After head coach Tony Bennett took the Virginia Cavaliers to lofty heights for the first time in multiple decades, the university rewarded him handsomely with a new contract extension designed to keep Bennett in Charlottesville until 2021.
The deal comes as Bennett was suddenly a hot property in the coaching circles, having led the Cavaliers to 30 wins in 2013-14, the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, and a berth in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament as the top seed in the East Region.
Virginia hadn’t been that far in the Big Dance in nearly 20 years, and the 30 wins harkened Virginia fans back to the Ralph Sampson era in the early 1980s. Back then, the Cavaliers were one of a select handful of schools always in the national basketball conversation. Those days were but a foggy memory when Bennett came to Charlottesville five years ago, as the program fell to a miserable 10-18 the year before he arrived, just 4-12 in the ACC.
It took a while for the players to adjust to Bennett’s Pack Line Defense and deliberate offense and some transfers along the way made fans wonder if Bennett really was the right man for the job. All that was answered this past season, when the Cavaliers went 16-2 in the ACC, won 13 straight games at one point, and swept through Florida State, Pittsburgh and Duke to win its first ACC Tournament since 1976. The ghosts of Wally Walker‘s ’76 team can finally be put aside, but Bennett’s job is far from done. Now with enhanced job security, a bit more money, and the full backing of the university, Bennett must continue the surge forward.
Virginia is no longer paying for mediocrity with hopes of a brighter future. It took some time to turn the ship around, and it wouldn’t be wise to expect 30 wins every season. But the school’s long-term commitment to Bennett signals how high expectations will now be in Charlottesville. Bennett has proven that his system can work both on in one of the best conferences in the country and on a national stage. Higher profile games are soon to follow, with even greater TV exposure, and that should yield a higher level of recruiting, plus the allure as a preferred destination when talented players decide to transfer out of other programs.
At a school where football has historically underachieved (2-10 in 2013 and winless in the ACC for the first time since 1981), Bennett is now tasked with taking Virginia’s most visible team and keeping it a winner — a goal perhaps much more difficult than making it a winner to start with. Bennett now can’t afford to have experts look back in five years and view the 30 wins in 2013-14 as a blip or an anomaly in an otherwise pedestrian program. The Cavaliers are back to a point now where they can be a regular part of the national conversation again, even if that means 15-20 teams in the modern era, compared to five or 10 back in the Sampson days.
Bennett guided Virginia over a steep step this season and was rewarded for it. Now is not the time to simply enjoy the view. Now is the time to look for the next challenge in continuing UVA’s basketball rebirth.