Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Virginia and the Basketball Lottery

Virginia's Tony Bennett is not a singer>

When the University of Virginia named young (38) Washington State University basketball coach Tony Bennett (no, not that one; he's too old) to lead its program yesterday, it produced an outcry from UVa fans on the Internet, but those who know Bennett's work say it's an inspired hire. One compared him to Mike Krzyzewski (my wife spells this for me, using "The Mickey Mouse Song" for inspiration: krz, yze, wski ...) of Duke. Another--a Washington fan--says good riddence, Bennett was too smart to beat.

Bennett replaces Dave Leitao, a man who--in my view--was pulled far too quickly by an athletic director looking hard at the bottom line and the empty seats in UVa's new Taj Mahal of a basketball facility. Bennett, who recruited well at a school in the middle of nowhere (Eastern Washington is not Seattle in any respect) is expected to land some top-notch prospects to Virginia's nationally-respected university, but I'm not so sure about his immediate success in the east. He has spent his career in the midwest (Wisconsin, coaching with his father) and far west and his recruiting contacts there will likely be reluctant to come this far from home to a program that was not successful last year (remember, though, Virginia is two years removed from an ACC title).

Virginia's fans, smarting from a truly awful season (and my fan wife sat through every game on TV and the Xavier blowout in person--to the bitter end), expected their athletic director to go out and bring in a John Calipari (Kentucky gets him) or Rick Petino (he stays at Louisville), but spending $4 million for a basketball coach would not likely sit well with politicians in the Commonwealth--regardless of where the money comes from.

Bennett could well to be a Bruce Pearl-style bargain. Pearl is the colorful, talented Tennessee coach who has caused such a stir in four years. He came from a small program in Wisconsin where he had great success and was hired after half a dozen "name" coaches said "no" or maybe more like "hell, no, I'm not coaching basketball at a school with a 107,000-seat football stadium."

So, Virginia fans, get a grip and hope you hit the lottery. Because that's what it is. Ask Billy Donovan or Billy Gillespie, the Florida coach who had a down year after two straight national championships and the Kentucky coach who dared not make the NCAA tournament.

(Note: This represents my 200th blog post since I began Oct. 18, 2008. Woooooo-hoooooo!)

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