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STEVE DeSHAZO: Bennett hopes to make a name for himself at Virginia
By Steve DeShazo
CHARLOTTESVILLE--Craig Littlepage was on the phone with a West Coast friend whose identity he won't reveal but whose basketball acumen he respects. The two were discussing possibilities for Virginia's basketball coaching vacancy and the qualities the ideal candidate would possess.
Then Littlepage dropped the name Tony Bennett.
The reaction was
"I was kind of taken aback," Virginia's athletic director said yesterday, "because the response was, 'You've got to be kidding me.'
"I took that to be a bad thing. And actually, the response was, 'You've got to be kidding me. If you can get this guy, it would be exactly what you need.'"
The Cavaliers got their man. Bennett, who helped engineer a turnaround at Washington State that was only slightly short of stunning, was introduced at a press conference yesterday at John Paul Jones Arena.
Until then, the search was clandestine enough to make the CIA proud. While names like Tubby Smith and Jeff Capel were bandied about, Littlepage and assistant AD Jon Oliver quietly showed Bennett and his wife, Laurel, around town last week.
Said Oliver: "I was scared to death" that Bennett would be recognized on the Grounds.
Their secret was safe--and would have been even if Virginia's players had run into their future coach.
"I had never heard of him," sophomore Jeff Jones said.
"Out of left field," freshman Sylven Landesberg said. "I knew nothing about him."
Call it an East Coast bias, but when you coach in Pullman, Wash., and favor a low-scoring, defensive style, you don't get great ratings in Charlottesville. Fortunately for Bennett--and maybe for the Cavaliers--the Cougars had at least one fan here.
"I have the Fox package
The initial reaction among Virginia fans to Bennett's hiring ranged from disappointment to anger--even while basketball cognoscenti were nodding appreciatively and some Washington State personnel seemed to feel betrayed.