What Will Tony Do? is enough to turn even the sunniest-dispositioned Wahoo into deep thought.
I don’t pretend to have any more insight on the answer to this question than anybody else does. I have obvious rooting interest, as a UVA alum who has bled orange and blue since second grade, when I first heard the words “Ralph Sampson” in a sentence, and thinks Bennett is about as good a representative of my alma mater as there can be, running his program the way he does, with utmost integrity from himself, his assistants and his student-athletes.
Of course I, like many of you reading this, think Tony can do no better than spend the next 25 years at the University of Virginia, with the best arena in the nation to recruit to, with the best fan base in the country backing you, with a strong academic foundation providing a balanced sense of expectations, and with money flowing like manna from heaven both in athletics and academics.
How much better can life be than Charlottesville, where you’re the biggest game in town, adored by literally everyone?
We all want Tony to retire from UVA in 25 years as college basketball’s all-time winningest coach, winning more ACC championships, a national championship or two, or a few.
OK, deep breath.
You know Coach K. Remember when he almost left Duke for the Boston Celtics? And then a decade later almost left for the Los Angeles Lakers?
How different is history now if he’d made either move? Rhetorical question. He didn’t leave.
How about Frank Beamer leaving Virginia Tech for UNC? He actually accepted the job, verbally, in November 2000, and changed his mind before signing on the bottom line.
Frank Beamer, people. Frank Beamer.
Didn’t leave, but like Coach K, he was thisclose.
Roy Williams and UNC. Remember that Dean Smith wanted Roy to follow him (and Bill Guthridge), but in 2000, Ol’ Roy, then still Young Roy, turned him down, and stayed at Kansas, which he had brought back from the brink of scandal and probation to be a national power.
When Matt Doherty, ahem, didn’t work out, Williams tearfully left Kansas, which he had led to four Final Fours, for the Tar Heels in 2003.
I bring up Roy because you have to think about how Kansas has done since Roy left for North Carolina.
Far from becoming irrelevant, Bill Self, taking over for Williams, has in 14 years led the Jayhawks to one second-place Big 12 finish, 13 (!) Big 12 regular-season championships, one national title, four Elite Eights and two more Sweet Sixteens.
Which is to say, Kansas has done OK since losing the guy that had built it back up after a run of mediocrity.
Bennett took over at Virginia after a long run of mediocrity that dates back to 1990, when Terry Holland, then just 48, seemingly coach for life after leading the Cavs to two Final Fours, two Elite Eights and a Sweet Sixteen in the 1980s, abruptly retired after a health scare in 1990.
Holland was succeeded by assistant Jeff Jones, whose early success ended with a thud of two losing seasons in a three-year period at the end of his tenure, starting Virginia basketball on a lengthy period of irrelevancy that saw UVA make just two NCAA Tournaments between 1997 and 2012.
It’s easier said than done, sure, but losing a great coach doesn’t have to be a death sentence for a program.
And, yes, it’s easier if you don’t lose the great coach. See K, Coach, and Beamer, Frank.
But it’s not the end of the world if Tony Bennett ends up leaving, is all I’m saying.
And let’s face it. We want him to continue having the kind of success that keeps his name popping up every time a high-profile job comes open.
Rival programs and NBA teams don’t poach coaches who don’t have a track record of winning, right?
So I’d say, don’t fret, Tony will do what Tony will do, and I hope it continues to be in Charlottesville, but if he moves on, I’ll still root for him, because I will want him to have success at that next stop, and at the same time, I’ll hope we can replace him with someone even better, our Bill Self, as it were.
Having said that, OK, please, God, don’t let that happen. I’m just trying to make people feel better writing this. I hope against hope that it never comes to pass.
Column by Chris Graham