NCAA Final Four: Brad Soderberg’s bond with Dick, Tony Bennett runs deep
In retrospect, perhaps the biggest break of Brad Soderberg’s career took place while he was still attending St. Stanislaus elementary school in Stevens Point, long before he had any idea what career he would pursue.
It was then that he first crossed paths with Dick Bennett, then the men’s basketball coach at UW-Stevens Point, and formed the initial bond that would carry on for more than four decades and two generations of Bennetts.
And it is that connection that will help Soderberg experience an NCAA Final Four as an assistant coach for Tony Bennett at Virginia, the same role he filled 19 years earlier when the University of Wisconsin made it to the Final Four under Dick Bennett.
“What strikes me is that I’m very fortunate to have been connected with the Bennett family,” Soderberg said this week as preparations were beginning for the Cavaliers’ national semifinal against Auburn on Saturday in Minneapolis. “I’ve known the Bennetts since I was at St. Stan’s, for the love of God.
“I was there going to Dick’s basketball camps at Quandt Field House way before I had any inclination I even wanted to be a coach. Now fast forward 40 years and it’s just incredible. I’m just very fortunate.”
That good fortune runs both ways, said Dick Bennett, noting that Soderberg, 56, has helped two programs make it to the Final Four.
“I’m really happy for Brad,” Dick Bennett said. “He has a big part in all of this. I know he’s probably had opportunities to pursue some other positions the last few years because of their success and yet he has preferred to stay there. It was great for him to be able to enjoy that with his family also.
“He’s very precise. He does a great job of handling the scout. He’s always been very efficient and precise. He’s well-spoken and he’s a very smart young man — he’s not so young anymore — but he’s a very smart guy. Tony loves the way he presents it.”
Having sat beside both father and son on the bench, Soderberg has a unique perspective on the similarities and differences of the two Bennetts as they have become just the second father-son duo to coach a team in the Final Four, joining Georgetown’s John Thompson Jr. and John Thompson III.
“The two of them are so special but both very different,” Soderberg said. “You know Dick, he was Type A. He was a tiger on the bench. Tony has the same intensity but his disposition is different.
“When Dick was most successful that was a time when that style was most acceptable to the players. I don’t think it would work now as well. Tony, on the other hand, is perfect for today’s players. With all due respect to today’s athletes, I don’t think they can take that fire-and-brimstone approach that a lot of coaches used back in the day.
“But the attention to detail is the same between Dick and Tony. Their compassion for their players is the same, their intensity is the same. It’s just that they deliver it in a little bit different way.”
Tale of two teams
While their styles of coaching may be different, the style of play of the 1999-2000 Badgers and the 2018-19 Cavaliers has some striking similarities. Both programs were built around the Bennetts’ famed Pack Line defense and deliberate motion offense. But the biggest common thread, to Soderberg, runs deeper than Xs and Os.
“The caliber of the people involved, their character and their unity is so similar,” Soderberg said. “I think of Mike Kelley, (Andy) Kowske, (Mark) Vershaw, Roy Boone, right on down the list with Wisconsin. Now Mamadi Diakite, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, it’s the same. The synergy between the two is the same.
“Wisconsin didn’t have the expectations that this group has, so that’s very different. This team on court is more offensively gifted than the Wisconsin team, but I’m hard pressed to say that we’re as good defensively as that Badger team was. Those guys were just rock solid.”
The biggest difference is that those Badgers were a No. 8 seed that entered the tournament with limited expectations, while this year’s Cavaliers are a No. 1 seed that entered the tournament carrying the extra weight from becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed just a year ago.
While last year’s loss to UMBC will always be a part of Virginia’s legacy, this year’s success has added an extra layer of drama to the experience.
“I was really getting tired of the talk of the loss,” Soderberg said. “But now in light of how the guys have totally turned the table 12 months later it’s a good story to talk about.
“It’s really satisfying. That’s the first word that comes to my mind. Beating Gardner Webb (in the first round) was a huge relief. No one will know the pressure we felt. I don’t even know if we talked about it that much but I know that everyone felt it. No way, we can’t allow that to happen again. We were down by 14 at one point in that game, so that was a huge relief.”
Soderberg has experienced a range of highs and lows during his 33 years as a college coach. He had just completed his second year as head coach at South Dakota State when Dick Bennett offered him a spot as his top assistant when he took the UW job in 1995.
Soderberg, who played for his father, Don, at Stevens Point Pacelli, played for Bennett at UW-Stevens Point, where he teamed with future NBA star Terry Porter in the back court.
When Bennett suddenly retired early in the 2000-01 season, Soderberg was named interim coach and led the Badgers to a 16-10 record the rest of the way and a first-round loss in the NCAA tournament. He was hoping to retain the job, but UW athletic director Pat Richter decided to hire Bo Ryan instead.
While the ending was disappointing, it did little to diminish the memory of that chapter of his career.
“To me it was a dream come true,” Soderberg said of his UW days. “I was just a kid from Stevens Point and I got to spend six years in Madison in the Big Ten, representing our state and the Badgers. It was a thrill.
“I was very hopeful I could’ve stayed on, but the proof is in the pudding. Pat Richter made an incredible hire in Bo Ryan. Are you kidding me? What he did after the Dick Bennett era is phenomenal. I’m way past that and it’s just part of the business. I’ll always be a Badgers fan because I’m a Wisconsin boy, it’s simple as that.”
Soderberg resurfaced at Saint Louis University, as an assistant for one year and then as head coach for five seasons before being dismissed in 2007 despite coming off his best season there with a 20-13 record.
Two years later he became coach at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, where he compiled a 127-57 record over six years.
Off to Charlottesville
Then came a call four years ago from Tony Bennett, who was looking to fill a spot on his staff at Virginia. It was an opportunity that was too good to pass up, even though leaving Lindenwood would leave his son Kramer, who was working with him as an assistant, without a job. Kramer now is an assistant at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois.
Bennett’s first assignment for Soderberg was to critique the program, which was coming off back-to-back ACC championships. Other than a few adjustments to the defense, his advice was to keep doing what he’d been doing.
“Tony is just a tremendous basketball coach with incredible leadership skills and a knack for all the things that matter in coaching — recruiting, Xs and Os, relationship with players, disposition on the bench, relationship with boosters and fans — he’s got the whole package,” Soderberg said. “I think the people of Wisconsin know that and I think they should be proud that he’s a product of their state.
“I’m just so happy for Tony. There were so many questions … they do so well in the ACC but they haven’t been to a Final Four yet, what’s the problem? I’m happy for him that he can erase that board and continue on with a great career.”