DENVER — When this Virginia basketball story finds Hollywood, no doubt with Matthew McConaughey playing Tony Bennett, here’s hoping there's a chapter on the Mangino family.
Theirs is a hoops tale only March Madness could dream up.
On a street corner in Minneapolis late Sunday, the night before Virginia plays Texas Tech for the NCAA title, UVA assistant Larry Mangino told the story for the first time: “It was Chelsea who connected me with Tony (Bennett).”
Chelsea’s his daughter. Larry’s the former Air Force assistant coach who helped the Falcons to a golden era of hoops at the academy, including an appearance in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.
Tuesday, Larry Mangino and Virginia are one win from the ultimate in this sport — cutting down the nets without any concern for FBI wiretaps.
And he’s thanking his daughter for the assist.
“I don’t know if I did that much,” Chelsea Mangino said with a laugh. "It's a two-way street. His career has always been the heartbeat of our family, so this has just all been a dream."
At the time, Chelsea Mangino was a student manager at UVA, Larry Mangino the athletic director at Charlottesville (Va.) High School. Dad began to attend practices at UVA, chatting Xs and Os with Bennett, the mild-mannered savant who's built the Hoos into a national power.
"One day Tony called and said, 'I think I have a spot for you on our staff,'" Larry Mangino said. "I almost pulled a hamstring resigning from my job and running across town to take it."
Basketball’s in their blood: Chelsea’s now director of basketball operations for the men’s program at Liberty University, which this year advanced to the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament; Grace Mangino, another daughter, is an administrative assistant for the women’s program at Liberty; Larry’s in the title game Monday; Ann (Mom) has a sweet seat from which to watch Virginia's 70-7 record the past two seasons
"I will say it’s kind of cool to have your 26-year-old daughter call you on the phone and say, 'Dad, we’re turning it over too much. What do we do?’” said Larry, who spent two seasons as a player development coach with the Nuggets.
Also cool: the Virginia program as a whole. (No knock on Texas Tech, a worthy finalist by any measure.) In the FBI era of college basketball, don’t let folks tell you that everyone’s cheating. They’re not, and UVA stands as a sterling example of how winning within the rules can be done. Plus, I can’t be the only one who watched when Virginia lost to Maryland-Baltimore County, the first time a No. 1 seed has lost to a No. 16, and wondered: How do you come back from that? Turns out, Virginia thought the same.
“That has been a daily struggle. Every day these guys have dealt with that,” Mangino said. “When I was growing up we didn’t have social media or the Internet. Now it’s everywhere, replayed every day. To be the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16, it has been hard every single day.”
They came back from that — and with class, owning the defeat without letting it define them.
“Tony was incredible through a difficult time for this group of guys,” Mangino said. “He said, 'Guess what? We’re getting up off the deck and we’re going back to finish the job.'"
As for his time at Air Force, from 2000-07, Mangino said, "I have been saying it was my most rewarding time in coaching. Call me tomorrow and that might be a little different."
Back then Chelsea and Grace were middle schoolers yelling at Utah’s free throw shooters to miss it! Mangino recalled Selection Sunday in 2004 when Air Force earned a No. 11 seed and a date with No. 6 North Carolina at Pepsi Center.
What happened there he will never forget.
Air Force coaches Chris Mooney, Mike McKee and Mangino arrived early to scout the Texas-Princeton game. When the Air Force players entered The Can, the coaches got goosebumps.
“The crowd simultaneously stood up and gave our guys a standing ovation,” Mangino said.
“When I think about it, a lot of the qualities that made that team so good are qualities that this team has (at UVA) — the discipline, closeness of the guys, how hard they worked. It’s similar.”
OK, the big game. It says here if Virginia commits fewer than 10 turnovers, it will be victorious in its first championship game appearance. Texas Tech has a 2009-2010 Butler thing going, swiping at the ball with quick, aggressive hands and challenging the officiating crew to call a foul on most possessions.
Here’s how the professional coach broke it down: “The use of their hands on defense is terrific. And it just fits right into who we are, which is always reassuring. We're strong with the ball. You don’t have to put in a new play or a new defense that you haven’t practiced over the year. Take care of the ball, do our thing defensively and, God willing, we shoot a little bit better from 3. And we’ll see how it goes."
Couple weeks ago, Chelsea Mangino and her Liberty squad flew to San Jose for the first weekend of this Tournament. She let everyone know when the plane passed over Pikes Peak.
"I feel like we grew up at Clune Arena there," she said. "We call Colorado Springs our home."
A former Air Force assistant and his basketball family are 40 minutes from the summit.