Daven Harmeling looked around in complete bewilderment.
Sitting about a dozen rows behind him in Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium was hall-of-famer Ralph Sampson, one face among the sea of over 67,000 at the NCAA men’s Final Four. Seven rows in front of him was the court where he watched his coaching icon, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, triumph on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“We’re like, ‘uh, we don’t know what we did to get here,’ but we’ll take it,” Harmeling said.
Harmeling, the head boys basketball coach at 1A King’s Way Christian in Vancouver, played for Tony Bennett and his father, Dick Bennett, at Washington state from 2004-2009. On Monday night, a decade later, Harmeling was present as Tony Bennett reached college basketball’s pinnacle.
Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers beat Texas Tech in an 85-77 overtime thriller to win his first national title, fulfilling a dream his father came close but never accomplished. It was a story line that encapsulated tens of millions of viewers around the country, but to Harmeling, struck an even deeper chord.
And even he has a hard time putting the Bennetts’ impact into words.
Though Harmeling was a Cougar for four years, they imparted a lifetime of wisdom on him that he has carried into not only his career as a middle school principal and high school basketball coach, but also his personal life.
“They would give you the shirt off your back and not expect anything because of their status,” Harmeling said. “They’re always looking to serve people.”
Even then, he says being in their presence can even make him hypercritical of his own coaching (Harmeling’s King’s Way Knights made their own improbable run to the 1A state title game as a 10-seed last month). He wants the Bennett Effect to be contagious.
“I try, I really try,” Harmeling said. “It’s kind of funny, spending this time we have with coach Dick Bennett, it’s a reminder for me that man, I’m not doing enough for my guys. Like hey, I think we’re doing pretty good as far as pouring into our kids, helping them with things that are going to help them for the rest of their lives, then you spend some time around Dick and you’re like, oh gosh, I’m blowing it. I’m not this guy yet.”
The Bennetts motivated Harmeling to pursue coaching after graduating from Washington State in 2009. And it’s why he’s kept such close tabs on the Bennetts since Tony was hired by Virginia in 2009 — shortly after Harmeling’s senior season ended — as an unexpected, relatively young and up-and-coming coach nationally.
During the 2006-07 season, Tony Bennett was named national coach of the year by The Associated Press after the Cougars went from an 11-17 to a 26-8 record. It was Harmeling’s best season, too. As a junior, he averaged 8.9 points and shot 43 percent from 3 as a starter.
In Minneapolis Harmeling stayed in the team hotel with former WSU teammate Derrick Lowe after Ben Johnson, a childhood friend of Tony Bennett and former WSU assistant, gave them his room. And around the event, he saw a litany of former coaches, teammates and familiar faces from his playing days. He’s relived many of those memories.
“We’ve probably told 100-130 stories where we’re just rolling about things coach Bennett said at practice, or coach Johnson said, or something D-Lowe did or said,” Harmeling said. “That’s the stuff. It’s fun to be able to be here at the mountaintop, but also be fortunate enough to have the experience I did where it’s really about the guys we did this with, the relationships, not the outcomes.”
Fortunate is an understatement. A year ago, Virginia became the first team in tournament history to lose to a 16-seed as a 1-seed, making its run this March all the more poetic.
And Harmeling had rooted on the Hoos in past years as they came close to the Final Four.
In March 2016, he watched anxiously from the edge of his couch, as the stars appeared to all align. Virginia was playing Syracuse in the Elite 8, which meant Bennett was one win way from his first Final Four appearance.
Harmeling had called Ronnie Wideman, Virginia’s director of basketball operations, and confirmed as much. If Virginia were to win, Harmeling was headed to the Final Four.
“I really felt like that was the year they were going to break through,” Harmeling said.
Until things unraveled. Syracuse, a 10-seed, mounted a 28-9 run to upend top-seeded Virginia. Harmeling stared blankly at his TV.
“I just felt like my heart was ripped out when they didn’t make it, not because I wasn’t going to make it on a trip, but just because I felt so bad for Tony,”
Perhaps that made it all the more sweet when the Hoos clinched their coveted Final Four berth this year. Harmeling was watching the game at Kal Bay’s house, a coach on his staff at King’s Way.
As soon as the game ended, he drove home and booked his flight. And of the 480-some ticket requests Wideman received, Harmeling wound up seven rows back for both the Final Four and the national title.
“It’s a once in a lifetime thing — well, hopefully it’s not once in a lifetime, but if you only got to do it once, it’d be enough,” Harmeling said.