"What makes this team special?” a reporter asked University of Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett after his Cavaliers beat Syracuse to sew up the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. It was a typical sports-journalistic question, but Bennett’s answer wasn’t typical. “Humility,” Bennett instantly replied, then looked down and waited for the next question.
He explained a moment later. He’s trained his players not to care who packs his stats or gets the glory. “Don’t think too highly of yourself,” he tells his team. “Whatever your role is, be a servant to the team and make your teammates better.” Humility is the first of the five pillars holding up the UVA program, along with passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness.
I became a fan of Bennett when he succeeded his father, Dick Bennett, as coach at Washington State University back in 2006. The Cougars had been bottom-feeders in the Pac-10 for a long time, but the Bennetts turned things around. Before Tony Bennett left for UVA in 2009, Washington State had become a top-25 team.
Wazzu improved without any All-American stars to lean on. Many of the players were lightly recruited out of high school, and the Bennetts rounded out the team with players from Serbia, New Zealand, and Australia. They recruited for character—willingness to sacrifice, work ethic, and off-court conduct. To give them a fighting chance against more talented teams, they emphasized fundamentals—tough defense, team play, ball control, hustle. The essence of Bennettball wasn’t a basketball strategy but the quality of the players. During his senior year, guard Taylor Rochestie, now playing professionally in Europe, gave up his scholarship to free up funds for new recruits.
Now Tony Bennett has repeated in Charlottesville. The season before he arrived, the Cavs had gone 10–18, 4–12 in the ACC. During Bennett’s first years, the team improved slightly. By November 2013, his record was 76–53, and he had led the Cavs twice to post-season tournaments. Since January, the years of building have paid off dramatically, as the Cavaliers won the regular season title and the tournament in the ACC, college basketball’s flagship conference. Bennett well deserves his selection as the conference coach of the year.