Tony Bennett may share his moniker with a legendary crooner, but the son of former coaching great Dick Bennett is quickly making a name for himself as one of college basketball’s top tier talents.
In this CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, the University of Virginia men’s basketball coach talks about how he lives out his faith on the job, why humility is a key to successful leadership, and how the life of Christ inspires his actions:
Bonham: How does your faith impact the way you approach your role as a coach?
Bennett: My faith is important to me, but if it truly matters it’s got to play out in my career and my profession. That’s why we have five biblical principles that guide our program: passion, thankfulness, unity, servanthood, and humility.
Bonham: Humility is an interesting topic considering the praise that often gets heaped on athletes and coaches these days. What does that word mean to you?
Bennett: Humility means this: Don’t think too highly of yourself, but in the same token, don’t think too lowly of yourself because that’s false humility. Have sober judgment. Know your identity. Know who you are. Those are all biblical principles and that’s how we define humility.
Bonham: Who are some people that modeled that attitude for you?
Bennett: I learned a lot by the way I was raised, but when I played for my father at Wisconsin-Green Bay, he had these five pillars and always talked about these biblical principles impacted the team. That’s where I was really exposed to the concept. I’ve also admired athletes like David Robinson and Mark Price and spiritual leaders like Billy Graham and Mother Theresa. When a leader has an element of genuine humility, that has always drawn me and it draws everybody. People know when it’s false or phony or when it’s genuine. I’ve always been drawn to that, as most are. True humility is one of the attractive or appealing qualities that a leader can have. It’s biblical. As I grew in my faith and studied the Word, I saw that in Christ and in His power and who He was and how He exemplified true humility. It was very powerful.
Bonham: How did your playing career in college and the NBA shape the way you coach?
Bennett: I went through the ranks trying to reach the highest level. As a coach, you try to get your team to reach its full potential. It’s this idea of understanding who you are as a coach, as a team and as a player. What are your strengths? Who are you? What is going to give you the best chance to reach your full potential and not try to be something you’re not? So many get off track when they don’t have sober judgment. They either think they’re better than they are—and I’ve done that myself when I’ve gotten a little puffed up after I’ve had some success. I remember as a player thinking I was pretty great after having a good game but then the next time out I’d get my lunch handed to me. Those are humbling experiences. In the sports arena, you have to have strength and confidence. But if you become conceited or overconfident, the competition is such a truth serum. You always have to know your real identity. You have to know your strengths and know your weaknesses.
Bonham: Can you think of an example of seeing that play out in your coaching career?
Bennett: I was an assistant under my father at Washington State. We had a group of freshmen that had been brought in to turn that program around. We weren’t very good. It was our second year and we were trying to build a foundation. We played Oklahoma State that year. A season earlier, they had played in the Final Four. We went in there and got beat 81-29. It was one of the most humbling experiences. But it stripped everything away. When you are truly humbled, it strips away all of your preconceived notions and everything you think that matters and it really does bring you to your news and you say, “Lord, what am I going to do now?” It caused us to think about what truly matters. Who are we? How are we going to become a team that has a chance? That experience was the catalyst for what was to come. When those freshmen became juniors and seniors, they finished second in the Pac-10 one year and third the other year. They were ranked in the top 10. Made it to a Sweet 16. No one would have thought from the time that they were freshmen that they were ever going to build a program. But it was through that humbling experience and that adversity that caused our team to get to work.
Bonham: And how has that translated into the way you approach your daily life as a believer?
Bennett: Every day you’re humbled. As a Christian, it’s humbling to understand how holy God is in comparison to how sinful we are. We are off the mark and undeserving of anything.
Bonham: What are you trying to teach your athletes about humility and playing the game with a different attitude than what we’re seeing in a lot of the sports world today?
Bennett: Today’s society screams everything that’s opposite of humility. Players beat their chest, brag about being #1. It’s about instant gratification. If you look at this past NCAA Tournament, the teams that are advancing have an understanding of who they are. In some ways, humility flies in the face of culture but the example of Christ and these biblical principles have stood the test of time. So I want my players to understand that humility is not weakness or meekness. False confidence is no confidence at all. You can actually have more confidence through humility than you can through pride or overconfidence. Younger athletes need to understand that humility is tried and true. It’s a principle that lasts. If you’re not genuine and don’t exhibit humility, you may be on top for a while and you may enjoy some things, but in the long run, when it comes to relationships with family and friends and other people, it will be a lonely road if you don’t live with humility. That’s the example we’ve been given by Christ. It’s so important for young people today and leaders to understand why they need to have humility and a sober judgment of who they are.
Bonham: How do you transfer that concept into your role as a coach?
Bennett: Our definition of humility is knowing our identity. Good teams at this stage just know who they are. When they place, guys know their roles on the team. There’s just a sense of that. After a practice or after a game, if we really lost our way, if we got beat poorly or we didn’t perform well, we can usually look back to what principle we failed to execute. We have to ask, “Who are we?” When a team loses its way, you can always go back to that. When a team gets away from its identity or when players stop doing what they do best and try to be a different kind of player, that’s when you run into problems. You don’t reach your full potential. You know a team is practicing humility when they understand their roles and their playing within their strengths.”
Bonham: How does the life of Christ inspire you to lead with humility?
Bennett: He knew His purpose. It’s so powerful to realize that He had the power to do whatever He wanted but He came for a purpose. He was about His father’s business. He knew why He came. Even when He was insulted, when He was mocked, when He was tortured and ridiculed, He understood and never varied from it. Even in the times when it was hard for Him in the Garden of Gethsemene, we saw His humanity on display, He remained so true and obedient and humble to the mission that the Father had given Him. But He knew the end of the story and He knew what was needed to save humankind. I could be humble to a certain point but if someone challenges me, all of the sudden, my thought is that if I have the power to take someone out or get revenge, it would be hard for me not to do that. But He was so humble. He had a true sense of identity. He knew who He was and what His purpose was. Thank God He did not waver from that.
Bonham: How would you assess where you are at when it comes to following Jesus’ example in your own life as a leader?
Bennett: That’s an ongoing process. You learn from who you are from your experiences. You learn through your mistakes, through the adversity that you face. You learn through the prosperity that you receive and how you interact and deal with all the experiences that come out of that. It’s not just a one-time thing. When Jesus says carry your cross daily, I think it’s a daily thing of embracing sober judgment. You daily must go back and pray, “Lord, help me see myself for who I am and let me become what you want me to become.” When you think you’ve arrived, you haven’t. It’s about daily being sober in your judgment because every day, something new comes your way. When you have a success or when you have a failure, you have the choice to either think too highly or too lowly of yourself. So I like to go back to what my dad always says: “Don’t be humble. You’re not that great.”
(Photos: Courtesy of University of Virginia Athletics)