A ‘Penney’ for Tony’s thoughts: Inside the mind of UVA’s head coach

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WFXR) — This past year marked Tony Bennett’s 11th season with the Virginia Cavaliers. This era of UVA basketball has seen the highs of winning a national title, the lows of losing in the NCAA first round to a No. 16 seed and, more recently, the absence of any postseason play because of a pandemic.

But one man saw the potential of Tony Bennett long before either of them ever stepped foot in Charlottesville.

“I think my relationship with Tony goes back quite a long way,” longtime friend and UVA Director of Player Development Kirk Penney said. “I’ve always leaned on him for advice and encouragement and mentorship and brotherhood and things like that and he’s just calling me and asking me questions.”

While Penney only has a year under his belt on Bennett’s coaching staff, their relationship dates back to the 90s when Penney played for Bennett in New Zealand before the two reunited at Wisconsin in 2000.

“Certainly I think at a young age he was very capable and had it in his blood and it was a natural fit for him,” Penney said. “And I think his resume spoke volumes. Obviously, he was able to deliver good messages as a head coach in his 20s.”

Penney became the first New Zealand-native to play in a Final Four when the Badgers made their run during his freshman season under the direction of Tony’s dad, Dick Bennett. After the elder Bennett left Madison, Tony stayed on the Wisconsin staff throughout Penney’s collegiate career.

“Coming to Wisconsin and seeing him in the assistant role, I probably saw him as someone who could do so much more than he was already doing,” Penney said.

From the beginning, Penney recognized the competitive side of Tony Bennett, who is constantly looking for ways to win.

“Not all coaches have been good basketball players, Tony is one of the ones who has been. And has been successful. And I think his competitive nature and his ability to really focus on what’s important is second to none. It’s so good. And he keeps everyone on their toes, making sure they are looking for ways that they could be better,” Penney said.

Flexibility, according to Penney, became a strength of the Bennett strategy.

“He has no problem adding things in, even a couple of days before, whatever it is, if we think we can get an advantage. And I think that lack of stubbornness is amazing. Just how he can shift if he needs to and pivot. And that can be quite rare in coaches, I’ve found,” Penney said.

Penney consulted Bennett during Virginia’s historic run to a national title in 2019. That insight eventually led to Penney’s hiring as UVA’s Director of Player Development during the offseason.

Their friendship, which extends to Tony’s wife, Laurel, goes well beyond basketball.

“Both of those people coming into my life, both for my basketball and for my faith. At a time when my parents had recently gone through a divorce and our family was a little bit splintered. The timing was perfect,” Penney said.  

“I just love them so much. And I hold them so close to my heart. And I always will. Regardless of where my career goes or where Tony goes or whatever happens, they’re always going to be dear dear friends to me.” 

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