Coaching basketball — and winning — are in Tony Bennett's DNA. His father Dick guided Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000; his sister Kathi coached the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to a 1996 Division III national championship; and his uncle Jack won back-to-back D-III titles with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
So after high school and college ball in Green Bay and a professional career in the NBA, Australia, and New Zealand, it seemed only natural that Tony moved into a coaching position at Washington State before settling in as the head coach at Virginia.
Since his arrival at Virginia, he's won the Atlantic Coast Conference twice, and reached the NCAA Elite Eight last year. Bennett has received the National Coach of the Year award from the Associated Press and the United States Basketball Writers Association.
His journey from small-town player to big-time coach has given him a unique perspective.
"I never wanted to be a coach," Bennett says. "That wasn't something that was in the cards. I just wanted to play as long as I could and then go from there. You always have dreams and aspirations and you hope things will happen, but until they actually do they are just that — dreams.
"I look at everything as a gift. Even the failures and adversity — though at the time they aren't pleasant and enjoyable, those are what shape, mold, and mature you into who you're going to become."
Having a diverse playing background provided Bennett the tools he needed to become one of the top coaches in the country.
His journey from small-town player to big-time coach has given him a unique perspective, he says. "We are our collective experiences," Bennett says. "I've taken things away from each of the different places I've played and the coaches I've either worked for or played under.
"Experience is the greatest teacher," he says. "Our teams have been successful because they are usually experienced and have been through challenging situations. There is no replacement or substitute for experience."
Being surrounded by successful coaches like his father, uncle, and sister has had a huge influence on his life and coaching career.
"When you see people working in their (gifts) it's inspiring," Bennett says. "You see them and think that's what they were meant to do. There's nothing better than playing, so when playing was done I was like, 'Ehhh.' I realized quickly that coaching was the next best thing, because I saw the impact my sister, my uncle, my dad, and others made on the people they coached."
With high turnover in college and the constant evolution of the game, Bennett notes that consistent success starts with the players.
"You can't kid yourself and think success comes from some unbelievable coaching method," he says. "You have to have the right kind of players. It's about building a program, getting the right players, adding the right staff, and having an incredible level of patience to stay true to what you believe is the vision you set for the program. There is so much talent all over, but when you get five guys collectively playing together, you can play against anybody."
Teamwork and selflessness are important parts of Bennett's philosophy and are important traits he seeks when recruiting players.
"I tell them that if they have team success, individual success they will see will be amazing," he says. "I think that's really important. You're going to get your chance, but first comes discipline. If your team can understand that first they have to be disciplined, sound, tough, and if a player can understand that when they come into college, that's going to get them on the floor and that's going to help the team."
He's clear in his message that just because players must be sound doesn't mean their skill is limited or confined.
"First comes discipline, but then comes freedom," Bennett said. "If you show you're sound and disciplined then you are going to have freedom to use your abilities and gifts."
With the future of basketball heading toward highlighting the three-point shot, adapting to trends has become important to all coaches.
"The game is changing," Bennett says. "In coaching, you always have to make adjustments and understand the trends of the game —how you're going to contest threes defensively, and how you're going to use your personnel offensively. There are different ways to approach the game as coaches. There are different styles, especially in college, and that's the beauty of it."
"The advice I give coaches is 'Simplicity with execution,'" he says. "That doesn't mean you can't have some adjustments and variants on plays, but the more stuff you try to do, the more complicated and complex everything is and the harder it is for your players to master.
"Coaches at any level get carried away with what the next fad is, whether we're going to run this and that. The only way you're going to get good is to be able to execute something, do it well, and then make adjustments."
Basketball, like any sport, is always evolving. Bennett appreciates the trends and the challenges they provide.
"The spacing and the spread of the game is changing and coaches, with all the access to video, are becoming so sound in their offensive philosophies," Bennett said. "Find a style and a system of play that gives you a chance to be the best in your league, in the country; find that thing that uniquely fits you and gives you a chance to beat the very best you'll ever play against."