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NCAA Basketball: Final Four-National Championship-Virginia vs Texas Tech Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

A tribute to Tony Bennett, Virginia’s humble hero

The coach of all coaches.

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It’s been just over a week since the Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball program brought a national championship back to Charlottesville and now all of the title team’s big three–Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter, and Kyle Guy–have declared for the 2019 NBA draft. While all eyes look toward what lies ahead for the trio of stars and for the future of the program, it’s worth taking a second to admire the man who made all of the above possible–and who’s responsible for what comes next: Tony Bennett.

Two hours before tip off last Monday night, my office buzzed with preparations for the big game. College basketball producers and editors were figuring out who would write what, when they’d file, who would handle which stories as they came in–when someone momentarily silenced the hustle with a simple question: “Who is the best X’s and O’s coach in the country?”

Jay Wright. Tom Izzo. John Beilein. The big names flew–until the same person who asked the question decided that they were missing someone: Tony Bennett.

“Tony Bennett? Yeah he’s a great coach but the best X’s and O’s? His offense has sucked some years!” a colleague chortled.

“But look at what he’s done with Virginia’s offense this year.” That statement alone ended the debate. And I didn’t even have to chime in.

Gardner Webb v Virginia Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

There are other great coaches out there–maybe not ones who would fall under the best in terms of actual playmaking–but who have already etched their names into history because of their success: Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Carolina’s Roy Williams, Kansas’ Bill Self or Kentucky’s Calipari.

But what I’d like to argue–and you’ll have to excuse the homer in me here for this one–is that Tony Bennett stands above them all. Because of what he’s accomplished this year with this team–the same team who made history last year for all the wrong reasons–all the while still doing it all his way. With this championship, yes, but also because of who he is as a coach and how he runs Virginia basketball, Bennett has cemented his place among the greats. And because this is a beautiful thing called the internet, I’m going to tell you why first hand.

The first time I met Coach, I was a sophomore–excuse me, second year–at Virginia. I was a newly-minted writer for the sports section of the Cavalier Daily student paper. As inexperienced as I was ambitious, my nerves gave me away. It might’ve also been that I’ve been cursed with the same genes as Kihei Clark that make me look at least two years younger than I am, but it was probably more the fact that when I’m anxious I twist the ring on my left pointer finger in so many circles some days I swear the skin is permanently indented.

“I do it too, only with my wedding band,” Bennett said as he approached me, catching me off guard.

I’d like to tell you that I was as poised and composed as I pretend to be today when I interview an athlete or a coach, but I most definitely was not. I just genuinely had no clue what I was doing. Any reporter will tell you that confidence while questioning someone is a skill that comes with experience, which was not exactly something I had an abundance of at the ripe old age of 19 (I’m only 23 now, for full disclosure, but just roll with me. I’ve got a whole four and a half years of interviewing under my belt now). I’d only been writing for the paper for a few months, mostly picking up random assignments that beat writers couldn’t cover on a certain day because of oh, you know, these things called classes that sometimes conflicted with sports schedules.

Malcolm Brogdon,” I blurted. Nice, Emily. “Hi, I’m sorry. I’m here to talk to you about Malc for the Cav Daily. I’m Emily.”

I reached out my hand for a shake that my mother would’ve been proud of. He laughed, innately understanding and adjusting to my inexperience without exposing or questioning it. We talked about Brogdon and Virginia basketball and the upcoming draft for about 10 minutes and he shook my hand again before he left the windowless media relations offices in the basement of John Paul Jones arena. He was so at home there. He belonged. When I arrived that afternoon, I felt neither of those things. But I would come to feel both, growing more comfortable in that space and confident in my role as the years went on–a development I largely credit to the way I was treated that day by a coach I’ve only come to admire more as we’ve both continued in our careers.

Throughout our entire interview, my youth was a non-factor for Bennett. I was simply someone there do to a job. He respected that, and I immediately respected him even more. From that brief initial interaction I thought I learned all I would ever come to know about Coach–he was gracious, he was humble, he was a brilliant basketball coach and he was sure Malc was doing to be really good (s/o to the Bucks for believing in that one, too). He lived up to the expectations everyone had set, he was just as I’d been told.

But watching this past year from afar, Bennett somehow managed to do more. To set the bar higher, to exceed his own standards. To teach me so much more than he did in the first few years I followed the team–and I’ll go out on a limb here and say I’m not alone in this one. He taught us all about basketball, a beautifully ever-evolving game, but in leading by example, he also educated us all about character, grace and the strength that shows in respectful resilience. He taught our University about embracing the worst moments of our lives because, as he so often quoted, “they can buy you a ticket to a place you never knew you could go.” He taught us that while defeat can be defining, legacy is left in the response.

How Bennett handled the 385 days between when the Cavaliers fell on the wrong side of history against UMBC in what seemed like an utterly inescapable loss to when he stood, radiating, as his team cut down the nets after winning the South region and again days later in Minneapolis as the 2019 NCAA Tournament champions, is worthy of a moment of appreciation. I mean, this is the man who took the scrawniest Mr. Indiana that state had ever seen and a lean, mean 6’5”, 180 pound guard from New Rochelle, N.Y. and turned them into the best backcourt in the country–while somehow convincing the best two-way prospect this program had seen in decades to redshirt a year for the good of the team. I could rest my case right there, but I won’t.

Ty Jerome has talked about how the summer after the UMBC loss, Tony took him out to lunch (brunch? Help me out, Ty) to discuss how they could improve their offense the next season. Bennett wasn’t stuck to his static mover-blocker system, he was open-minded and eager to reevaluate the offense he’d been heavily attached to–to the point of constant criticism–since he arrived at Virginia about a decade ago.

NCAA Men’s Final Four - National Championship - Texas Tech v Virginia Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

And adapt they did. Bennett showed his mastery of the X’s and the O’s with a revamped Virginia offense, one that allowed much more freedom for his crafty floor general to facilitate and make the most of the talented shooters around him. Bennett’s changes catapulted the Cavaliers from a team who “couldn’t post 60 points” to one that dropped 85 on the country’s best defense for the ‘ship.

“Going through what we did last year, it helped me as a coach, I think it bought us a ticket to a National Championship,” Bennett said after the title game.

That loss forced him to look at his program at face value in a way that a “lesser” loss, so to speak, may not have. It’s what took an offense that was ranked as the 30th most efficient according to Kenpom and transformed it into the nation’s second-best in a one-year span, while remaining largely dependent upon the same players as the year prior. Yes, Jerome and shooting guard Kyle Guy really came into their own as one of the best backcourt duos in the country and Kihei Clark certainly contributed, yes Hunter went from sixth man to star, but the reality is that Guy and Jerome were the same core who couldn’t get a shot to fall against the Retrievers last March and Hunter was along for the ride all regular season while criticism flowed about the Cavaliers’ inability to score. So while the big three did develop and new stars helped things along, what’s more noteworthy is that the system now empowered them to do so. Bennett changed his ways as he needed to, opening up his offense for those players–adapting as the only the best coaches are willing do.

Yet he still remained grounded in his roots. Virginia’s vaunted Pack-Line defense stayed stout–slipping only from first in the nation to fifth, which I would argue is more of a testament to the evolution of team’s like Texas Tech and Michigan as opposed to some sort of significant decline on the part of Tony’s team. He didn’t abandon the identity he’d built for his program–the Dick Bennett legacy be proudly brought to Charlottesville–instead he spent the year teaching his players how to take pride in who they are without remaining stagnant. He taught them to use defeat as the spark that can ignite change, as opposed to something to be ashamed of.

I once read that only the humble or the hurt ask for help–and while I’m sure Bennett was hurting for his players following last year’s loss, we know that he was still joyful for the season they had.

“Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” Coach recalled telling his team after the Syracuse loss in the Elite Eight and again after the UMBC upset. “We will have some tough nights, because you’re so close you could taste it, but absolutely joy will come in the morning for what these guys have established for Virginia basketball.”

So I defer to the latter reason. Only a person, regardless of profession, who truly understands the concept of humility, who so naturally allows it to define his or her character, seeks help–especially after what many saw as such a public humiliation, and especially from his always snarky and probably still very bitter star point guard over brunch (lunch? still waiting).

And only a humble man says the words out loud on the biggest stage after a career defining moment (“Thank you. I’m humbled, Lord,”) before reminding his players of the importance of that same trait two seconds after they took home a national title.

“Promise me, you’ll remain humble,” Tony told his team in the locker room. “Don’t let this change you.”

Only a coach with his values could’ve taught his team the lessons Bennett did throughout this year in the wake of what happened last. It was his character, I’d argue, more so than even his coaching that brought this team through the lowest of lows to the greatest redemption story of the century–a national championship. Full circle.

The perspective Bennett gained from last year’s loss and taught his team transcended the game. And that’s what made it work. They enjoyed the season, they embraced the loss, even, in the face of constant reminders. Guy leaned into it, speaking frequently about the upset, setting his Twitter avatar to a photo of him, absolutely defeated, as UMBC celebrated. The way Guy embraced the defeat is a reflection of how Bennett responded to it that first night on the podium. He leaned into the loss and reminded everyone of what really matters. Guy accepted it because Bennett had. And because of that, both truly found joy in the morning–and arguably found even more of it this past season, as Bennett used his newly-gained perspective to appreciate each moment this season, finding a peace that wove its way into the fabric of his team.

“I think there was a bigger plan going on here,” Bennett said in a post-championship press conference. “I wasn’t needed but I was used in it, and I hope that it’s a message for some people that there can be hope and joy in resiliency, and I’m thankful for what happened.”

Another coach might’ve motivated differently, could’ve ripped into them for the loss–for choosing to play their absolute worst game of the season at the absolute worst time possible. Instead, Bennett turned it into a positive. His team was already determined to bounce back on their own, but he gave them the necessary perspective to make it possible. He taught them how to enjoy the redemption run, removing the weight of any pressure they’d already put on themselves and thus, setting them up for greater success.

When someone asked this year’s no-tie Tony why he took his team on a whitewater rafting trip at the beginning of the season–and why it became the team photo on Virginia’s website–his response captured the essence of this year’s mentality: “Have you ever been? It’s really fun!”

He found fun in a season that could’ve been anything but. He still shared the same faith-rooted reminders with his team when things got tough, encouraging them not to “ grow weary in doing good; for at the due time, you’ll reap a harvest,” as Jerome recalled Monday night on the podium and still molded his players as men, too, teaching them lessons for life, rather than just basketball (“Run to the start line, not the finish line,” as Guy tells it). But he made it all fun.

A loss like last year’s could have put this team on edge, but Bennett didn’t build his program to work that way. He built his program to thrive in success and in the face of adversity. And so instead, Virginia was looser, more free on the court and in spirit this season. And yet again, as the program’s personality altered ever so slightly, the foundation remained the same. No-tie Tony still made sure to find Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver after the championship, he still made sure to credit his father and to thank God for the win–right before he had some fun slapping the final sticker on 2019’s bracket with an unparalleled level of perfection.

He helped his team through the toughest loss of all by showing them to find joy in it and to loosen up a little bit along the way. And when it looked like they might be in the same position again this year, he didn’t scold the team or yell. When the Virginia Cavaliers were down to Gardner-Webb at the half and the whole world was wondering if they’d become the first one-seed to lose to a 16-seed two seasons in a row, Bennett told his staff to “uplift them.” There was no yelling, no Tom Izzo moment. There was just Tony being Tony.

This season Bennett transformed from someone who spoke often about joy to one of the most evident external embodiments of the feeling I’ve ever seen. He led by example in a larger-than-life sense this season and it showed–his happiness, his peace with the UMBC loss, his perspective, his persona, his priorities and his quiet resilience permeated the air his team was breathing.

Coach has always said that “joy is in the competition,” and man, these photos might just be the closest thing to pure joy a camera has ever captured–and he hadn’t even won the championship yet. A man who rarely expressed emotion in such outbursts was this happy after winning the South.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Purdue vs Virginia Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Purdue vs Virginia Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Purdue vs Virginia Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

A few hours after Virginia won the title, a colleague was looking through Getty Images for a photo of Tony to lead a story that was about to go live.

“You know what I just realized?” she asked me. “Tony Bennett is the only coach that when you search his name in Getty, he’s not screaming at his players or officials in every photo. He actually almost looks happy in all of them. Maybe not happy happy, in some he’s pretty stoic, but I actually think I would have to try hard to find an angry photo of him.”

I realized in that moment–on the same night that he brought Virginia basketball it’s first national championship–that what I appreciate most about Coach isn’t even the titles or the wins, it’s the way in which he represents my school. It’s the way in which he responds to adversity and how he has carried himself through every high and low of his ten-year tenure at Virginia. The Ringer’s Mark Titus said it best after the ‘Hoos took the title on Monday in Minneapolis, “He wins with class, but he loses with even more class.” That’s a statement I’m proud someone can say about my coach–a coach who cares for his players as people, his community as his home and the way treated a teenage reporter who had no idea what she was doing. It’s the unwavering character for which he has become known–his undisguised and unabashed faith in his God, his players, his system and his freakin’ five pillars.

So this is a tribute to the only coach in college basketball who could turn an infamous and utterly unavoidable first-round upset loss in last year’s tournament into a title just one year later–Virginia’s Tony Bennett. His composure and his class alone are impressive enough–but what Bennett was able to orchestrate on the court this year is nothing short of incredible.

Pour one out for the team, celebrate the championship, wish Ty and Dre best of luck, say a prayer that Kyle Guy comes back and Kihei Clark grows a few inches, but make sure to tip your hat to Tony Bennett before you do. Because it could’ve only been him.

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