By Aaron Earls
The Virginia Cavaliers began the season unheralded and unranked. They ended it as the no. 1 team in the country and a favorite to win the national championship—much of that due to their faith-fueled coach.
Tony Bennett has been around basketball for much of his life, due in part to his father and retired coach Dick Bennett.
But a love of basketball is not all the elder Bennett passed down. Tony Bennett watched his father develop a way to coach basketball that honored Christ.
He has built the Virginia program around the biblical principles of “humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness”—what he calls the “Five Pillars.”
Those principles have brought Bennett success on and off the court and lead him to pray for his players.
“It’s my hope that they’ll be able to find the truth in their lives that has transformed my life,” he told Decision magazine. “But I realize they’re all on a journey, and I certainly try to be respectful of that.”
Bennett has coached players who share his faith and appreciate the connection and encouragement they can gain from that.
Other players, like former Cavalier Mustapha Farrakhan, can appreciate their coach even if they come from a different faith.
“It doesn’t really matter,” said Farrakhan. “It’s just college basketball. People come together and play.”
Developing that sense of unity—one of his five pillars—is one of the most enjoyable aspects of coaching a basketball team for Bennett.
“What they believe, their faith, or where they’re from—they’re really trying to mold everything into a strong unit and wanting to come together for a common goal,” Bennett told The Daily Progress.
He has garnered the respect of his team, but also from opposing coaches.
Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski said Bennett is a role model for players.
“He leads his own life in a way that’s easy to follow,” Krzyzewski told Decision magazine. “He practices what he teaches. When a teacher does that, the students usually do it a lot better.”
Bennett’s humility in the midst of his achievements stands out to Krzyzewski.
“He doesn’t think of himself as better than anybody,” the Duke coach said. “I really like that humility [from] a very successful person, when they show [it] and it’s genuine.”
As much success as Bennett has achieved, including three regular season ACC championships and two ACC tournament championships, one has eluded him—a national title.
While he undoubtedly hopes to reach that status this season, he said his life has to be about more than that.
“If my life is just about winning championships—if it’s just about being the best—then I’m running the wrong race. That’s empty,” he said.
“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.”
In his moments of achievements, Bennett said he reflects on Philippians 3:7-8.
“Paul said he considered all things rubbish or loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord,” the Cavalier coach said.
Looking at the good things in his life, Bennett said, “Those are wonderful things, but when you line them up in comparison to Christ and the relationship you have with Him, what He’s done for you and with what He’s given you, they don’t compare. That’s the greatest truth I know.”
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AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.