One year after experiencing one of the most humiliating upsets in NCAA tournament history, the Virginia Cavaliers completed a historic run on their way to the National Championship! It’s a remarkable story of belief and resilience. Prior to their recent championship, much had been made of UVA Coach Tony Bennett’s style of play – a stingy “pack line” defense and a disciplined offense ran at one of the slowest paces in all of the country. Many pundits have said they couldn’t win playing that style. The Cavaliers proved that wrong, but the real story isn’t in the style, it’s in the substance. It’s in the principles in which Bennett leads the program. We put too much emphasis on the “X’s and O’s” and far too little value on the character of a team.
Early in his coaching career, Dick Bennett (Tony’s father) studied the Bible and came up with 5 principles/pillars to help direct his team. The son has continued using these 5 pillars throughout his coaching career. On the surface, none of these appear to have anything to do with basketball, but I believe this foundation is what made UVA’s redemptive story possible.
Humility: “Know who we are.” Real humility provides strength. It’s being comfortable and confident in who you are as an individual and as a team. It is understanding your weaknesses and playing to your strengths. On a deeper level, it is understanding your identity is not wrapped up in the scoreboard or the bottom line. Humility is knowing your value and not allowing things outside of your control get you too high or too low.
Passion: “Do not be lukewarm.” If you want to be great at anything, you’ve got to love it. Passion can be an emotional outpour, but don’t confuse emotion with true passion. I heard pastor Steven Furtick say, “The proof of passion is perseverance.” Passion doesn’t waiver in difficulty times.
Unity: “Do not divide our house.” If everyone excelled and your team always won, then it’d be easy to remain united. But when adversity and failure hit, will the team, business, family, etc. splinter or grow closer? It would’ve been easy for individuals on UVA to question Coach Bennett’s strategy and even the 5 pillars, but they stayed together and were rewarded for it. Interesting note: UVA’s theme for this season was “United Pursuit.”
Servanthood: “Make our teammates better.” The way to greatness is through service. Each individual needs to serve his or her team in order to achieve their potential. Servant leadership is inspiring and powerful. I contrast this to when I was in college and our team brought in some type of ‘leadership guru.’ He asked for us call out leadership traits while he transcribed our comments on the whiteboard. There were many good words reflecting leadership such as integrity, courage, and vision among others, but when I called out “servanthood” he smirked and said I was missing the point…Regardless of beliefs, history proves Jesus was an incredible leader — think about all of his followers! And how did he lead? Through service…ultimately giving up his life!
Thankfulness: “Learn from each circumstance.” Operate out of a deep sense of gratitude. Reframe failure into an opportunity for growth. UVA never shied away from their loss last season, but instead, they used it to become stronger. Personally, when I look for the good and learn to appreciate my circumstances, it gives me added energy and confidence in whatever it is I’m up against. Cultivating a thankful heart is one of the most powerful things we can do.
Talent is important, but it’s just the barrier of entry. It may win you a few games, but it won’t lead to sustained success. The character of the individuals trumps their talent. Likewise, strategy is important, but contrasting strategies have proven effective in sports and in business. The culture of a team or organization trumps its strategy.
John Wooden led UCLA to 10 NCAA National Championships, including seven in a row! Similar to Coach Bennett, he developed a philosophy towards pursuing excellence that was far more profound than most basketball game plans. Coach Wooden called his “The Pyramid of Success.”
This comical mashup of new coaching hires shows how everyone talks about culture. It’s much easier to communicate, however, than to actually instill and live out through the pressures and demands of high level athletics. Coach Bennett and Coach Wooden’s teams were not built on buzz words. Their foundations were made up of eternal truths and ones that they model(ed) every day.