The University of Virginia men’s basketball team currently has a 20-1 record and sits at #3 in the country. Since taking over as head coach in the 2009-2010 season, Tony Bennett has led the Cavaliers to almost unparalleled success on the court. Over the last two seasons, they have a combined 51-4 record while playing in arguably the toughest conference in the country, the ACC.
With all that winning, I found it fascinating when I read what Bennett looks for in recruits. He said, “I always think to myself about a player, ‘Can I lose with you?’ Losing is a truth serum. That’s when you really learn about people. If we can lose together, and we can still survive — to me, that’s the foundational piece.”
“Can I lose with you?” — It’s from Bennett’s father, Dick, who coached the Wisconsin Badgers to the Final Four in 2000. He knew there was no question in athletics one was bound to experience failure, and he wanted to know he was rolling with guys who had the character to respond positively in difficult times.
“Front-runners” are a dime a dozen in any endeavor. Nearly everyone can be coachable, positive, encouraging, and a hard worker when things are going their way — but what happens when you’re riding the bench, in a slump, injured, losing games, and struggling with off-court issues? It’s not easy to encourage your teammates when you’re on the bench. It’s tough to show up with a positive attitude on the heels of a losing streak. It’s challenging to speak belief to yourself when you’re not performing well. It takes an insane work ethic and greater vision to come in every day and put in extra work when your coach hasn’t played you all season.
Last March, the Virginia Cavaliers were shocked as they became the first #1 seed to lose in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament to #16 seed UMBC. It was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament. Afterwards, Bennett had a chance to address the media in the postgame press conference (video below). Now I’ll never judge someone based on their immediate reaction following a disappointing loss. It’s a frustrating and emotional time to have a microphone thrust in front of your face. I will say, however, that those moments can be an opportunity to showcase one’s character. Bennett’s words go beyond class. He gives respect to his opponent, talks about the beauty and thrill of competition, the truth that results don’t define you, and puts the game into a healthier perspective.
Explore Further: That loss will never completely go away for the Virginia Cavaliers. Reminders from it are still brought up in every article I read and every game I watch. Clearly Bennett proved he can lose with class — but more importantly, he’s showing he’s recruited a group of guys that are not allowing a humbling defeat keep them down. It remains to be seen how they perform in the NCAA tournament, but this group only appears to be stronger and more resilient. Here are a few Tony Bennett quotes from a preseason article that gives some insight into how he has used that defeat to better lead his program in the current season.
Before this season: “It kind of sparked something in me. I desperately want Virginia and this team that I coach to have a chance to one day play for a national championship, to win a national championship, go to the Final Four. That has inspired me in a way maybe only a loss like that can. And that’s important that I have that. But it did something else that I think’s as important, or more important: It made me realize if that doesn’t happen, I’m still OK. That’s almost freed me up to go after my coaching this season and with this team in a better way and the right way.”
On Contentment: “…ultimately, that’s based on my faith, and that’s everybody’s own individual journey. … This is all temporary, I understand that. This is fleeting. It’s worth pursuing in the right way, and that’s good. But if you don’t have something else where you find your contentment away from the game … you’re going to be torn up inside. I know that and I’ve experienced that.”
On Joy: “Because I know what truly matters, it enabled me to enjoy what seems to matter like this.” -Dick Bennett
My Take: Perspective is powerful. Understanding the outcome isn’t everything can enable us to lead and perform with greater freedom and higher potential. The key is we must have something bigger to stand on. For Tony Bennett it’s his Christian faith. What’s yours?