Fond memories likely came flooding back to basketball fans around northeast Wisconsin last Saturday after witnessing Tony Bennett, head coach of the University of Virginia Cavaliers basketball team, cut down the net at KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky.
Bennett’s Cavaliers had just defeated a very good Purdue Boilermakers team in overtime, giving the Charlottesville, Va., team a ticket to college basketball’s Final Four this weekend in Minneapolis. Also on hand for the game was Tony’s father, Dick Bennett. The father-and-son combination brought a lot of excitement to UW-Green Bay Phoenix basketball fans in the 1980s and 1990s.
Dick Bennett served as Phoenix head coach from 1985 to 1995, leading the university to three NCAA tournament appearances. Tony Bennett played for his father at Green Bay from 1988 to 1992 and was the Mid-Continent Player of the Year in 1990-91 and 1991-92.
With Virginia’s victory, Dick and Tony Bennett are now only the second father-son duo to coach teams to the NCAA Final Four. The elder Bennett, of course, coached at UW-Madison and took the Badgers to the Final Four in 2000. Ironically, his team also beat Purdue to qualify for the Final Four.
While building successful basketball programs through gritty, defense-oriented coaching has been a Bennett hallmark, father and son will also be remembered for their focus on family and faith. During his coaching days in Green Bay, Dick Bennett kept a wooden “1” on an office bookshelf to remind him that Jesus is number one in his life.
In an interview with The Compass following a successful 1990-91 season, Dick and Tony Bennett spoke about their faith.
“The biggest thing my faith has done is that it’s helped me keep my balance and my perspective,” said Tony. “Things get blown way out of proportion, especially in this town, with how we’re put on a pedestal. I think my faith, which is the most important thing to me, helps me.”
During their years in Green Bay, Dick and Anne Bennett attended SS. Peter and Paul Parish in Green Bay. “The coach tries to attend morning Mass at least three times a week,” wrote Compass reporter Kathy Berken. “He reads Scripture daily and quotes the letters of his hero, St. Paul, in pep talks to the team.”
Tony, whose wife, Laurel, was once a youth minister in an evangelical church, is now an evangelical Christian.
According to Tony Bennett, he learned a lot more than coaching from his father. During his post-game press conference on Saturday, Bennett said he memorized a quote that his father had given at a similar press conference 19 years earlier.
“He said a quote I never forgot. It stuck with me for that long,” said Bennett. “They asked him, ‘Is this one of the greatest feelings that you’ve ever had, getting to the Final Four?’
“He said this, ‘From a feeling state, euphoria, yes, it is. But it doesn’t compare with faith, with kids, family, grandkids,’” Tony recalled. “He said, ‘Because I know what truly matters, it enables me to enjoy what seems to matter.’”
There’s a lesson for all of us in these words, especially as we wind our way through Lent and prepare for Holy Week.
As followers of Christ, our focus in this life is to prepare for eternal life with God the Father and living out the sacraments the best we can. Focusing on what truly matters will, indeed, enable us to enjoy what seems to matter.
Best of luck to Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers this weekend.