With confetti falling onto the court at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers had finally climbed the hill of college basketball immortality.
A little more than a year after being the only No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed, Virginia made an all-time turnaround.
Bennett, a native of Clintonville, Wisconsin, took the long road to becoming a national name.
Bennett played collegiate basketball at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay under the direction of his father, Dick Bennett. At UW-Green Bay, the father and son duo made two NIT appearances and one NCAA tournament appearance.
He played three seasons in the NBA for Charlotte Hornets and a few overseas.
After his brief playing stints, he returned home to join the coaching staff of legendary Bo Ryan at the University of Wisconsin.
Bennett then joined his father at Washington State. He spent four years at Washington State (one as an assistant), and found immediate success. He helped lead the program to a program record 26 wins and snapped a 13-year NCAA Tournament drought. In 2008, he broke his own record, winning 29 games and reaching the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
And this leads us to Virginia, where Bennett inherited a 10-win team in 2010 and improved every year.
Ten wins turned into 15. Fifteen wins turned into 16. Sixteen wins turned into 22. Twenty-two wins turned into 23. And twenty-three lead to 30 wins plus a whole lot more.
But even in the midst of all of the successes that Bennett had, adversity showed its ugly head more often than not.
In 2014, the Cavaliers won the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). On top of that, they were the No. 1 seed in the east region of the NCAA Tournament.
Close, but no cigar. Virginia fell, heartbreakingly, to Tom Izzo and his fourth-seeded Michigan State Spartans in the Sweet 16.
The following year, Virginia seemed to be riding another magical wave into the NCAA Tournament. Winners of the ACC, it was hard not to bet on Virginia.
Standing in the way again were those Michigan State Spartans.
Bennett’s team fell in another close contest with the Spartans, leaving fans and probably Bennett himself asking, “What is it going to take?”
Heartbreak continued in 2016 for Bennett. As the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region, Virginia was the favorite, dreaming of a trip to the Final Four and possibly a title.
The Cavaliers found themselves up by 16 points in the Elite Eight against No. 10 seeded Syracuse. As a Syracuse fan at the time, I can remember watching this game so closely. It looked as if Virginia, that has always been so close, would finally make its desired destination.It was pure domination on that Easter Sunday.
And then the final few minutes happened. That evil Jim-Boeheim-led Syracuse team stormed back, winning the game by a score of 68-62. As the credits rolled on another Virginia failure, Bennett and his team looked as beaten down as ever. The final shots of the CBS broadcast that day clearly depicted that scene.
And in 2017, Virginia took a step back from what was the norm. After a few years of nothing but No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the NCAA, Virginia was a No. 5 seed. But the 2017 season, filled with ups and downs, started the road to glory, providing a stepping stone for the future.
And this brings us full-circle. To the first-round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. After another regular-season ACC title and locking up a No. 1 seed, Virginia was a favorite. No team had ever lost to a 16 seed in the history of college basketball.
Until Virginia did. By 20 points to the University of Baltimore, Maryland County (UMBC).
How could Bennett keep taking this?
One of the things I admire most about Bennett is the way he responded to losing that game. He took responsibility, congratulating the UMBC players while they, instead of him, celebrated a first-round win.
April 8, 2019. The night it finally happened for Virginia. Sure, Virginia certainly caught some breaks this year. But for a team that has been on the wrong end of breaks so many times, they deserved a change in fortune.
The first thing Bennett did was shake hands with Texas Tech players and coaches. Class first for a man that knows what heartbreak feels like.
It would’ve been so easy for Bennett to give up after failures that seemed to define him. But he didn’t let it happen that way. He tried, and tried some more. He worked hard for this. Harder than any other coach I’ve ever seen win a championship.
And we can take that into our own lives. Things don’t always go as planned. Struggles and hurdles come. Good comes with bad. Heartbreak happens. But that doesn’t mean quit. It means work harder. Change. Be better. Go the extra mile. Things don’t happen overnight.
Thank you for inspiring me, coach Bennett.
By Mike Hogan, Sports Editor