He was one of the 72,000 people at U.S. Bank Stadium during last year’s Final Four, but Brad Soderberg might have had the best seat in the house.
A Virginia assistant coach and Wisconsin native, Soderberg sat directly behind Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett during the waning seconds of the NCAA championship game, an 85-77 overtime thriller over Texas Tech.
Hours after the nets were cut and the confetti fell, the Cavaliers’ party was just beginning. Soderberg vividly recalls the emotional postgame locker room celebration and the police escort back to the team’s headquarters at the Marquette Hotel.
“Who would ever have thought I’d get the opportunity to be in that setting?” Soderberg said in a phone interview this week.
This year’s Final Four was slated to begin Saturday in Atlanta before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and now college basketball fans everywhere are left clinging to their memories. The flashbacks from Minneapolis are especially sweet for Virginia.
Soderberg, 57, will never forget what it was like celebrating Virginia’s first NCAA men’s basketball championship — and a year of redemption — surrounded by loved ones from Wausau, Wis., including his late father.
Just getting back to the Marquette Hotel was an adventure, as delirious fans decked in blue and orange were overflowing outside the door, waiting for the team’s bus.
The police helped whisk the players and coaches inside. With fans holding cellphones in the air, record buttons pressed, Soderberg entered the lobby grinning ear-to-ear, still dressed in his tie and dark gameday suit.
“There were just people everywhere, especially the number of UVa vans in the streets welcoming us back,” Soderberg said. “I actually had to convince one of the police on rope duty about my son-in-law and my brother who were standing there. I told them: ‘Please let them into the hotel. We’re going to have a big party.’ ”
On the biggest night of their basketball careers, Soderberg and Bennett were together cutting down the net with their families who have been connected from the beginning.
Soderberg played for Tony’s father, Dick, at Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the 1980s, and his first Division I college coaching job was as Dick’s assistant at Wisconsin in 1995.
Four years later, Tony joined the staff in Madison as a volunteer manager. They enjoyed a stunning Final Four run together with the eighth-seeded Badgers in 2000 before Dick retired only three games into the following season.
Soderberg served as interim coach, with Tony on his staff, and finished 16-10 and 9-7 in the Big Ten with an NCAA tournament appearance in 2001, but then-Badgers athletic director Pat Richter decided not to retain him after a first-round loss to Georgia State.
Soderberg left for head coaching stints at St. Louis and Lindenwood University, a Division II school in Missouri.
“Brad is so humble, and he’s so good,” Tony Bennett said during last year’s Final Four. “He did a great job when he took over from my father at Wisconsin. He did a great job wherever he coached. Salt of the earth. Great guy.”
The Bennetts were like family to him, and Soderberg reunited with Tony at Virginia in 2015. Their first year together again, the Cavaliers reached the Elite Eight.
But before winning Virginia’s first NCAA men’s basketball championship, the coaching staff had to endure a humiliating upset in 2018. The Cavaliers fell in their tournament opener to Maryland-Baltimore County, marking the first time in men’s tournament history a No. 1 seed had lost to a No. 16.
So during an emotional locker room celebration in Minneapolis, Bennett invited several former players to share the moment with them. They huddled in a circle and connected arm-in-arm while Bennett gave a speech about the victory being for everyone who helped to establish their program’s “foundation.”
Dad’s final game
This week, when Soderberg reflected on the greatest professional moment of his life, he couldn’t stop thinking about his father.
Don Soderberg was a coaching legend at Stevens Point Pacelli who was in failing health at the Final Four. But he was able to sit behind his son at U.S. Bank Stadium when the Cavs advanced to the title game with a nail-biting 63-62 national semifinal victory over Auburn. Kyle Guy, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, became a Hoos legend after drawing a foul beyond the arc and nailing all three free throws with 0.6 seconds left.
“My father was my high school basketball and football coach, along with my three brothers,” Soderberg said. “It was too much for him to come back for the final with the stairs and walking with his ailing health.”
Don watched the championship game on TV, as future NBA lottery pick DeAndre Hunter scored 27 points for Virginia, including a tying three pointer with 12 seconds left to force overtime against Texas Tech.
Brad Soderberg is the oldest of seven children, and nearly all of his siblings and more than 20 grandchildren live within driving distance of the Twin Cities and showed up to support him.
They all got to be a part of maybe the best redemption story in NCAA tournament history, as Virginia overcame the previous year’s stumble.
There’s a moment Soderberg recalled this week, his favorite from the Final Four.
He is holding up the NCAA championship trophy in his right arm while carrying his 5-year-old grandson with his left arm as he felt the confetti falling onto his head.
“When you coach for your whole life at every single level of college basketball from Division I, II and III, as a head coach and an assistant,” he said, “you can’t believe that it’s happening.”
Don Soderberg died in November at age 80.
“There’s no way that it will ever leave my mind that thankfully my dad was able to come to the Final Four and watch his son coach,” Soderberg said. “Had that tournament been [anywhere else] my dad would not have been there. It had to be that venue right there. It was awesome.”