Tony Bennett has the whole package

If you want to know the skinny on a head coach, just chat with some of the players who labored under him.

You’d be surprised how many NBA players I’ve conversed with over the years who told me horror stories about their college coaches, some of them the biggest names in the business.

Of course, there are always exceptions, one being Brad Stevens, the Boston Celtics’ highly respected coach. I’ve talked to several players Stevens coached either at Butler or now with the Celtics and none of them had nary a bad word to say about the man.

I could pass along a bunch of Stevens’ feel-good stories, but here’s one I recently heard from a father whose son played against a Stevens-coached Butler team a few years ago. During the first half of that, the father said his son got injured and, at halftime, Stevens ventured over to the opposition’s locker room and inquired about the injured player before offering him encouragement.

“I couldn’t believe it,’’ the father said. “He (Stevens) didn’t have to do that, but that’s the type of guy he is. We all know he (Stevens) is a great coach, but he’s a great person, too. Coaches like him, people like him, don’t come along every day.’’

No, they don’t. And credit Celtics general manager Danny Ainge for recognizing it. When he tabbed Stevens to be the Celtics coach, it wasn’t universally embraced. In fact, the skeptics had grave concerns Stevens, being such a nice guy, being a college guy, could successfully make the transition to the cutthroat world of professional basketball.

As we have seen, Stevens has done quite nicely. He has firmly established himself as one of the league’s elite coaches.

“He is real; what you see is what you get with him,’’ an NBA executive told me. “He’s not a phony; players can see through guys who are phony. That’s why his players love him and play for him.’’

Some of the same glowing praise I’ve heard about Stevens as a person/coach I’ve been hearing about Tony Bennett. Like Stevens, Bennett has impeccable character and has fashioned an amazing college coaching record, first at Washington State and now at Virginia.

Bennett, who is 48, has a 288-119 record — a 708 winning percentage. He holds the school record for single-season wins at Virginia, where he’s coached for nine seasons, and Washington State., where he had coached for three seasons. Bennett was also the first coach in the rich history of the ACC to win 17 conference games in a single season. And he’s just one of three ACC coaches to ever have back-to-back 30 win seasons.

And, then there’s this remarkable Bennett achievement: He is the only living three-time winner of the Henry Iba Award for national coach of the year. The only other coach to have won the award more times? A gentleman named John Wooden.

A few weeks ago an NBA executive said of Bennett: “Everybody knows he’s an exceptional defensive coach, but he does some really nice things offensively, too. He can flat-out coach.’’

And what do his former players say about Bennett?

I asked three current NBA players – Justin Anderson of the Philadelphia 76ers, Joe Harris of the Brooklyn Nets and reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon of the Milwaukee – for their takes on Bennett, their former coach at Virginia whose name has surfaced as a candidate for some NBA coaching vacancies.

Brogdon, Harris and Anderson were more than willing to talk about Bennett and spoke about him in almost reverential terms.

“Man, I don’t know where to start on coach Bennett,’’ Anderson said. “He’s like a father figure to a lot of us who have played under him. He’s a very humble man. He has instilled stuff into us that well carry on for the rest of our lives. We had our pillars under coach Bennett like serving, unity, thankfulness, passion … And the best thing about it is; it’s not lip service. He lived the message he wanted carried out by us.

“He was a huge role model for me.’’

Harris said he came into contact with Bennett while being a prep star in Washington when Bennett was an assistant coach at Washington State. Harris said he determined to move across the country to Virginia simply because of Bennett.

“He’s one of these guys I’ve really looked up to and is someone I still seek out a lot for advice for anything significant that happens in my life,’’ Harris said. “Coach Bennett is definitely one of the first guys I call.

“As good of a coach he is – and he’s an incredible coach – he’s an even better guy, someone you want to have in your life.’’

Harris, Anderson and Brogdon all agree Bennett can excel as an NBA coach. They rave about his defensive principles and team-oriented approach. They also insist Bennett would alter his offensive philosophy, going from a methodical, slow-down game at Virginia to the high-paced, almost frenetic pace of the NBA.

“I think he’s a really smart coach,’’ Harris said. “He played in the NBA, too (three seasons for the Charlotte Hornets as a point guard). He’d figure out a style that works for this level.

“He does what he does at Virginia because it works for him. He’s had a lot of success with that. I think if he was coaching in the NBA, he would certainly have a different style and it would work.’’

Added Brogdon: “I know he can make the transition. He’s a great coach, he can coach at any level. Whether it’s Xs and Os, leadership, whatever, he has it all.

“Just like great players can play in any era, I think great coaches can coach at any level.’’

But would Bennett, who has almost the perfect job now at Virginia, where he is treated like royalty by Cavaliers fans, make such a major move to the NBA, where there is little security and little loyalty?

Brogdon, Anderson and Harris believe he would.

I know he can coach in the NBA,’’ Anderson said of Bennett, who played collegiately at UW-Green Bay for his father, Dick, and where he compiled a lights-out career 3-point field goal percent of 49.7, still an NCAA record. “He’s waiting for his calling, waiting for the right time, He’s a big guy in his faith. He wants to make sure it’s the right time.

“I’ve talked to him a lot about it. I kind of wish he does it, sooner rather than later.  But what he is doing at the program is impacting guys for the rest of their life, so in a way you want to keep him there because he’s representing our university so well.’’

Harris said he could envision Bennett leaving Virginia, but not for selfish reasons. Harris firmly believes Bennett would move on to the NBA only with the blessings of his inner circle, principally his wife Laurel, daughter Anna and son Eli.

“I know he’s had aspirations of coaching in the NBA and having a new challenge,’’ Harris said. “But I also feel he’s pretty content where he’s at. He’s built up an unbelievable program at Virginia. Plus, he’s got his kids who are still in school. Coach Bennett is a big family guy and they all enjoy living in Charlottesville.

“So he’s not making decisions necessarily for himself. It would be because of his family and those closest to him and whether they were encouraging him to make a move.’’

And if Bennett decided to make the move to the NBA, how would NBA players react to him?

“He’s the type of guy that they would respect him so much as a person, that they’d just love being around him and playing or him,’’ Harris said. “He obviously knows a lot about the game; he’s a great coach. But just the way he conducts himself, the way he handles himself and NBA players would respect  him a lot.’’

Asked if he would like to play for Bennett again, Harris broke out into a broad smile and said, “That would be awesome. Just awesome. T.B. is the best.’’

— Photo courtesy of the University of Virginia

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