“Is (Tony) Bennett the college basketball version of Marty Schottenheimer?” That was the question texted me to within moments of the final buzzer ending Virginia’s historic 74-54 loss to Maryland-Baltimore Country. Not only were the Cavs the first #1 seed to ever lose a Round of 64 game (a history that dates back to 1985), but they had been blown out. And it deepened what is already a pattern of behavior for the Virginia program as a whole and Tony Bennett in particular.
As most football fans will remember, Marty Schottenheimer was the outstanding coach of the Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers with another year thrown in under Dan Snyder with the Redskins, over the years of 1984-2006. Marty’s teams consistently overachieved, played smart and intelligent football…and then lost in the playoffs. Marty never made it to a Super Bowl.
The comparisons between Bennett and Schottenheimer are striking. Both coached a philosophy built on defense and control of the pace. Neither had the elite stars of their day—Bennett doesn’t get the one-and-done stars that go to Duke or the great players that go to North Carolina. Marty only had a really great quarterback twice in his career—early on with Bernie Kosar, when he could only be beaten by John Elway. And then Schottenheimer got Joe Montana in Kansas City, but that was late in his career with Montana well past his prime.
Another comparison is this—Bennett and Marty both coached at places that aren’t renowned for coming through in the postseason. The most storied part of Virginia’s basketball history previous to this was the early 1980s when they had Ralph Sampson, the most hyped player in college basketball. UVA made one Final Four, but never won it all and their tournament losses of 1982 and 1983 both fall into the “extreme disappointment” category. The program snuck into a Final Four without Sampson in 1984, but has not been back since. In the same vein, take a look at the places Marty coached—Cleveland, Kansas City and San Diego don’t exactly have sterling reputations for their playoff heroics.
Both Tony Bennett and Marty Schottenheimer earned a #1 seed in the playoffs three different times. Marty in 1986, 1995 and 1997. Bennett got there in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Granted, the top line means something much different in the 12-team NFL format than it does in the 68-team NCAA bracket. But it’s one more little coincidental similarity.
The biggest similarity though is this—Tony Bennett, like Marty before him, is an excellent coach that any program would be fortunate to have. In an odd way, they are victims of their success. Both took teams that should not have been realistically expected to be in the national elite and for the long grind of the regular season made them look better than they actually were.
Take a look at Virginia’s roster. Is there a reason they should have been spent mid-November to mid-March playing at a significantly higher level than Duke or North Carolina? No, there is not. That’s coaching.
It’s not to say there aren’t some losses that are just hideous. You can’t excuse away what happened last night to Virginia anymore than you excuse away Marty’s 1995 Kansas City team blowing a home playoff game to Indianapolis because the head coach insisted on going into the playoffs with a kicker (Lin Elliot) who had been coming undone throughout the month of December. That loss was on Marty and the way Virginia fell apart in the second half last night has to at least be partially put at the feet of Bennett.
But the reality is that all great coaches have those moments. Set aside the seeding for a moment—was Virginia’s loss really worse than Duke losing in the Round of 64 in both 2012 with Austin Rivers and 2014 with Jabari Parker? Or does it only seem that Virginia’s loss is worse because they overachieved so much all year and got a #1 seed?
It has to be apparent right now that I like Tony Bennett, just as I liked Marty Schottenheimer. I like them both a lot. And I’m not afraid to say that I’m worried about Tony Bennett’s future. His program already has no margin for error, having to compete with Duke and North Carolina every year and then an array of ACC teams a notch below. A loss like this one can damage a program’s momentum and I wonder if Bennett will continue to be able to produce teams that are top eight nationally (#1 or #2 seeds) with a legitimate shot at a Final Four.
But I’m pulling for Tony. Postseasons are ruthless in that they expose every team’s flaws. As much as we love the overachiever, the postseasons are a time when it usually becomes apparent that they were playing over their heads. That’s been the case with Virginia. But let’s use that to hold them up as models of consistent effort, empathize with them in defeat, and pull for them to get vindication the next time around.