By now Virginia fans have digested many of the scenes that unfolded around the country Monday night as the UVA men’s basketball team secured the National Championship. Coast to coast, Hoo fans reveled in the euphoria of One Shining Moment and rejoiced for Tony Bennett and his players.
Charlottesville, of course, served as the epicenter outside of Minneapolis. From the John Paul Jones Arena to The Corner to The Paramount Theater, fans collectively witnessed the drama of the title game and then celebrated the victory. Basketball fans weren’t the only ones captivated. Virginia football alumni, players, and coaches rooted on the Hoos from near and far too.
UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall flew to Minnesota to support the team where alumni Heath Miller, Chris Long, Tiki Barber, John Phillips, Tom Santi, and more were also in attendance. Other coaches like Marques Hagans, who said he wished he could have gone, and Cavalier players stayed glued to the TV in Charlottesville despite having a 6:30 a.m. workout waiting on the other side. Hagans said watching the Hoos win was a “surreal feeling” but exciting.
“I’m so excited and genuinely happy for that program because of what they went through and how they had to fight to get to the National Championship and how they won it,” Hagans said. “So it makes you damn proud to be a Wahoo. I didn’t play a minute, I didn’t coach, but I felt a part of it just because win, lose, or draw that never deters my support for any program at this University. For them to overcome all those odds and be National Champions, that was huge. I was very happy.”
“It’s so great to see those guys succeed,” Cavalier linebacker Matt Gahm said. “You know how hard they work, especially going to UVA with the combination of athletics and academics, it’s not easy, especially to get to that level. To see those quality of guys as well as the quality of basketball players, it’s such a great combination and to see their hard work pay off, especially with what happened last year, it’s awesome. ”
The Cavaliers’ win on the Final Four stage wrapped up a strong year for the two major revenue sports at Virginia. The football team finished its season with an 8-5 record, the first winning season since 2011, and a 28-0 bowl blowout against South Carolina, the first bowl win since the 2005 Music City Bowl. The last time both teams had earned a spot in the postseason in the same sports year came in 2007-2008 with the football team in the Gator Bowl and the basketball team in the CBI (College Basketball Invitational). The last time both programs won a postseason game in the same year came in 2003-2004 with football claiming the Continental Tire Bowl trophy and basketball getting an NIT victory against George Washington.
You have to go back quite a bit more to find a season where a bowl game win coincided with an NCAA Tournament win. That came in 1994-1995. The football team topped TCU 20-10 in the Independence Peach Bowl and finished No. 15 in the final rankings. The basketball team won three NCAA Tournament games to make the Elite Eight against Arkansas before falling 68-61.
Virginia’s football players said you can sense the success in the air and the momentum building for the entire athletics department with demolition underway at the start of the UVA Athletics Master Plan process. Keep in mind that Virginia also won a National Championship in baseball in 2015, putting the Hoos in select company for that double with Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Ohio State, and UCLA.
“It’s all really exciting, just building on the momentum,” Hoo linebacker Charles Snowden said. “Every time something happens, you can kind of feel it in the air.”
“I think obviously 2018-2019 was a special year for this University” Gahm said. “I think it speaks very well to our coaches. Coach Bennett, Coach Mendenhall, Coach Mendenhall and his entire staff, I think they’re the best coaches in the country. I can say from personal experience, that’s why I came here and I think that’s why a lot of us came here because we loved our coaches so much. We believe in them and most importantly, they believe in us. They push us hard, but they also love us and that’s not something you find everywhere in college football. You find coaches that wan to win, but at any cost. Our coaches will always care about you as a person at the end of the day and they’re not just going to use you as an asset.”
As the players and coaches spoke with media members on Wednesday, a large machine slowly chipped away the frame of Onesty Hall in the background. That provided tangible signs of the feeling around Grounds among the coaches and athletes. University Hall is scheduled to be torn down later this year as well.
“You can feel it because that’s happening,” Hagans said nodding toward the work behind the practice facility. “For years, it’s been talked about but now it’s actually happening. To me, just personally, I feel like you look at what basketball has been able to accomplish and you look at the resources and things that they have and now it seems like football is about to get the same resources, so that building is right across the street from us, those players go to the same classes as our players, who’s to say we can’t do the same thing? So I think more than anything, our program is more inspired that we can become because they did. We’re all the same. I think it’s encouraging for us to know that it is possible.”
The basketball program once drew similar hope and appreciation from Brian O’Connor’s baseball program. After the Cavaliers won the baseball title in 2015, Coach Bennett answered a Sabre Q&A question that year about it this way:
“I think that any time you see people that you know – and the way that it happened, a magical year. The way their season went. They played so well at the right time and they were so clutch. That was encouraging to see that. How sound they are. How they do it. They do it with what seems like a sound approach; I don’t know enough about baseball but I know Brian’s a great coach and it seems like they maximize their talent. … They continued to keep knocking, keep knocking, and they’ve advanced.
And they didn’t lose heart this year. What an example of perseverance. You know there’s such a fine line between being really good and not being so good. They were on both sides of the line this year and then all of the sudden, boom, they took off and played at such a high level.
So, of course. Absolutely when you see that – and other sports like soccer, the same thing with them. Certainly baseball and soccer are more established than our basketball program, but that’s why you look at those programs and say ‘Wow, look at what they’ve done.’”
Sitting in U.S. Bank Stadium among the orange and blue sea cheering on the Hoos, Coach Mendenhall had a chance to talk with Bennett’s former players and see the basketball team capture the championship. He also got to experience the celebration and support flowing from all corners of the Wahoo universe. In addition to Bennett’s former players, John Paul Jones, Terry Holland, Ralph Sampson, University President Jim Ryan, former University President Teresa Sullivan, John Grisham, Katie Couric, and others watched in Minneapolis.
Like Bennett with baseball, it all provided Mendenhall and the football team with similar hope.
“To see Coach Bennett and our basketball team win the National Championship was remarkable. I’ll never forget it,” Mendenhall said. “It was so impactful to talk to Coach Bennett’s former players that were here at UVA from the beginning and invested in the growth and progress of the program and to see how happy they were and I had a chance just to hear about their experience. Then to see that many people, and so many from Charlottesville, and so many wearing the UVA colors, the impact an amazing program with an amazing leader can have through sport is very powerful and impactful. I felt really lucky to be there and it gave me a great point of reference for where I’d like our program to be at some day. ”