Unpackin’ It: A conversation with Tony Bennett, University of Virginia head basketball coach

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Bennett_copyIt’s my privilege to be joined by the head basketball coach from the University of Virginia, Tony Bennett. He’s been there since 2009 and his teams have been the ACC regular season champs the last two seasons. Click HERE to listen to the full interview.

BRYCE JOHNSON: Coach Bennett, thanks for joining us. With the new season starting up, what was the highlight of the off-season—whether personally or with the family or even with the team?
TONY BENNETT: Well, my wife and I celebrated our 20-year wedding anniversary, so that’s definitely a highlight and blessing.

BRYCE JOHNSON: That’s excellent, congratulations. When you look back from year one to year 20, what is the biggest thing you have learned?
TONY BENNETT: Remembering the promises that you made to carry you through when you’re in the so-called wilderness because that’s where life is lived pretty much all of the time. And putting those things into practice—being a servant, having a model of working your faith out…striving and working towards living out those promises of commitment you made to your wife.

BRYCE JOHNSON: Recently CBSSports.com polled Division I college coaches, and they voted you the best defensive coach in the country. From my perspective, we know that players love to dunk and hit threes, and defense doesn’t always seem to be the most glamorous aspect of the game, so how do you get guys to buy into the importance of playing great defense?
TONY BENNETT: First of all, they probably just polled my staff only and that’s how it came up that I won that (laughter). When you look at high-level sports today, to be a championship caliber team you better be able to defend. It’s got to be a big part of it. It can’t be lip service, you really have to work at it. Being as sound and as good as you can be defensively, it really gives you a chance in almost every game. It allows you to be competitive when your guys are battling and you’re at your best defensively. You’ve got to start with that, and of course, that’s just half the game, but it’s such an important part, and without it, it’s very hard to be successful. I think with it, you can be successful.

BRYCE JOHNSON: With now being one of the marquee college basketball coaches in today’s game, I’m wondering what it’s like for you being a dad and a college basketball coach? You have two kids— what is that like, just the experience of that?
TONY BENNETT: We have really strong young men in our program, so when your own children can be around your program and they have good models to see and there’s a good culture or environment for your own children, that’s a positive. The harder challenging things are that now we’re into practices, and there’s recruiting, interviews, and so many things that people don’t quite understand that a head coach has to do at a higher level in terms of fundraising and speaking. So being consumed and not guarding that time with your family or thinking about the practice plan or the next opportunity, even when you’re present with your family. As it says, “What good is it if a man gains the whole world and yet loses himself?” To me losing yourself is losing the connection with your family and ultimately your connection with your Creator and your relationship with Christ. So those to me are the things that can’t be taken away from or can’t be pushed out or put on the back burner.

BRYCE JOHNSON: As you’re gearing up for this new season, what has been laid on your heart personally?
TONY BENNETT: To be more relationship-based with the young men in this program—with the players. This is the sphere of influence that God has allowed me to be in for this time. As the saying says, “Grow where you’re planted,” so I think growing stronger relationships with those God has put in your path…whether it just be through quality time, your example, or through your words. That’s so important, and that’s where I sense I need to continue to listen and improve and act on more and more: grow relationships with the players and with my staff within this program.

BRYCE JOHNSON: As we wrap things up and you look toward the court side of things, what is something we as fans can be excited about in the upcoming season?
TONY BENNETT: We have experience returning and our non-conference schedule is outstanding. We are going to be in some great opportunities to test ourselves and prepare ourselves for ACC play and get a great gauge of where we are at as a team. So those will be exciting non-conference games to watch—to see how we match up with so many of these excellent teams.

This column was published in Sports Spectrum’s second DigiMag of Fall 2015. Log in HERE to view the issue. Subscribe HERE to receive eight issues a year.