Family: The Story of the Bennett Family Coaching Tree
Buried in the foundation in the practice facility adjacent to the Kohl Center at the University of Wisconsin is a laminated card delineating the cornerstones not only of the Badgers men’s basketball program but also one of the nation’s most successful coaching families. Contained on that card were what has become known as the “five pillars,” a set of principles formulated by Dick Bennett, the patriarch of a family whose coaching legacy included two national championships — one each for daughter Kathi and son Tony.
Those pillars — humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness — were drawn from Dick Bennett’s deep religious faith and translated to apply to basketball. As the foundation was being laid for the Nicholas-Johnson Pavilion, Bennett gathered his Wisconsin players around and placed the card under the center court circle. “This program, as long as I’m here, will be built on these foundational points,” he told his players. A couple of years later, many of those players would be on the team that made an improbable run to the NCAA Final Four, the first for the program since its only national championship in 1941.
While the Bennett basketball formula evolved over the years, the basics have remained much the same with an emphasis on teamwork, tenacious defense, and disciplined offense. The payoff has been a combined 1,188 victories over 64 seasons with a .627 winning percentage. This comes despite a penchant for the family to take on tough rebuilding projects that promised rough early seasons.
Dick Bennett, who coached 11 seasons at five Wisconsin high schools before accumulating 489 victories at four universities, insists that his children proved to be better coaches than him. But Kathi, who earned 353 wins at five schools, won’t hear of such talk.
“My dad is so creative,” said Kathi, now a Midwest sales rep for Eastbay. “He tinkers a lot, and he’s come up with a way to play that has been successful everywhere. All I did was steal it. And Tony has tinkered with his own, but my dad is the author. We always said it’s like a family business. Where we have knowledge that’s there, it’s like a library, and you get to go to it.”
Dick Bennett was a three-sport star both at Clintonville High School and at Ripon College. By the time he was in high school, he already knew he wanted to be a coach.
And while basketball was not his best sport – he maintains he was better at football, where he was a halfback, and baseball, where he played third base – he was drawn to basketball as his coaching destiny.
“Basketball is one sport that allows the whole to always be greater than the sum of its parts if approached properly,” he said. “I felt like it was the most team-oriented, and I perhaps could find ways where we could enhance the potential of the guys.”
His first coaching job was with the freshman team at West Bend High School in 1965, beginning an odyssey of Wisconsin high schools that would take him to Mineral Point, Marion, New London, and Eau Claire Memorial. “Quite frankly, I never desired to go beyond the high school level,” he said.
Although he never applied for a job in his career, his success at each stop kept leading to new opportunities. The first college job was at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP), then a struggling NAIA program. After a bumpy first season in 1976-77, the Pointers showed steady improvement, and in his sixth year on the job, began a run of four consecutive Wisconsin State University Conference championships.
He led Stevens Point to the NAIA national championship game in 1984, losing a heartbreaking overtime contest 48-46 to Fort Hays State.
His turnaround experience at UWSP would be played out two more times over the next 15 years at the NCAA Division I level, first at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and then at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At Green Bay he took on the challenge of rebuilding a once-proud Division II program that had struggled after making the jump to Division I. After some initial struggles, the team steadily improved each season, finishing either first or second in the conference in five of Bennett’s last six seasons at the helm.
Green Bay made its first three NCAA tournament appearances in those years and famously pulled off an upset over California, led by future Hall of Fame guard Jason Kidd, in the first round of the 1994 tournament.
It was somewhere around the middle of his Green Bay years that Dick Bennett put together the four principles that would become known as the pillars. The list was the product of his desire to meld his basketball beliefs with his Christian beliefs, drawing concepts from the latter that applied to the former.
“That is probably the central piece of my desire to stay in coaching,” said Bennett, who was inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007. “Because of my faith, I never wanted to be one who went to church on Sunday, and then the rest of the week never even thought about my faith.
“In studying the life of Christ and becoming aware of what he taught and what he modeled, he was humble in every way you could imagine. He was passionate to the death. He took 12 guys who were pretty average and unified them and changed the course of history. And he built it around servanthood. He said you desire to be great, you serve.
“And it relates well to what you do in basketball. We played with great passion on defense. We played together. Our unity is what made us stronger as a whole. We ran a system that was based on servanthood — a lot of help defensively, a lot of screens to get shooters open, make the extra pass, all the things that make team basketball special.
“That’s all stuff I learned as I took on these rebuilding jobs. When you have great players, you can ignore all that stuff.”
Of course, rebuilding programs aren’t likely to attract many great players. So Bennett said the key is to bring in slightly above average players who will fully embrace the team concept and develop the mental and physical toughness to persevere during the tough times.
“When you accept a position, you know the first year or two are probably going to be quite difficult, so character ranks incredibly high as one of the major attributes you look for,” he said. “Because you’re going to lose and you’re going to get criticized, so you want people who are going to stay the course. That was so much a cornerstone of rebuilding, get kids who will work through the difficulties, and by the time they’re juniors they can do something.
“You can’t take bad players and make them good players. You have to take good players and help them to get better and really unify with other good players with great attitudes. And then you’re in business. That was my take on rebuilding Wisconsin.”
While he had built a national reputation as he put Green Bay on the basketball map, coaching the Badgers had always been a dream for Bennett, who had been passed up for the Wisconsin job a couple times previously. After some initial reluctance to leave his Green Bay team, Bennett couldn’t pass up the opportunity when it came his way.
Five years later, he led the Badgers to the Final Four. And that team was a quintessential Bennett squad composed of blue-collar players like Mike Kelley, Andy Kowske, Maurice Linton, Mark Vershaw, Charlie Wills, Roy Boone, and Jon Bryant.
“Those guys were rock solid as people, and they were good players,” Bennett said. “When they came together, it was pretty special.”
Many of Kathi Bennett’s earliest memories revolve around basketball. Whether her dad, Dick Bennett, was coaching at New London or Eau Claire Memorial, Kathi would tag along to practice whenever she could, dribbling a ball on the sideline. During games at Memorial, she would run around in the balcony with her friends, playing her own game.
As she grew, so did her passion for the game. As a teenager in Stevens Point, she would drag Tony, 6 ½ years her junior, over to Berg Gym on the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) campus before dawn for intense workouts.
“The minute he could rebound, I used him,” Kathi said. “I was very driven and when we did workouts, we did workouts. I made him rebound, and if he passed it to me and he missed my hands, I got mad.”
Tony remembers that all too clearly, in great detail.
“Imagine this,” Tony said, “I’m a fourth or fifth or sixth grader and she’s getting me out of bed at five in the morning. I would rebound for her and we’d do these shooting workouts. She’d shoot 25 reps and I’d get like five to 10 shots – it was so skewed. If I didn’t throw her a perfect pass or zip a pass right where her hands were, she’d be like, ‘Throw me a better pass.’ She’d chew me out and here she’s dragging this 12-year-old kid or whatever to work out.”
While he might not have always appreciated it at the time, she also left a lasting impression that would shape his own work ethic a few years later.
“I remember her intensity and watching her work until she’d almost get lightheaded,” he said. “I’d watch that and say, ‘OK, this is how it’s supposed to be.’ A lot of guys would ask how did I get good? I’d say, ‘playing with my sister and her friends.’ I think it was a big advantage.”
Training and playing with a level of intensity rarely seen in female athletes at the time, Kathi emerged as one of the top point guards in the nation. She led Stevens Point Area Senior High to the state championship her junior year, earning first-team all-state honors and attracting attention from some of the top college programs in the nation. Her dad remembers talking with then-Texas coach Jody Conradt, who told him that Kathi was one of the top five point guards in the country.
But in the fall of her senior year she suffered a major knee injury while playing volleyball, an injury that sidelined her for two years and quashed her big-time college prospects. She played a season at UWSP, then went to University of Wisconisin-Green Bay, where she suffered a second knee injury that ended her playing days.
“It’s a shame about Kathi, that she never got to showcase her talent at the college level because of her injuries,” Dick said. “I’ve always felt so bad. She was ahead of the game in so many ways – her ballhandling and shooting and her leadership. She influenced Tony probably more than I did with her work ethic.”
Kathi Bennett, who has had two knee replacements, still laments the premature end to her playing career.
“I had such a love and passion for the game of basketball as a player,” she said. “Competing as a player is No. 1, coaching is No. 2. But there’s nothing like playing.”
After graduating from Green Bay, she had no intention of following in her dad’s coaching footsteps.
“I said I was never going to coach,” she recalled. “I was so mad at the game. I did everything in my power not to coach. I went in debt $50,000 because I took jobs I didn’t like and then I went to grad school and I was pretty close to getting my master’s of social work. I was working a couple jobs, I had no money, I was donating plasma to get gas money.”
And then a friend pointed out that Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin, was looking for an assistant coach midway through its season. Kathi applied and got the job. After being given the chance to run an optional weekend practice, she was hooked.
“I didn’t know if anyone would show up,” she said. “But everybody showed up and I ran my first practice at Carroll College and that was it. I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is so much fun. I want to do this.’”
She got her first head coaching job the next year at the now-defunct Marycrest College. After one season, she moved on to University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where she would enjoy a remarkable run with five conference championships in seven seasons. In 1995, she led the Titans to the NCAA Division III championship game, where they lost 59-55 to Capital University.
The next season, the Titans put together a perfect season, going 31-0 and winning the national title with a 66-50 rout of Mount Union.
“That was special,” she said. “I could’ve seen myself finishing out my career at Oshkosh, no question. I went back and forth. I just think that challenge kept calling and knocking on the door, and I just wanted to test myself at that next level.”
That opportunity came at the University of Evansville in Indiana, a woeful program that had gone 9-70 in its previous three seasons. After a couple of rough rebuilding seasons with a total of just nine wins, she led the Aces to the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title in 1999, earning a berth in the NCAA tournament. The following season Evansville would compile a 23-7 record and play in the WNIT.
“I learned that I really loved the game at Evansville,” Kathi said. “When you don’t win games but still look forward to practice and seeing those players that are still all in on your vision, that’s when I realized how much I love the game. Evansville taught me that.”
While she could have remained at Evansville and tried to build it into a mid-major power, in true Bennett tradition, she couldn’t pass up another challenge, and moved up to the Big Ten with Indiana.
“When I look back at that Evansville group and who we had coming back and how good we were, in hindsight, I wonder what could’ve been,” she said. “But you never know. And again, it’s that challenge of wanting to compete and go up against the best and see where you stack up. I think that challenge, that allure, won out.”
Her Indiana career got off to a strong start as she led the Hoosiers to a 20-11 record, doubling their win total of the previous season. Her second season, however, was marred by a near-fatal auto accident that left her with a broken neck. Still, she returned, wearing a halo brace, and led the Hoosiers to the Big Ten tournament title and an NCAA tournament berth.
But the injury had a lingering effect, and after three more seasons, Kathi decided to step away from coaching. “I physically came back too soon,” she said. “I was exhausted. I wasn’t myself. That led me to walk away and do something else.”
After working in sales for two years, the basketball bug bit and she returned to coaching as an assistant to Lisa Stone at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was put in charge of the defense and installed her dad’s famed pack line defense. She also introduced the five pillars, with some tweaks from Stone.
“I think servanthood and humility were pretty special for that group,” Kathi said. “To touch greatness, it’s hard to do it alone and if you can get a group that buys into having one goal, that’s all that matters in the end.”
In her second season with the program, the Badgers were able to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years, compiling a 21-11 record, and tying for third place in the Big Ten.
That success led to one last head coaching opportunity at Northern Illinois, where she spent five years before stepping down following the 2014-15 season.
Not only did she impact her sport, she also set an example for her younger brother.
“She’s a unique person,” Tony said. “As a coach, she was ahead of her time. She coached hard and intense. That’s hard in today’s game and even back then, whether male or female. I think she left a pretty big mark and I’m proud of her for that. She impacted me as a player and as a coach – I admire how she handled great success and how she handled some of the hard things.”
While she’s left basketball behind, she believes the principles embodied in the pillars apply to her current career.
“Without a doubt,” she said. “We’re called to live a serving life and that’s my goal as a sales rep for Eastbay – to serve my customers to the best of my ability and have that energy about it. And staying humble with everything too. You’re doing it for a reason and they’re the reason. I think it definitely translates beyond basketball.”
Like his big sister Kathi, Tony Bennett had no intention of making a career of coaching basketball.
Tony, the youngest of Dick and Anne Bennett’s three children, enjoyed a brilliant career as a player.
After an outstanding prep career at Green Bay Preble, he passed up the chance to play for a major college program to play for his dad. While he admits the notion of playing for North Carolina or Duke had some appeal, in the end, family ties proved a stronger motivation.
“I knew my dad thought I could touch greatness,” Tony said. “I knew he saw that in me. And, maybe even more importantly, I knew I could trust him.”
“My dream was to go pro, like most guys, and I wanted desperately to see if we could take my dad’s team at Green Bay into the tournament and build something there.”
They did just that as Tony, as a junior, helped the Phoenix get its first-ever tournament bid in 1991.
Tony finished his career as the Mid-Continent all-time leader in scoring (2,285) and assists (601), earning conference Player of the Year honors twice and finishing as the career leader in 3-point shooting accuracy (49.7 percent). He started for the U.S. team in the 1991 Pan American Games and received the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award as the nation’s top player under six feet tall.
A second-round draft pick of the Charlotte Hornets, he spent three seasons in the league before persistent foot issues ended his career. He did play briefly in Australia and New Zealand, where he made his coaching debut with the North Harbour Kings in 1998.
The next year, the call of family brought him home, as he became a volunteer manager – likely the most accomplished manager of all time – with his dad’s University of Wisconsin – Madison team.
“I thought my dad was getting close to retiring and I wanted to be with him his last few years,” Tony said. “I just wanted to be by his side. Those are the experiences that are too precious to pass up. That was the year they went on that magical run to the Final Four and that’s when the bug bit me.”
That proved to be prophetic as Dick Bennett suddenly retired three games into the 2000-01 season. Tony stayed on as an assistant coach under interim coach Brad Soderberg. He continued as an assistant for the next two seasons under Bo Ryan.
Then his career took an unexpected turn when his dad decided to come out of retirement to take on one more coaching job at Washington State, with Tony coming along as an assistant with the expectation that he would take over the program a few years later.
“He surprised all of us when he wanted to come out of retirement,” Tony said. “He wanted to finish things right and I think he knew he could give me an opportunity at a difficult job but a high major job in the Pac-10.”
As with each rebuilding project, success came slowly in Pullman, Washington. The Cougars went 36-49 in the first three years of the Bennett regime before Dick turned the program over to Tony. But the efforts of those years paid off as the Cougars went 26-8, finished second in the Pac 10, and made their first NCAA tournament appearance in 13 years in 2007, as Tony swept nearly all the national coach of the year honors. They won 26 games again the next season and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16.
Suddenly, Tony Bennett was one of the hottest names in coaching, and after one more season with Washington State University (WSU), he followed family tradition by taking on an even greater challenge by accepting a job at Virginia.
“When I got here, I wanted the chance to compete in the ACC against North Carolina and Duke and these storied programs and these great coaches,” he said. “Virginia had Ralph Sampson and a few strong years, but they were not in a good place when I arrived.”
But Virginia would be good soon, if not immediately. Tony compiled a 30-30 record through his first two seasons. However, over the past seven seasons, Virginia have a 201-43 (.861) record, won or shared four ACC titles, and accumulated 104 conference wins – 12 more than Duke and 19 more than North Carolina over that same span.
The program seemed to reach a new peak in 2017-18, winning the ACC regular-season title with a 17-1 mark and then winning the conference tournament to earn the No. 1 overall seed to the NCAA tournament with a 31-2 record.
But then University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) happened. Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed and it wasn’t even close at 74-54. It was a shocking, traumatic, and humbling loss, one that seemingly erased all of that season’s accomplishments.
For Tony Bennett, it was a devastating, yet ultimately enlightening experience.
“It took me a little bit, but it made me step back and say ‘okay, what is it all about?’” Tony said. “Obviously, you’re humbled, you’re ridiculed. People hate on your style. Everybody’s coming at you. But, it did a couple things for me. I went back to the pillars in a way, but it made me want to to win a national championship. It stoked a fire in me to try to coach better, learn more, make adjustments – keep the core of what we do because it’s so successful. One historic loss put me on a pursuit to be as great as I can for my players, be a better coach, have our team be better, figure out all those things.
“It kind of made me step back and say, you know what, if I never get to a Final Four as a coach, if I get fired someday because I can’t do it, I’m still going to be okay. It drew me closer to my faith, which is by far the most important thing in my life. It made me value the relationship I had with my wife and kids, my family, and my friends.”
As fate would have it, Virginia, despite being heckled about the UMBC loss everywhere they went, had another tremendous season in 2018-19. They went 35-3, shared the ACC title, and earned another No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney.
Then began one of the most astounding tournament runs in history, beginning with a first-round scare in which they fell behind No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb by 14 points in the first half before rallying for a 15-point victory. Then came wins over Oklahoma and Oregon to move to an Elite Eight matchup against Purdue – the same program Dick Bennett’s Badgers played to get to the 2000 Final Four.
A miracle play in the final seconds of regulation led to an overtime win, leading to an equally dramatic finish in a 63-62 victory over Auburn to advance to the championship game against Texas Tech. Again, it went down to the final seconds of regulation before the Cavaliers tied it to set up another overtime victory for the program’s first national title.
Tony traces the roots of that title to the loss against UMBC.
“I don’t believe we would’ve won a national championship as a program had our players and our staff not experienced that humbling loss,” he said. “I think it made the story even sweeter.”
Dick Bennett, who famously struggles to watch Tony’s games, was on hand for that championship contest and can’t imagine anything that could top it.
“I would have to say that, of all the sporting experiences I’ve had or seen or been a part of, that was the greatest one,” he said. “To see someone I love so much go through that and have that experience and that success, I haven’t seen anything in my athletic experience that was like that. That includes my own Final Four, as much as I loved that. This topped that experience.”
That championship also brought more attention to the pillars, which have been embraced by several other programs over the years. Former Butler coach Barry Collier adopted the pillars and rebranded them as “The Butler Way.” One of his successors, Brad Stevens, took those principles with him when he became the coach of Boston.
They’ve also found a growing appreciation beyond the world of athletics.
“I think everyone needs something they can go to as they’re going through hard times,” Tony Bennett said. “How can I look through the lens of these principles to be the best we can be? It’s a tremendous compass for life, for me as a coach, as a recruiter, and as a husband and father.”
“The wonderful thing about the pillars, they are important for a quality player and a quality team, but they transcend the sport of basketball. Now that I do things where I speak to businessmen, CEO’s, lawyers, they can’t get enough of those leadership principles. You talk about humility and thankfulness, and these pillars are so good.”