2019 NCAA Tournament: For his team and for his father, Tony Bennett finally leads Virginia to the Final Four
An unbelievable, all-time win for Virginia comes with a powerful backstory about a journey for a father and son
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Tony Bennett waited 19 years for this hug.
Bennett giddily yells as he approaches, then embraces his father, legendary coach Dick Bennett. Top-seeded Virginia's finally done it, winning an 80-75 overtime thriller against No. 3 Purdue, pushing Tony to the first Final Four of his career.
The initial celebrations have started. The court's cluttered with confetti and cameras and media and almost everyone affiliated with this incredible Virginia team.
But the minutes are passing and Tony's still looking for the one man he needs to see. Before he gets on a ladder, before he soaks in that memorable moment with a clipped net in his left hand and orange scissors in his right and lets out a bear's bellow, he's going to get another unforgettable scene just as soon as he can find -- there he is.
There's his father.
"God dang it, Dad, we did it!" he screams. "Thank you. Thank you!"
Seventy-five-year-old Dick Bennett is in the building. He's almost never in the building. But this time, he made sure he was there. He wouldn't miss this chance, not again. His borderline-crippling angst and irascibility have kept the old coach away from watching his son, in person, grow into one of the greatest leaders in college basketball.
Father and son embrace in a March moment they'll hold onto forever.
The victory is history for the Bennett family. Dick and Tony are just the second father-son duo (joining Georgetown's John Thompson and John Thompson III) to coach teams to the Final Four.
Cosmic symmetry was at play: Dick Bennett's Wisconsin team knocked off Purdue in the Elite Eight 19 years ago to get Dick to his one and only Final Four. Dick gave Tony the coaching bug that year. What's amazing: Tony never had intentions on joining the profession. If Wisconsin doesn't beat Purdue in 2000 -- Tony as a volunteer manager, per his dad's request, just so they could take a ride together -- maybe Tony never goes into coaching.
But he did. And ever since Dick retired in 2006, he's carried a burden. He was unable to compose himself while watching his boy coach, and it got progressively worse in recent years.
"I'm not a good fan, I will tell you that," Dick Bennett said as a confetti began to collect on the floor at the KFC Yum! Center. "I am so happy. I feel very blessed I was able to come. I just feel wonderful."
Three years ago, this scene would not have been possible; Dick Bennett would have missed out on his own accord. In 2016, as No. 1 seed Virginia blew a 15-point lead against Syracuse in Chicago in the Elite Eight -- keeping Tony and the Cavaliers from a Final Four that seemed fait accompli -- Dick was three miles to the east of the United Center, sitting alone with the TV off on the 16th floor of the Blackstone Renaissance.
It was self-imprisonment. And Dick wanted it that way.
"I pay the price for allowing my priorities to get out of whack," he said. "There's a penance that, though we are forgiven, there's a penance that must be served."
He did the same thing in 2018, holed up at his hotel in Charlotte, away from where and when Virginia took the most notorious loss in NCAA Tournament history by losing 74-54 to No. 16 UMBC. Tony was so concerned about how his dad would respond to the loss, he made sure he his father didn't see him as someone who was defeated when he visited his parents' hotel room near midnight that night.
"Tony made a real point, he told me later, of smiling when he came in," Tony's wife, Laurel, told CBS Sports. "He felt like, if Dad sees me OK, he'll be OK."
Dick couldn't watch the games live as they happened, not in person or on television. He'd wait for phone calls once they were over or well in hand. He called it his uphill journey. The mind would churn.
"The decisions, the criticisms, the mistakes a coach makes are less forgivable than the players," Dick Bennett said. "Once you've been in that spot and inherited that responsibility, it's hard to let that go. When it's your own child, you tend to fret over all of the responsibility he has. I've lived with that."
He hated the person he became when watching Tony coach. But things changed this year. The death of a longtime friend/assistant, Mike Heideman, last June, brought perspective. Dick stayed back in Wisconsin for the first weekend of the tournament this year, but Virginia was too good again to chance not going to Louisville. He was on hand to watch UVA slip past Oregon, and on Friday, Tony even reassured his father that if he didn't want to be in the building, he didn't have to be.
"I want to be there," Dick told his son.
He would honor the promise.
"Dick really wanted to overcome that," Laurel Bennett said. "'I've gotta fight these demons.' It's so hard for him, it's so sad how hard it is for him."
On Saturday night, Dick, his wife, Anne, and the entire Bennett family were surrounded by maybe 2,000 Virginia fans -- and about 15,000 more clad in Purdue garb at the KFC Yum! Center. They watched an epic. The game will likely be as remembered for Virginia busting through to its first Final Four in 35 years as it will for the historic, 42-point performance by Boilermakers junior Carsen Edwards.
Virginia came back from a 10-point deficit, the win including one of the all-time wild sequences to get us to a bonus session: Kihei Clark getting the deflected rebound on Ty Jerome's only missed foul shot of the game, then threading a pass to Mamadi Diakite, who provided this tournament with its first buzzer-beating shot. The basket was Clark's only assist of the second half and Diakite's only field goal of the second half.
In overtime, Edwards -- the South Regional MOP, who put up his second 42-point game of this tournament and made more 3s (28) in one NCAA Tournament than any player in history -- hit his cool for the first time all night. Virginia separated, but not before Edwards banked in a 3 near the end of the second half that made it a 69-67 Purdue lead.
"He made me rip my play card in half when he hit the shot off the glass," Bennett said of Edwards' 10th 3-pointer. "I just ripped it in half."
There haven't been five better Elite Eight games in the tournament's history. Maybe not even three. Tony was classic Tony: calm, collected, the world on fire around him but you'd never know it. He's reserved with himself. He keeps his emotions in check.
"As he's had to his whole life, as a protective thing," Laurel said. "I've always said, you've watched your dad and I think it was a conscious decision. I think he didn't want to be stressed like that ... to be emotional like that."
When Virginia could have collapsed and been beaten by a Purdue team that put up 3-point numbers that have not been matched by almost any team in tournament history (54 in four games), the Cavaliers instead pushed back and pushed hard. Kyle Guy had a team-high 25 points and a career-high 10 rebounds and ended a shooting slump that tracked him like voodoo. Afterward, Guy could be seen screaming with jubilation into his towel.
Jerome added 24 points. De'Andre Hunter hit critical free throws and made the go-ahead bucket in overtime.
But Edwards. My goodness. You will not find a more impressive performance in a loss. No other Boilermaker had more than seven points. When the NCAA Tournament is this good, it's the best event in sports.
And there was Tony Bennett. The son, the player, now the coach, still steady the whole way. Dick got in a few shots at the officials, but Tony was unruffled amid the din.
"I think he kept his emotions in check because his dad affected him so much as a player, he wanted his dad to push him but it was really hard for him and he was not going to be emotional about it because 'he was a man,'" Laurel said.
Dick doesn't miss coaching. He misses the sound of practices. He doesn't miss the games. They got too hard for him near the end of his career.
"At least I haven't died a thousand deaths," he said. "Isn't that Shakespeare? I took the coward's way out. I'll only have to die once."
He lived like a new life on Saturday. He watched his boy, the one who'd play Nerf basketball with his sister, Kathi, on their knees and toss the ball through the top of the lampshades as children. Dick watched him get to the ultimate stage of his sport. With his mother's poise, his mother's intrigue, his father's heart, his father's fire, Virginia broke through.
"I think Tony relies on my dad and his handprint is all over want Tony has done," Kathi Bennett said. "My dad is incredibly creative."
A Final Four is something universal to every coach but also has distinct significance to every person that achieves it. For Tony, it's a payoff on thousands of hours of his life he's given to watching every drill of every practice from every season. Assistants will catch Bennett on a plane or a bus ride. What's he doing? Watching tape. He is trying to get up to the line. As close to perfection as possible.
Habits from his father.
Tony is level.
Dick was ferocious.
"He's very humble, but he's very wise," Bennett once told me of his father. "He observes, he's a deep thinker. He's struggled with so much, his adversities, he's so honest. He's honest about himself. There's a transparency, genuineness and honesty with my dad."
Tony calls it the "bear coming out of the cave." He adopted his father's fire but also his humility, his willingness to acknowledge when he was wrong. When stepping over the line meant going a mile too far. That's why his players say things like this about him: "And how many times coach Bennett has been a 1 seed or a 2 seed and has had so much regular season success. To be the team that gets him to the Final Four, I think that's what means the most. But he's believed in every single one of us. He has our best interest at heart, on and off the court. And he's a great person. To finally quiet the critics feels great."
That's Ty Jerome. He spoke on behalf of every Virginia player, past and present, who knew this was going to happen eventually.
Three years ago, I sat down in a Chicago Starbuck's with Dick Bennett the morning of Virginia's loss to Syracuse. I asked him then what he'd want to say to his son whenever Virginia made the Final Four.
This was his message to Tony: "I would want to say, first, the dream. I've always wanted this for you. It has nothing to with me. I'm way beyond that. I want it for him and these kids. I know that euphoric feeling. It's very earthly. It's a slice of heaven. I would love to have them experience that. Tony has always been always so very respectful of me, much more than I deserve. He'd be thrilled that I'm thrilled. He thinks that way."
On Saturday night in Louisville, the inevitable became material. The 320th victory of Tony Bennett's career is the biggest, the sweetest, the one that changes -- enhances -- his reputation forever.
The path to get here has been slow, bumpy, demanding, humble -- and faithful. Bennett was never going to fail himself, no matter the outcome of every season.
"I remember 19 years ago, I was sitting in the back of a press conference," Bennett said at his postgame presser Saturday night. "My father took his team to the Final Four. They beat Purdue. I memorized his quote. He said a quote I never forgot. It stuck with me for that long. They asked him: Is this one of the greatest feelings that you've ever had, getting to the Final Four?
"He said this: 'From a feeling state, euphoria, yes, it is. But it doesn't compare with faith, with kids, family, grandkids.' He said, 'Because I know what truly matters, it enables me to enjoy what seems to matter like this.' I've remembered that quote and tried my best to live by it. I want this program to honor what's important to me, my faith and these young men through success and through failure. That's what I've wanted. And he pointed me in the right direction. As a competitor, you go after it and you want to do it. But in the bigger picture, you have to be at peace with both."
The two men embraced in the arena. Bennett to Bennett, 19 years removed from their first Final Four and now on to their next.
Peace and joy and a win for the ages.
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