MINNEAPOLIS — During a break from the hugs, the kisses and the screams of joy, Tony Bennett gathered his team for one last locker room address. It was about 35 minutes before midnight. Soon, Championship Monday would go frolicking into a new day, into a way of life for Virginia. Bennett, modest as ever, needed to make a plea.
“Put your arms around each other,” the Virginia men’s basketball coach recalled telling his players, coaches and staff. “Take a look at every guy in here. Look at each other. Promise me you will remain humble and thankful for this. Don’t let this change you. It doesn’t have to.”
With that message, this remarkable sports story of redemption, perseverance and self-discovery — we stop the adjectives there only to pretend to be macho — ends. And with that message, it continues. Bennett, a coaching savant since starting his career with consecutive 26-win seasons at lowborn hoops outpost Washington State, just achieved the ultimate validation. But he won’t let the national championship change him. He won’t let it change his program. Just as he showed over the past year while handling the lowest low, he will live the highest high with grace and perspective.
There will be no snarky retort, no thanking the haters. There will be no consideration that, as a champion two months before turning 50 and an owner of 323 victories in only 13 seasons, he’s on the fast track to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. There will be no me in the celebration.
“I don’t know,” Bennett said, all fidgety, when asked about his personal glory in this team accomplishment. “Honestly, I don’t care.”
If anything, Bennett will grow concerned about how it will be even more difficult for him to blend into the world now. If he could earn a good paycheck coaching in relative solitude, he would. For as eloquent and charming as he is in the spotlight, he merely tolerates, and maybe abhors, the attention. In a sport of big-ego coaches thirsty for adulation, Bennett is the anomalous public figure who tried to nudge a postgame interview with CBS announcer Jim Nantz to conclusion before Nantz had asked all of his questions after the trophy presentation.
“I’m so happy — go ’Hoos!” Bennett said quickly after a few remarks.
He retreated, and Nantz tugged his arm before asking one more question about his father, Dick, who was a longtime college coach. Bennett joked with Nantz about him pulling his Masters strings to get them into Augusta National. And then he retreated for good.
From a journalist’s perspective, it can be frustrating to deal with how rigid Bennett is about publicity and fame. It’s also refreshing. He only gives so much of himself, and when he’s available, he is engaged and affable. The second his availability ends, he is gone. You know Tony Bennett, but you don’t know him. He is aptly named. It’s so much easier for him to live in a world that thinks first about the famous singer. The coach can slip back into his faith-based ideals with ease.
Before Virginia beat Texas Tech, 85-77, in overtime Monday night, Bennett received a text message from Dabo Swinney, the football coach of the reigning national champion Clemson Tigers.
“Let the light that shines in you be brighter than the light that shines on you,” it read.
The Cavaliers pulled off the most dramatic season-to-season turnaround in tournament history because Bennett guided them with his steady hand. He made them face the truth: The historic humiliation of last year’s first-round loss to Maryland Baltimore County would always be a scar. Ignoring it would leave them irrevocably damaged. Embracing it, learning from it and evolving, would help them conquer the hardship.
Sure, they were lucky during this championship run. They didn’t have to beat a No. 1 or 2 seed to win it all. They could have lost any of those last four games. They needed calls to go their way. They needed opponents to make some stunning clutch-time mistakes. They needed every tenth of a second in some of these 40-minute games, and twice they needed overtime. But luck was only a contributor, a small factor. They had to take these games with clutch shooting, with poise and with the versatility to step outside their comfortable playing style.
Every game was a resiliency check. Every game, they met the challenge and proved how much they had evolved.
During the trophy presentation, Bennett told the story of playing a song for his team called “Hills and Valleys.” It’s gospel music. Tauren Wells plays the piano and croons at the start: “I’ve walked among the shadows. You wiped my tears away. And I’ve felt the pain of heartbreak. And I’ve seen the brighter days.”
It’s a beautiful ballad about trusting God, and Wells uses his voice to make the lyrics go through hills and valleys. It doesn’t qualify as pump-up music for the biggest game ever, but for this team, it fit the moment. It’s hard to imagine many other whistle-toting coaches being comfortable enough with themselves, open enough with their players and fearless enough to turn to their faith during such a moment. Some programs claim to be spiritual, but under pressure, the curse words start spewing, and the demand for intensity, for playing with rage, becomes the motivational crutch. But that’s not Virginia. That’s not Bennett.
It had been an emotional journey, one full of humanity. The lessons learned matter more in life, really, than on the basketball court. To get past a defeat that only they could understand, they had to turn to each other. It sounds schmaltzy until you recognize that it’s real.
“It means that you are never alone in the hills or the valleys,” Bennett said of the song.
The hill is a mountaintop now. So what’s next? More of the same. It doesn’t have to change. The roster will, but the Cavaliers won’t. Because Bennett won’t.
He figures to get another raise in a revised contract. He figures to get even more overtures to take his coaching talents elsewhere. No other college program should be able to poach him, but some day, Virginia will have to compete against a significant amount of NBA money and temptation.
If the right franchise ever calls, it says here that Bennett might not be able to resist the challenge of taking his style — I’m talking about the way he communicates and manages people here, not the way he likes his team to play — to a level in which players are supposedly too rich, too spoiled and too self-absorbed to believe in five pillars. There’s also the possibility that Bennett, a loving father and husband who preaches family first, leaves behind basketball earlier than anticipated to pursue something greater.
Of course, the man is living out the final days of his 40s right now. He could coach another decade at Virginia, double the 254 victories he has accumulated in Charlottesville alone, win another national title and remain young enough to take an NBA job or exit coaching long before he should. He has done so much already, and it feels like he just completed the first phase of this career.
This much is certain: Right now, Bennett won’t entertain any of those thoughts from the previous two paragraphs. Heartbreak didn’t discourage him. Conceit won’t invade his personality. Virginia will be the same program he has built over the past 10 seasons: character-based, aspirational, methodical, tough, intelligent, full of perspective. It knows the hills and the valleys. It also knows that, while a scoreboard interprets success and failure in sports, it neither defines nor restricts what happens afterward.
“I think there was a bigger plan going on here,” Bennett said. “And I didn’t need it, but I was used in it. I hope that it’s a message for some people out there that there can be hope and joy and resiliency. I’m thankful for what happened.”
Now that Bennett is perceived as greater, he will run from the hype and vanish into his family, into his faith. When he reappears, it will seem like he’s about to coach his first game at Washington State again. He loves the pursuit. He can’t guarantee the outcome, but he loves the pursuit. Even on the mountaintop, he is grounded.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.