As millions of Americans track their brackets predicting the winners in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, one man isn’t getting lost in the March Madness: Virginia Coach Tony Bennett.
Bennett began leading the University of Virginia’s Cavaliers in 2009. Ten years later, he’s making history as his team prepares to play in the Final Four semifinals on Saturday.
This comes after his team suffered a hard loss in the tournament last year. But Bennett isn’t one to fall down and stay down – and he readily admits it’s because God is his center.
Following Virginia’s win that secured their spot as one of the four teams to play in the semifinals, Bennett referenced his faith during a March 30 press conference.
He remembered his father, former coach Dick Bennett, saying something he “never forgot” nineteen years ago after taking his own team, the Wisconsin Badgers, to the Final Four.
At the time, the press asked his dad, “Is this one of the greatest feelings that you’ve ever had, getting to the Final Four?”
“He said this: ‘From a feeling state, euphoria, yes, it is. But it doesn’t compare with faith, with kids, family, grandkids. He said, ‘Because I know what truly matters, it enables me to enjoy what seems to matter like this,’” Bennett recalled. Taking after his dad, he added of his team, “I want this program to honor what’s important to me, my faith and these young men through success and through failure.”
His program does just that. According to Decision magazine in 2014, Bennett forms his coaching around “five pillars” rooted in the Bible: humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness.
“Whether you’re a believer or not, those are significant for a team,” Bennett said. “They’re (posted) in our locker room, and they’re everything to our program. To be great in basketball, those things have to be there.”
While he doesn’t boast about it, faith permeates his life and his example.
“My faith — that defines me,” Bennett told the Daily Press in 2018. “That’s what gives me my meaning and purpose and how I try to treat people and live my life. I make so many mistakes, and the fact that I know I’m forgiven is probably the greatest joy that I have. That is the bedrock of my life and the foundation of why I coach and how I coach.”
And if he hadn’t become a coach, he would have become a pastor.
Still, Bennett has hesitated to speak to media about God, to avoid a “holier than thou” persona. But that didn’t stop a video of him referencing his faith from going viral with more than one million views in March. His comments came when media asked him how he dealt with losses during a press conference right before the NCAA tournament.
“You certainly feel things – things bother you, but where does peace and perspective come from?” Bennett began:
“And I always tell our guys: It’s got to be something that is unconditional. And I know I have that in the love of my family – unconditional acceptance and love. That’s huge. And I know I have that in my faith in Christ. That’s, for me, where I draw my strength from – my peace, my steadiness in the midst of things.”
He revealed that he regularly asks his team “What’s your secret of contentment?” in good times and in bad.
“I know, without a doubt, those of us who have parents or kids that that love you give them unconditionally or if your faith is there, that has to buoy you and that has to be your center,” he added. “And you dwell on what is good because there is a bigger picture to all this.”
Tough times, he concluded, are actually “sometimes painful gifts that draw you nearer to what truly matters.”
In the Decision piece, he made similar comments about winning and losing.
“If my life is just about winning championships—if it’s just about being the best—then I’m running the wrong race,” he said:
“That’s empty. But if it’s about trying to be excellent and do things the right way, to honor the university that’s hired you, the athletic director you work for and the young men you’re coaching—always in the process trying to bring glory to God—then that’s the right thing.”
Bennett will be overjoyed if his team wins in the finals. But he’ll also be just fine if his team loses. That’s because winning isn’t just about games to Bennett. It’s about living life and praising God.