It’s no secret that Illinois head coach John Groce is on the hot seat. The Illini dropped another home game last weekend to Penn State, which has the fan base growing very impatient with Groce’s failure to produce wins. Many are calling for AD Josh Whitman to find a replacement for the fifth-year head coach. Despite their recent struggles, Illinois has a rich basketball history and could potentially be the most attractive job available this offseason, given nothing shocking happens at a place like Indiana.
So who are some candidates to replace the head honcho in Champaign? As a part of our coaching profile series, today we examine current Virginia coach Tony Bennett.
Tony played under his father Dick Bennett at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay following an impressive high school career. Bennett was the starting point guard for the Phoenix and led them to an NCAA tournament berth and two NIT appearances during his four years there. He was also named the conference’s player of the year twice. Bennett was selected in the first round of the 1992 NBA Draft by the Hornets, where he spent three seasons before injuring his foot. Bennett’s injury unfortunately spelled the end to his short NBA career. He continued to play professionally after healing for teams in New Zealand and Australia, but following the 1999 European season Bennett announced his retirement from playing.
Turning his eye towards the coach’s seat, Bennett was hired on to Bo Ryan’s staff at Wisconsin. He spent three seasons as an assistant for the Badgers before accepting a similar position at Washington State. From there Bennett quickly shot up the coaching ladder and was named the Cougars’ head coach in 2006. Bennett led WSU to three NCAA tournament appearances in as many years, including a Sweet 16 run in 2008. After that season Bennett was reportedly offered the head coaching position at both Indiana and LSU, but turned down those offers.
In 2009 Bennett accepted the head coaching position at Virginia. The Cavaliers managed to increase their win total for six straight years as Bennett began to bring the program back to national acclaim. After inheriting a terrible 10-18 team, Bennett’s Cavs won 15, 16, 22, 23, 30 and then 31 games in his first six seasons at the helm of the program. He also became the first ACC coach to win 16 conference games in a single season (2014) in over two decades. In 2015 Virginia made an impressive Elite Eight run, and the team is looking to have similar postseason success this year. As well as his collegiate coaching jobs, Bennett accepted a coaching staff position on the 2013 USA men’s national team.
Bennett has strong Big Ten ties despite not having any direct history to the Illini. Bennett was born and raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and his first coaching gig was under Bo Ryan and the Badgers in the early 2000’s. As one of Wisconsin’s top recruiters on the staff, Bennett knew his way around the midwest and has visited Champaign as an opposing coach several times. He’s been in Chicago gyms dating back to his high school days, meaning his reputation in the area is about as respected and lengthy as it could be. Bennett’s prior Big Ten and midwest experience is just another reason why he would be a great fit at Illinois.
1. Proven winner
Sometimes I feel like this point is taken for granted. A lot of fans assume that any candidate on a new coaching list has already brought multiple programs to success. That’s not always the case, which is why Bennett is a great option for the Illini if he’s willing to listen. In his first year as a head coach, he led Washington State to the most wins in program history. Then he repeated that 26-win campaign the following season. That’s an amazing feat for a brand new coach just breaking into the business. Then he moved to Virginia and took over a team coming off of a horrible 10-18 season, and in five years he improved their win total by sixteen games and got them into the Elite Eight. The dude is a proven winner wherever he goes.
2. Great in-game strategist
Bennett’s Virginia squad is well known for their pack line defense, which dates back to his dad’s coaching days. The Cavaliers currently rank fourth in the country in defensive efficiency according to KenPom. But UVA also ranks in the top ten in offensive efficiency, making Bennett one of the most talented and balanced coaches in the country. He’s also known for his motion offense, another strategy originally devised by Dick Bennett. His teams have finished in the top ten in the country in both defensive and offensive efficiency in five of the last six years. That’s remarkable, especially considering he hasn’t even built top 30 recruiting classes. There’s no question that Tony has one of the best systems and in-game strategies in college basketball, which is a far cry from where John Groce currently stands.
3. Player ties/development
Bennett, with zero McDonald’s All-Americans, has somehow managed to consistently beat the Duke’s and Louisville’s of the ACC. Six of his players at Washington State and Virginia have been drafted and had successful NBA playing careers, including current Warriors guard Klay Thompson and Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon. He has a great history with developing players into NBA draft picks, which is a fantastic talking point when he’s on the recruiting trail. ACC coaches were anonymously asked about other conference coaches, and this is what someone had to say about Bennett:
Tony Bennett seems like he has a great rapport with his players. He gets the bigger picture, that it's more than just basketball. His players develop at a high level and become pros, and that’s not something to take lightly. Fantastic player development guy.
Bennett was also fortunate enough to work on the coaching staff of the USA men’s Under-19 national team, another case where he was able to develop good relationships with young players and prospects.
1. He’s settled at Virginia
Bennett has turned UVA into a powerhouse ACC program and there’s really no reason why he would leave the Cavaliers. In the last three seasons he’s led the team to two ACC titles. Consider the fact that Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Notre Dame all made deep NCAA tournament runs during this time as well. Bennett has built something amazing in Charlottesville and from afar it wouldn’t make much sense for him to make a lateral, if not downward move, to Illinois. Let’s remember he was supposedly offered the Wisconsin job when Bo Ryan retired, but he turned that offer down. If his hometown Badgers couldn’t sway him away, it seems unlikely to believe that the Illini could.
2. Mediocre recruiting classes
This is the only other negative aspect of Bennett’s teams. In his last five years at the helm of the Virginia program, Bennett has compiled one top 40 recruiting class. Despite his teams’ success he hasn’t lured any high school All-Americans to the Cavaliers either. This actually further speaks to Bennett’s ability to develop somewhat-unknown and underrated players, but it would still be nice to see him reel in some top 25 classes now that he’s got Virginia in national contention every year.
I honestly can’t think of a third con. This might be my favorite candidate on our list, except for maybe Cuonzo Martin. Bennett would be an amazing hire.
To get more information on Bennett’s chances of being lured away from Virginia, we asked Streaking the Lawn contributor Brian Haluska for his take.
Virginia fans have always had a nagging fear that a Big 10 school may swoop in and lure Tony Bennett away, but that school was Wisconsin. Bennett played his college ball at Green Bay, his dad coached in Madison, and we all wondered if there was any pull for him to go home again should the opportunity arise. It did, and he stayed. He's universally adored in Charlottesville. If you think about it, Bennett's about to be sitting even prettier than he is now, with the looming coaching transitions at conference foes Syracuse, Louisville, North Carolina and Duke. Add in that he built a national power without any All-Americans and is only just now beginning to land Top 50 recruits regularly...the future's so bright we need welding masks. Go ahead and scratch him off your list with ink. He's not your next coach.
I think this would be an absolute home-run hire. Bennett is a proven winner, has deep recruiting and player ties and is also a great X’s and O’s coach. The problem is getting him to listen. The Illini would have to pool all their financial resources to even get Bennett to pick up the phone, as Brian mentioned above. The chances are slim that he would listen or accept an offer from Illinois, but his current salary of $2.1 million seems a little low for one of the top coaches in the country. The odds are very slim but maybe Whitman would be able to offer him enough money that it would be hard for him to say no. If that’s the case, I would give Whitman a standing ovation from my living room couch.
Have thoughts on the chances of Tony Bennett becoming the next head coach at Illinois? Drop by in the comments section below and let us know what you think!