Dick Bennett’s fingerprints will be all over this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The former longtime coach has ties to three of the four coaches in Minneapolis this week, one by blood.
Bennett’s son, Tony, coaches Virginia. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl used to coach against Bennett while at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Even bought one of Bennett’s videotapes on defense. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo used to work Bennett’s camps.
In a Final Four where stingy defenses rule, it’s fitting Dick Bennett has such a strong connection.
“His influence on the game, maybe a lot of people don’t know about it, but in the coaching circles has been huge,” Tony Bennett said Monday. “My dad, he’s an open book, as they say. He’s so honest. He just wants to help the game because the game’s been so good to him.”
Dick Bennett’s coaching career spanned five decades, from his days as a freshman coach at West Bend High School in Wisconsin to leading the Wisconsin Badgers to the 2000 Final Four.
Bennett’s calling card was his “pack line” defense, which his son has utilized and enhanced to turn Virginia into one of college basketball’s stingiest teams.
Relying on his dad’s defense and an improved offense, Virginia bounced back from last year’s historic loss to No. 16 seed UMBC to reach the program’s first Final Four since 1984 this year.
Now that Bennett has finally made it to the Final Four as a head coach — he was a student manager for the 2000 Wisconsin team — he will again turn to his dad for advice, along with former Badgers coach Bo Ryan.
“I’ve listened to people and when I’ve either read some things or heard things coaches said, it seems like it’s the balance of, you do have to enjoy it, but you do have to remain focused and prepare well because you can get pulled in by so many different obligations,” Bennett said.
Bennett is not alone in feeling his way through the Final Four.
Outside of Izzo, who’s making his eighth appearance, none of the other coaches have led teams to this stage.
The three new coaches have been to the NCAA Tournament in previous years, so they know what to expect from that standpoint.
But at the Final Four, everything ratchets up: demands on time, the pressure, the stage, the attention, little things that become big like demand for tickets.
Pearl has a simple plan for dealing with the whirlwind: change nothing.
“My approach is going to try to be to just do what we do, keep it the same,” he said. “I just think the routine that we try to keep, the pace we try to keep from when we practice, the media, the hotels — you know, you’re busy, and the kids are busy. You just kind of grind like you do all season long.”
Texas Tech’s Chris Beard plans to follow the example set by the coach he’ll face Saturday night: Izzo.
Through his days as a young assistant or small-school coach, Beard always admired the way Izzo handled himself and ran his program. Beard would go watch Izzo’s teams at their open practices whenever the Spartans were in the Final Four and patterned his program after Michigan State’s toughness under the man he calls an idol.
Beard chatted with Izzo once at an AAU tournament — “I’m sure he doesn’t remember” — and was impressed by how amiable he was to a coach he had never met before. So when Beard saw he would be facing Izzo’s Spartans, he picked up the phone Monday morning.
“Today talking to him on the phone was just really cool,” Beard said. “People talk about Final Four moments, and I’m sure there will be a bunch this weekend, but it’s pretty cool having a chance to talk to Coach Izzo. We have so much respect for his program.”
Izzo’s previous Final Four experience should certainly help him in the buildup to Saturday’s game against Beard and the Red Raiders. He recalled the first year at the Final Four, in 1999, he was still dealing with tickets just before tip-off and has learned through the years what to do and what not to do.
Izzo hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2015, but he knows the ins and outs of navigating what will be an unfamiliar world for the other three coaches.
“Experience helps some, but I think the excitement of it, everybody handles it differently. I have experience, but I don’t get to play the game,” Izzo said. “I hope the experience helps me on the auxiliary things and yet once the ball is thrown up, I don’t think it helps you as much as I’d like to think it would.”