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Virginia Basketball: Tony Bennett nears Terry Holland’s all-time wins mark

tony bennett
Tony Bennett. Photo: UVA Athletics

With already 324 wins during his time at Virginia, Tony Bennett is just three victories away from becoming the school’s all-time winningest coach. UVA coaching legend Terry Holland laid the foundation and has held that distinction for years and years, but in as soon as a few weeks from now, the torch will be passed.

“I came here to build a great team,” Bennett said in his introductory press conference in April 2009, “but more importantly, I came here to build a program that lasts, and I think the way you go about that is you have great integrity and you have great passion.”

Mission accomplished. Bennett’s winning percentage across his 14 seasons in Charlottesville is .735 (324-117 at UVA), a shade higher than Holland’s mark of .653 (326-173) during his memorable 16-year career with the Wahoos. Holland coached in 499 games with Virginia, while Bennett will coach his 442nd UVA game on Saturday, as his second-ranked Cavaliers (8-0) host No. 5 Houston (10-1).

Should the Wahoos prevail against the Cougars (2 p.m., ESPN2), next up is a trip to Miami on Dec. 20, a home meeting with Albany to close out the nonconference schedule on Dec. 28, and a road game at Georgia Tech on New Year’s Eve, meaning the feat is still achievable in this calendar year.

In 2014, when Bennett led the Hoos to the ACC Tournament title for the first time since Holland did it in 1976, he said he looked into the crowd at Greensboro Coliseum and saw the former UVA coach among those in attendance.

“I did see Tony looking up into the crowd, but I didn’t know he was looking up at me,” said Holland. “I assumed he was looking for a big man, someone bigger than me that still had eligibility.”

After moving into the UVA athletic director’s chair after his coaching career, Holland also played a large role in moving the team’s home across the street from 8,457-seat University Hall to the current 15,000-plus-seat John Paul Jones Arena.

After all, it was Holland who put the Virginia men’s basketball program on the map in the 70s, brought in a three-time national player of the year in superstar recruit Ralph Sampson from nearby Harrisonburg HS and took the Cavaliers to their first two Final Fours in the 80s, establishing a winning tradition and upstanding culture that Bennett has revived during his tenure on Grounds.

After a home upset against No. 7 Duke in 2020, Bennett noticed Holland sitting courtside with his wife, Ann, and Sampson, and made a point to acknowledge them after the game.

“It made my heart smile to see Coach Holland sitting across the court with his wife,” Bennett said. “I don’t even know if he saw me, but I looked at him — it was kind of late, with five or six minutes [remaining] — and I thought of all he’s done for this program. I thought of my dad. It was a sweet moment.”

When Holland stepped down in 1990 and left the program in the hands of one of his former players, Jeff Jones, his achievements included the school’s first nine trips to the NCAA Tournament (including the two Final Fours, two Elite Eight finishes, one Sweet 16), four NIT appearances (including the championship in 1980) and a total of 126 ACC regular-season and tournament victories.

Bennett, by comparison, has won 176 of those, ranking him sixth all-time behind Coach K (535), Dean Smith (422), Roy Williams (241), Gary Williams (210) and Leonard Hamilton (178).

Bennett, who was the second-fastest ACC coach to reach 300 wins behind Roy Williams, has eight NCAA Tournament trips under his belt as UVA coach, with the 2019 national championship obviously serving as the centerpiece to go with the 2016 Elite Eight and the 2014 Sweet 16 finishes. He also led the Hoos to a pair of NIT quarterfinal appearances. UVA only went to the Big Dance twice in the 11 seasons prior to his arrival.

Approaching the 400 Club

If you throw in his 69-33 record (.676) during his three seasons with Washington State, Bennett (393-150) is also right around the corner from achieving yet another coaching milestone — only 152 Division-I coaches have ever eclipsed the 400-win mark.

Holland is one of them, checking in at 131st overall with 418 wins, including the 92 he amassed in his five seasons at Davidson (1969-74) before replacing Bill Gibson at Virginia.

Bennett owns a career winning percentage of .724, tied with Larry Brown for 40th in Division I college basketball history. It’s a better mark than such legendary names as Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (.720); one of his mentors, former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan (.715); Georgetown’s John Thompson (.714); Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (.713); Arkansas’ Nolan Richardson (.711); Indiana’s Bob Knight (.706); Maryland’s Lefty Driesell (.666); and Holland (.659), just to name a few.

With the win last week over James Madison, Bennett passed another former UVA coach, Pete Gillen (392 career wins), on the NCAA’s all-time list.

His next victory would tie him with Ryan, who was the only other head coach he has served under, other than his father, Dick.

Tony was on his dad’s staff at Wisconsin from 1999-2001, then stayed on for two more seasons when Ryan took over as head coach of the Badgers and the elder Bennett moved on to Washington State.

Tony Bennett was then an assistant with the Cougars for three years before taking over when his father retired. After three-straight losing campaigns, Tony led Wazzou to back-to-back 20-win seasons and consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, and was named Naismith National Coach of the Year in 2007 (he won it again at UVA in 2018).

The Cougars finished 17-16 in Bennett’s final year in Pullman before turning the Cavaliers’ program around, beginning in 2009.

The rest, as they say, is history at UVA, and Bennett really could be just getting started, depending on how long he decides to stick around in Charlottesville. At 53 years old, there’s no reason to believe that Bennett doesn’t have another decade-plus left in the tank, should he choose to not yet hang up the whistle any time soon.

After winning it all in ‘19, Bennett was offered a significant raise by UVA president Jim Ryan and AD Carla Williams, but turned it down, instead choosing to continue to make overall improvements for the future success of the program and his players, both on and off the court. Everything from locker room and weight room renovations to a half-million-dollar pledge for a player career-development initiative.

“President Ryan and Carla were very gracious in what they offered to me as a potential contract, but I have a very good contract,” said Bennett at the time. “I have more than enough, and if there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire.”

There are also the rumors that Bennett has been courted by other schools and NBA teams over the years, but he’s remained focused and committed to making UVA a contender on the national stage, while helping his players achieve success after graduation, whether in the professional ranks or — as the commercial goes — “something other than sports.”

His current contract runs through the 2026-27 season, and it’d be hard to imagine Virginia not making every effort to extend it and keep Bennett on the JPJ sidelines for as long as possible. For now, UVA fans can rest assured knowing there’s not a better person for the job running the Cavalier program.

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe has worked as a freelance writer for several publications over the past decade-plus, with a concentration on local and college sports. He is also a writer and editor for his father’s website, JerryRatcliffe.com, dedicated to the coverage of University of Virginia athletics.

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