National college hoops champs have a Washougal connection

2001 Washougal grad Ronnie Wideman helps lead University of Virginia basketball programs

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Former Washougal Panther Ronnie Wideman (left) paces the sidelines of college basketball's biggest game. Wideman is the associate athletics director for basketball administration at the University of Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Matt Riley/University of Virginia)

A 2001 Washougal High graduate recently proved instrumental in leading one of the greatest turnarounds in college hoops history.

When the University of Virginia (UV) men’s basketball team defeated Texas Tech University on April 8, earning the Cavaliers their first national basketball title, Washougal native Ronnie Wideman, UV’s associate athletics director for basketball administration, was right there on the sidelines celebrating.

“This journey is so hard to put into words,” Wideman, 35, recently told the Post-Record.

The loyal Panther has been working with Tony Bennett, UV’s head men’s basketball coach, for the past decade, but said their relationship goes back to when Wideman was a student at Washington State University (WSU) and Bennett’s father, Dick, was the Cougars head basketball coach. It all started when Wideman went to a WSU basketball game in Pullman and spotted a student he recognized on the Cougar bench wearing a suit and tie.

“I asked him how he got involved with the team and he said, ‘I’m a student manager and we are looking for help,’ so I jumped at the chance,” Wideman said.

As a student manager he assisted with the day-to-day operations of the basketball program organizing team travel, equipment distribution, summer camps, even editing game and practice video footage.

Wideman earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology along with a teaching certificate at WSU and accepted a teaching job at Tulsa University right after graduation.

Around the same time, Dick Bennett retired as head coach and was replaced by his son, Tony, who immediately asked Wideman to join him as the director of basketball operations for WSU. Wideman initially turned down the basketball job, but after some deep soul searching and heeding the advice of mentors, he called Tony Bennett and asked to see if the opportunity was still available.

“He (Tony Bennett) took a big chance on me, and I’m forever grateful for that,” Wideman said.

In Tony Bennett’s first year at WSU, the school’s men’s basketball team advanced to the second round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament. The following year, in 2008, the team made it all the way to the “Sweet 16.”

The next year, Bennett accepted the head men’s basketball coach position at UV, and Wideman packed three suitcases and left everything else he owned in Pullman to join Bennett in Charlottesville, the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is where Wideman almost immediately met his wife and best friend, Courtney.

“The Lord’s timing was perfect,” Wideman said.

When the buzzer sounded April 8, and the Cavaliers defeated Texas Tech 85-77 in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game, Wideman was on the bench, in the middle of it all.

He recalls feeling like he was in shock.

“In that remarkable moment, I was grateful. I didn’t know what to do, whether to be cool or hug someone,” Wideman said.

He chose to hug it out. His first hug was with his mentor and friend, Tony Bennett.

“We just bear-hugged and yelled,” Wideman said.

The moment was the culmination of 10 years’ worth of hard work. Making the moment even sweeter was the fact that the team had experienced an epic failure just one season before. At the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the Cavaliers became the first team in history to enter the tournament as a No. 1 seed and lose to a 16th seed. It wasn’t even close: the University of Maryland, Baltimore County beat UV by 20 points.

This year, UV again entered the tournament as a No. 1 seed. In the first round against No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb, deja vu filled the arena as the Cavaliers fell behind by 14 points and entered the locker room at halftime down by six points.

“Every one of us in our minds were thinking, ‘Here we go again,’ but coach Bennett stayed calm and kept the team calm and focused,” Wideman said.

The Cavaliers dominated the second half of the April 8 game and never looked back. One year after its national embarrassment, the team brought home Virginia’s first ever national championship trophy in men’s basketball.

“Collectively, our team put aside selfish agendas and really played for the team. Every one of our guys has aspirations to play in the NBA, but every one of them put all that aside,” Wideman said.

To emphasize togetherness, the team embraced an African proverb: “If you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far go together.”

Wideman said he has stayed in touch with many of his old Washougal friends, including Washougal High’s head football coach, Dave Hajek, who emailed his former student right after the UV win.

Ironically, although he played baseball for the Panthers, Wideman said he only made the “C squad” in basketball.

“I loved basketball and really tried, but just wasn’t good enough to play varsity,” Wideman said.