Tony Bennett is two wins away from winning his and Virginia’s first basketball national championship. The Cavaliers head coach leads his troops against Auburn Saturday night in Minneapolis in the first national semifinal (6:09 p.m. EST, CBS).
This is also Bennett’s first Final Four and the program’s first since 1984. No. 1 seed Virginia outlasted No. 3 seed Purdue in overtime 80-75 last Saturday after forward Mamadi Diakite forced extra time with a desperation jumper at the regulation buzzer.
This isn’t the first Final Four in Bennett family history. Tony’s father Dick Bennett guided Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000. The elder Bennett established a foundation for his son to become one of college basketball’s premier coaches.
He’ll also likely be on the sideline Saturday night at U.S. Bank Stadium. Here’s what you need to know.
1. While Born in Pittsburgh, Bennett Grew Up in Wisconsin
According to his bio during his time coaching the Badgers, Bennett was born on April 20, 1943 in Pittsburgh (Pa.). Within 12 years, his family had settled in Clintonville (Wis.). He would spend the majority of his life and career in America’s Dairyland.
This continued with his time playing multiple sports at Ripon College, which is located about 90 miles north of Milwaukee outside of Oshkosh.
He attended Ripon College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1965. During his years at Ripon, Bennett played four years each of basketball (guard), football (halfback, returner) and baseball (third baseman).
Bennett is a member of the Ripon Hall of Fame, and the university’s president talked about him when Bennett was honored with the Coach Wooden “Keys to Life” Award at the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta.
“Dick Bennett is our ‘Mr. Basketball’ in the state of Wisconsin,” said Ripon College President Zach Messitte. “He is a model for our entire community – we are so proud of his accomplishments in the game of basketball and in communities across the nation and are truly grateful that he has chosen to celebrate his success with his alma mater.”
He also holds a master’s degree in education (emphasis in professional development) from UW-Stevens Point.
2. He Worked His Way up the High School & NAIA Coaching Ranks
He bounced around the Wisconsin high school coaching circuit once he took over the West Bend freshman team in 1965. Over the next decade, he served stints at Mineral Point (2 seasons), Marion (1 season), New London (3 seasons) and Eau Claire Memorial (4 seasons).
If that sounds like a lot of changing homes, it is. The various moves account for approximately 400 miles of travel distance. His wife Anne knew that all of the changes were in the service of Dick’s dream: coaching Wisconsin in Madison.
Dick was turned down for the Wisconsin job on several occasions. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2000, she talks about how the couple coped under the disappointment at the time.
“It hurt him. Sure it did,” she said. “So we went ahead and built our dream house and figured we’d finish out our career in Green Bay.”
He went back to Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1976 and proceeded to win 173 games over 9 seasons. Per his bio:
During his final three seasons (1982-85), the Pointers were a combined 79-13. He was named NAIA Coach of the Year after leading the 1983-84 squad to a 28-4 record and national runner-up finish. Bennett was named Wisconsin State University Conference Coach of the Year in 1982 and 1985, as well as NAIA District IV and NAIA Area IV Coach of the Year in 1985.
When he got hired at Stevens Point, he said: “I’ll let God do the brainwork. I’ll do the legwork.”
3. Alongside Tony, He Helped Build Wisconsin-Green Bay Into a Division I Mid-Major Power
He moved onto Wisconsin-Green Bay and Division I basketball in 1986. He inherited a team that was 4-24 the year, taking just two seasons to get back over .500. Three years later, Bennett earned the 1990 Mid-Continent Conference Coach of the Year award after leading the Phoenix to a 24-8 mark and the second round of the NIT.
With Tony as the lead guard, Bennett and company rolled to a 24-7 record and made its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, losing 60-58 to Michigan State in the first round. This earned the younger Bennett as spot in the 1992 NBA Draft with the Charlotte Hornets.
From 1993 to 1995, the Phoenix clinched consecutive bids to March Madness, even knocking off Jason Kidd and Cal in 1994 in the first round. This success led to Wisconsin hiring Bennett in 1995. The Phoenix have only reached the tournament twice since then.
4. With Tony as an Assistant, He Helped Resurrect Wisconsin & Washington State With the Pack-Line Defense
Before taking the job at Wisconsin, Bennett asked his Green Bay players for their blessing. He was not going to accept the gig, but his players insisted that he follow his long-time dream to lead the Badgers. Per the Chicago Tribune:
Bennett’s fondness for those players was a big reason he was rejecting Richter’s blandishments. Now he went to meet them and to gauge their collective mood.
“Coach,” they told him, “we know this has always been important to you. Follow your dream. We’ll be happy for you.”
“I give them a lot of credit for giving him the freedom to pursue his dream,” Anne Bennett says. “He had to get their permission to be at peace with himself.”
Within 2 seasons, Bennett had the Badgers in the NCAA Tournament. By 1997, he had them with a winning Big Ten record for the first time in 23 seasons. By 2000, he had the program in the Final Four for the first time in 59 seasons.
He did this with his trademark pack-line defense, which is described by Basketball for Coaches as a variation on man-to-man concepts.
The ‘Pack Line’ defense is a variation of man-to-man defense. The biggest difference between the two is that instead of the off-ball defenders being out pressuring their player and denying the pass, everyone except the player guarding the ball must be inside an imaginary line 16 feet from the rim.
He stepped down after only 3 games the next season, stating he was “drained.” Tony was an assistant the final 2 seasons with Dick, and stayed in Madison until 2003.
When Dick got back into coaching at Washington State for the 2003-04 season, he brought Tony along. While Dick never recorded a winning season for the Cougars, Tony took over in 2006 and immediately got Wazzou into the NCAA Tournament.
In a 2008 interview with the New York Times, Dick commented that this was great for the “long-suffering” Cougar fans.
He has brought the pack-line defense with him in his stops in Pullman and Charlottesville, as well.
5. The Rest of the Family is Accomplished
His daughter Kathi Bennett was the head women’s basketball coach at Northern Illinois through 2015 and was the head women’s basketball coach at Indiana University. His brothe Jack also coached at Stevens Point, helping the program transition into Division II.
Another brother, Tom Bennett, died of AIDS-related complications at age 38 in January 1996.