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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.
Said Littlepage: "Everyone said words to the effect of, 'My gosh, if you can get that guy, you've got to get him.'"
The lovefest got a little out of hand yesterday when Littlepage mentioned John Wooden in the same breath as a 39-year-old with three years of head-coaching experience.
Still, Bennett does seem to have many of the qualities on university President John Casteen's wish list: "intelligence, respect, credibility,
Oliver worked at Washington State before Bennett and his father, Dick, arrived there six years ago. He admired their work from afar--especially in 2006-07, when Tony Bennett won 26 games with a program that had endured 10 straight losing seasons. The fact that WSU had four of the five members of the all-Pacific 10 Conference academic team didn't hurt, either.
Still, aware that Bennett had turned down Marquette and LSU last year and took himself out of the running at Indiana, Oliver said that he wasn't sure Virginia could land its top choice.
The younger Bennett apparently had name recognition in the right circles to get the Virginia job. Now, he must ingratiate himself with the state's high school and AAU coaches, few of whom know him. To win in the Atlantic Coast Conference, he needs more talent than he had at Wazzou--and much more than he inherited from Dave Leitao.
"The best thing you can sell as a new coach," Bennett said, "is the chance to come in and be part of a turnaround. That's what we did
To that end, the man Littlepage described as Virginia's new "Basketball CEO" made
"He knew all our names," junior center Jerome Meyinsse said. "He walked in and knew a little bit about each of us, even before he met us."
A week ago, Bennett was
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