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Basketball Alumni Relishing Cavaliers' Success

Jason Williford

March 4, 2014

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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Never mind that he coaches for another Division I basketball team in this state. Old Dominion assistant Bryant Stith couldn't contain his joy Saturday night after UVa defeated No. 4 Syracuse 75-56 at John Paul Jones Arena.

"WAHOO NATION STAND UP!!!!!" Stith, Virginia's all-time leading scorer, tweeted to his followers. "Congrats to Coach Bennett, his staff, and players for a job WELL DONE!!!!‪#champs‬."

Stith, whose younger son, B.J., will join Tony Bennett's program this summer, is not the only former UVa player bursting with pride these days.

Basketball alumni who have texted or called the Cavaliers' coaching staff in recent weeks, or posted congratulatory messages on Twitter, include Ralph Sampson, Junior Burrough, Cory Alexander, Norman Nolan, Assane Sene, Roger Mason Jr., Sean Singletary, Travis Watson, J.R. Reynolds, Mustapha Farrakhan, Andrew Kennedy, Sammy Zeglinski, Jontel Evans and Mike Scott.

 

 

The sellout crowd at JPJ for the Syracuse game included Wally Walker -- who in 1976 led the Wahoos to their only ACC tournament title and first NCAA tournament appearance -- as well as Jamal Robinson, Tunji Soroye, Yuri Barnes, Dirk Katstra, Barry Parkhill and Jimmy Miller.

The 7-4 Sampson, who was a three-time national player of the year in the early `80s, attended Virginia's game against Georgia Tech in Atlanta last month. Another former UVa center, Ted Jeffries, is the analyst on radio broadcasts of the Cavaliers' games.

"This is a family, and the outpouring's been incredible," Bennett said Monday afternoon.

"That's huge. One of the significant things, when I took the job, was connecting the past with the present. I hired Jason Williford because he was a great assistant coach and I wanted him, but also because of his ties to the university and what the program meant to him."

The same was true, Bennett said, with Mike Curtis, a former UVa player who's now the school's strength and conditioning coach for basketball.

"It's a special bond you have with the alumni," Bennett said, "and the fact that we have two of their own entwined in our staff is significant."

Curtis and Williford returned to their alma mater in the spring of 2009, not long after Virginia hired Bennett away from Washington State.

Williford was a starting forward on the UVa team that advanced to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight in 1995. He remains close with many of his former teammates, who are thrilled with the team's resurgence under Bennett.

"They're like, `Thanks for getting us back on the map and making us relevant again,' " Williford said Monday morning.

Other former UVa players on Grounds include Katstra and Parkhill. Katstra is executive director of the Virginia Athletics Foundation and a senior associate athletics director. Parkhill, whose No. 40 has been retired in the Cavaliers' program, is associate AD for development.

"I just love this team. I love these coaches," Parkhill said Monday. "It's such an incredible group and the most unselfish team ever. I know that I'm very lucky. I work here and get to know them."

By knocking off the Orange, the `Hoos (25-5, 16-1) clinched the ACC regular-season title outright for only the second time, and the first since 1980-81. An ESPN audience watched Virginia outscore the `Cuse 48-28 in the second half.

"There have been a lot of big games at home," said Parkhill, who in 1972 became first Cavalier to be named ACC basketball player of the year. "I don't think there was ever a game that had this much riding on it. It was far and away the biggest game ever played here in Charlottesville."

The Cavaliers' performance against Syracuse left the college basketball world buzzing, and they moved up seven spots to No. 5 in The Associated Press poll released Monday -- their highest ranking in more than 12 years.

Miller, who played on the UVa team that reached the Final Four in 1984, is CEO and president of the Miller Financial Group in Charlottesville. He's also a regular at JPJ who's close to the coaching staff.

"Having been a part of a team that experienced success, it's really exciting to see these guys playing together as a team and experiencing success," Miller said. "I take great joy in that. I have a ton of respect for Coach Bennett and his staff and the way they've built this program."

In each of Bennett's five seasons at Virginia, his team has won more games than it did the previous year.

"Seeing them lay the foundation to reap the benefits of that this year, it's been really rewarding as someone who loves Virginia and loves Virginia basketball," Miller said.

Bennett's record at Virginia is 101-58, and this is the third straight season his team has won at least 22 games. His fans include the winningest coach in UVa history.

"This particular team is the most unselfish team at both ends of the floor that I have ever seen," Terry Holland said in an email Monday, "and that has to be a reflection of the outstanding coaching staff and the example that only a closely knit staff can provide daily -- `the team comes first.'

"Clearly, the players and coaches have learned to trust each other on and off the floor as well as through the tough times and the good times. The dominating performances during the last ten minutes of games are indicative of how the `trust factor' can win games."

Holland, now the athletics director emeritus at East Carolina University, compiled a 326-173 record in 16 seasons as head coach at UVa, where he later became AD. Under Holland, the `Hoos advanced to the Final Four twice and won the NIT once.

While he was AD at Davidson -- and also doing color commentary for ESPN from 1990 to '95 -- Holland became a fan of Bennett's father, Dick, then coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay.

"My kind of coach, particularly defensively," Holland said.

Dick Bennett's best player was his son, a sharp-shooting point guard, and Holland later followed Tony Bennett's career with the NBA's Charlotte Hornets, not far from Davidson.

The younger Bennett succeeded his father as head coach at Washington State. In three seasons with the Cougars, Tony Bennett posted a 69-33 record, with two trips to the NCAA tournament and one to the NIT.

At Washington State, Holland said, Bennett "proved he had learned his lessons well, and on Saturday he placed a rather large exclamation point beside the A-plus grade he had already earned while leading the Cavs back to ACC and NCAA prominence."

Few have enjoyed the Bennett era more than Parkhill. Until recently, he and Bennett were neighbors, and they've become close friends. He called Dick Bennett after the game Saturday, Parkhill said, and told him "the apple didn't fall far from the tree."

Tony Bennett is "a great coach, great teacher," but even more impressive is "the kind of person he is," Parkhill said. "I'm just so proud to have him as our coach, and what he represents.

"The success certainly is huge, but it's the quality of the people involved and how Tony's gone about it. He's gone about it the right away. There's no quick fixes here. If you come here and coach, you gotta figure out the right guys to recruit, and Tony's done that."

Parkhill was struck Sunday by a photo that ran on the front of the Daily Progress' sports section. In the foreground was Bennett, atop a ladder, holding up the net he had just finishing cutting down. Looking on in the background was Walker, connecting the past and present of UVa hoops.

Bennett hopes to strengthen that bond. After Virginia's Feb. 22 win over Notre Dame at JPJ, he addressed a group of former players in town for the weekend.

"As I told them at the alumni reception," Bennett recalled Monday, "they laid the foundation, and we're building on it."

The `Hoos don't play again until Sunday afternoon, when they close the regular season against Maryland in College Park. Then comes the ACC tournament, in which Virginia will be seeded No. 1, followed by the NCAAs.

As he was in 1995, Williford said, he's so caught up in the Cavaliers' run that he's not able to put it in proper perspective -- or enjoy it fully.

"I can appreciate '95 now because it's so long ago and it's been hard to duplicate," Williford said. "But right now I'm just in the process. We still got work to do."

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Jeff White

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jwhite@virginia.edu

A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.

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