For head coaches Bruce Pearl and Tony Bennett, the story of how their respective teams earned trips to the Final Four is straight from the pages of a Hollywood script.
Both coaches came to these programs with two goals in mind. The first: restoring the school's pride and glory in its basketball program that existed long ago. The second: bringing the program to new heights only once dreamed up by the most die-hard and loyal of fans.
Auburn's heyday came in the early and late 1980s, led by NBA-caliber players like Charles Barkley and Chuck Person, and coached by Sonny Smith. From 1984-88, Auburn was a regular in the NCAA Tournament, but following that brief run, Auburn's NCAA Tournament appearances were sporadic — last season's inclusion in the tournament was its first since 2003.
Pearl began his head coaching career at Division II's Southern Indiana. He held this position for nine seasons from 1992-01, leading the Screaming Eagles to nine Division-II NCAA Tournament appearances, including a championship in 1994-95.
His first Division-I head coaching job came in 2001-02 as the head coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Pearl led the Panthers to their first NCAA Tournament appearance, tournament win and NIT appearance in his four seasons at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Pearl's most controversial head coaching job came next. He was tasked with turning the Tennessee Volunteers back into winners.
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And just like Pearl did at Southern Indiana and Milwaukee, the Volunteers became winners once again. Pearl though found himself at the center of an NCAA investigation, however, and was dismissed after six seasons.
For Pearl, the coach with the checkered but winning past, has been all over the midwest and south as a coach, finally arriving at Auburn in 2014 to replace Tony Barbee.
The job, to put it bluntly, was not the most desirable as Auburn's last winning record had come in the 2008-09 season.
The combination of Pearl and Auburn was a perfect match as both had something to prove. Pearl had been dismissed at Tennessee following an NCAA investigation and had been out of coaching for four years, and Auburn had the talent to win — it just needed the right coach.
Now, in Pearl's fifth season and with the school's first Final Four appearance coming on Saturday, it's safe to say the pairing has worked.
Virginia was a powerhouse in the 80s and 90s with 13 tournament appearances during those 20 years. The ACC is a tough conference to play in, and soon, the Cavaliers' appearances were non-existent in the 2000s with the only appearances coming in 2001 and 2007.
For Tony Bennett, the son of former decorated college basketball coach Dick Bennett, his path to Virginia took him all over the place. Tony Bennett began as a talented point guard under his father's tutelage at Wisconsin Green Bay. Following his college playing days, the Charlotte Hornets drafted him, but a knee injury ended his NBA career after three seasons.
Tony Bennett followed in his father's footsteps, not only by becoming a head coach, but succeeding his father as head coach at Washington State in 2006. Tony Bennett held this position for three seasons before being hired as Virginia's head coach in 2009.
Like Pearl, Tony Bennett took over a program that was struggling in recent seasons and a program that just needed the right coach to make the difference. In Tony Bennett's 10 seasons since becoming the head coach, the Cavaliers have made the NCAA Tournament seven times.
But neither coach has gone this far.
Both coaches have had a chance to match up against one another before, but they barely dodged one another. Virginia played Tennessee in 2012-13, two seasons after Pearl's dismissal.
This time, the matchup is unavoidable.
The two coaches have never faced each other until now, but they do share a coaching connection in Tony Bennett's father, Dick Bennett.
As Pearl elaborated on this week, when he was at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he bought Dick Bennett's man-to-man defensive coaching videotape and continues to use it as a foundation for Auburn's defense today.
"I adopted his first tape, and in many ways still keep some of those same principles," Pearl said of the defensive coaching tapes. "I would say Dick Bennett taught me, through clinics and tapes, a lot of how we try to guard even still to this day."
Pearl went on to describe how he wasn't able to incorporate Dick Bennett's second defensive tape, the pack-line, but that the first tape which contained the man-to-man is highly influential for him.
"That’s been a foundation for our man-to-man defense," Pearl said.
Tony Bennett has joked himself during an NCAA Tournament press conference ahead of the Final Four that he is not exactly thrilled with his father having influenced so many coaches defensively.
"I was like, 'Why do you have to do these instructional videos back then?' Tony Bennett said. "Actually, there's some — his influence on the game, maybe a lot of people don't know about it, but in the coaching circles has been huge. My dad, he's an open book, as they say. He's so honest."
Pearl not only has learned from Dick Bennett, but he is also friends with Tony Bennett's sister, Kathi, who is a coach herself. While Pearl was at Southern Indiana, Kathi was coaching at the University of Evansville, where the pair met for the first time.
Both coaches may have had entirely different paths to get to this moment in time, but they do share the commonality of Dick Bennett — and an orange and blue fanbase desperate for a title.
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