was excited about the program we were building, the recruits we had coming in, and my family was very comfortable there."
But when the University of Virginia came knocking in March after the departure of head coach Dave Leitao, Bennett felt compelled to listen.
"You have proximity to great recruiting talent and great competition in the ACC," says Bennett, "but with the emphasis on academics here, you can do it the right way."
For Bennett, "the right way" also means an effort from his team that he hopes will be immediately visible from the first game onward.
"I hope you'll see a group that plays tough and plays sound," says Bennett. "It doesn't sound sexy, but it's not about which guys get the shots. It's about people coming together to build a project, and that begins with playing tough and playing smart on both ends of the floor for all 40 minutes."
Bennett knows of what he speaks. In four years of playing at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, Bennett set an NCAA record for three-point percentage, led his team to its first-ever NCAA appearance in 1991, and got drafted in the first round of the 1992 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets. In his rookie season with the Hornets, he got an early lesson in the psychology of his sport.
"We were in Chicago, and we were up by something like seven points with a few seconds to go," tells Bennett, "and my teammate Kendall Gill goes over to Michael Jordan and says, 'How does it feel now that we came in your house and beat you?' And immediately about three of my teammates grab him and say, 'Don't make him mad!' The next time we played the Bulls, Jordan went for 47 points and after every basket, he looks over at Kendall."
Bennett's playing career would be cut short after three seasons by a knee injury, but it opened the door to coaching. After seven years of serving as an assistant to his father Dick at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and then Washington State, Bennett took over the Cougars' program with his father's retirement in 2006.
While Bennett is not about to make any predictions about his team's future success, he is willing to make one guarantee to Wahoo fans, based on the greatest lesson he learned from coaching at his father's side.
"We will never sacrifice character," says Bennett. "You can't take shortcuts on character and expect to sustain a program, and we'll never do that."
Why here? Why not? Everything is in place here to do something special.
What's worst about living here? My two assistants are having to share one bathroom.
Favorite hangout: My office at the JPJ
Most overrated virtue: Is there such a thing?
People would be surprised to know: I like watching chick flicks with my wife. Some favorites are Love & Basketball, Notting Hill, Hitch, even Maid in Manhattan.
What would you change about yourself: Every parent would like to have more patience with their children.
Proudest accomplishment: Being part of the rebuilding of the Washington State basketball program.
What people find most annoying about you: I asked my wife, and she says that what I think is teasing she finds just plain annoying and that I don't know when to stop.
Whom do you admire: Former NFL coach Tony Dungy. I just read his book, and how he impacted his profession is just incredible.
Favorite Book: The Bible
Subject that causes you to rant: Poor officiating
Biggest 21st-century thrill: My kids were both 21st century births
Biggest 21st century creep out: One time a few years ago, when we were living in Pullman, we lost the kids for about 20 minutes in our neighborhood. It turned out they were just down the hill, playing where we had told them not to go. Like I say, I wish I had more patience.
What do you drive? My company car, a Lexus 350
In your car CD player right now: I like a lot of R&B: Ne-Yo, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, and Rihanna are all in heavy rotation on my iPod.
Next journey: Embarking on the journey of coaching the UVA men's basketball team.
Most trouble you've ever gotten in: I once peeled a grape, and then acted like I was picking my nose and wiped it on my dad's leg. He chased me like I had stolen something.
Regret: Once, when I was playing in the NBA, late in the game, the Bulls had Michael Jordan guard me. I guess they wanted to give him a rest. Every time I got the ball I looked at him and then passed it to someone else. I wish I had tried to score on him.
Favorite comfort food: Chocolate chip cookies and peanut M&Ms
Always in your refrigerator: Milk
Must-see TV: American Idol and Grey's Anatomy
Describe a perfect day: Hanging out with the kids, a round of golf, dinner and a movie with my wife
Walter Mitty fantasy: Winning the U.S. Open golf tournament as an amateur
Who would play you in the movie: When I was playing for the Hornets and I was in much better shape, my teammates used to tease me and call me Jean Claude Van Damme.
Most embarrassing moment: That's easy. It's the first game of my NBA career, we're at home, Charlotte Coliseum, 24,000 people, and we're in the tunnel. One of my teammates turns to me and says, "It's your first game, why don't you lead us out onto the court." So I go running out and I'm thinking about how I'd finally made it to the NBA, and how proud my parents must be, and what a big moment this is. I get out to half court and I realize I'm all alone and all my teammates are still standing there in the tunnel laughing at me. They never let me live that down.
Best advice you ever got: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Favorite bumper sticker: I always chuckle at "I'd rather be driving a Titleist."