UMBC loss will define Virginia's Tony Bennett, but no one's better equipped to handle it
Tony Bennett is still headed for greater things, but he knows how to weather the low points
It was only, after everything is said and done, 40 minutes of basketball. Sure, it was 40 minutes of historic basketball, basketball of the likes we've never seen before, but still: it was just 40 minutes of basketball.
And yet, as Tony Bennett walked off the floor and into the tunnel on Friday night at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, he surely knew one thing: That this single loss – that these 40 minutes of basketball – will follow him to his grave.
How unfair is that? Tony Bennett is a brilliant 48-year-old basketball coach, someone I think will someday either be a Hall of Fame college coach or will graduate to the NBA. His players just played one of the historically best seasons of defensive basketball we've ever seen; through their first 33 games, of which Bennett's Cavaliers won all but two, they were an example of an ideal vision of the sport, of five fingers playing together as one hand, of a group of young men who bought into Bennett's system and were, until Friday night, the most cohesive unit in college basketball this year.
And all we will remember is the 40 minutes in which they fell apart.
Virginia allowed an average of 53.4 points per game this season, nearly four points better than the second-best team. On Friday night, they allowed 53 points to the 16-seed UMBC Retrievers -- in the second half alone. It was one of the biggest public failures in college sports history. Virginia, attached to its slow-it-down system, looked like deer in headlights in the second half as Jairus Lyles and UMBC ran all over them. As excited as so much of America was to witness the unexpected, when I watched Bennett's team crumble before his eyes, a big chunk of me felt sadness – for Bennett, for his players, and for Virginia fans who have bought into Bennett's remarkable pack-line defense so much that Virginia forcing opponents into shot-clock violations gets standing ovations at John Paul Jones Arena.
"Obviously you could see the pain after the game once it settled in there," UMBC head coach Ryan Odom said afterward. "You know, you feel for them. But it certainly doesn't take away the happiness that I have for these guys right here."
The pain is compounded by this: Despite Bennett's enormous success as a head coach – he's won 72 percent of his games, he's three times been awarded the Henry Iba Award as the top college coach, he's taken Washington State (Washington State!) to the Sweet Sixteen, he's turned Virginia into one of the most consistent programs in the country – people will always rebut any praise of Bennett by saying he's never made it far in the NCAA tournament. And it's true. If you're asking who is the best active coach to not make a Final Four, it's a toss-up between Bennett and Arizona head coach Sean Miller. This historic loss will only make Bennett's reputation as a system coach even worse.
Moments after the buzzer sounded on Friday, Bennett was in the bowels of the arena. He could have blown off a postgame interview with Tracy Wolfson. Instead, he faced the camera. During perhaps the worst moment of his coaching career, he gave all of us a lesson about perspective and grace:
"Trying to tell the guys in there, 'This is life – it can't define you,' " Bennett said. "You enjoy the good times, and you gotta be able to take the bad times. When you step into the arena … the consequences can be historic losses, tough losses, great wins, and you have to deal with it.
"We talk about it all the time," he continued. "The adulation, the praise, it comes, and we got a lot of that this year. Then on the other side, there'll be blame and people pointing that out. That can't, in the end, define these guys and our team."
The unfortunate truth is these 40 minutes of basketball will define Tony Bennett – at least for the immediate future, and at least in the eyes of people who don't know him intimately. But the beautiful part about Bennett is that I'm not sure a single coach in America would be better equipped to guide his players through such dark times as Bennett will be with his players. Bennett is a Christian, vocal but not pushy in his faith, a walking example of grace and humility.
When I saw the video of Bennett speaking with Wolfson, my mind immediately jetted back to two years ago, after Bennett took a team further than he'd ever had before – only to lose to No. 11 seed Syracuse in the Elite Eight. These postgame press conference moments are so often filled with clichés and dodges. Not so with Bennett.
On that night, his players crushed, this is what Bennett said, paraphrasing Psalm 30:5:
"Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. We will have some tough nights, because you're so close you could taste it, but absolutely joy will come in the morning for what these guys have established for Virginia basketball."
I'm not going to pretend that God cares about the outcome of sporting events. This was, after all, just 40 minutes of basketball. But I do think one of the best things about sports is how often they serve as metaphors for life.
So there will be some tough nights ahead for Tony Bennett and his Virginia Cavaliers. And in my perception, perhaps in yours as well, Tony Bennett and his Virginia Cavaliers will take these 40 minutes of basketball to their graves. They made history on Friday night, and it was the type of history no sports team wants to make.
But I pray that Bennett's words come true: That no matter what I think or what you think, neither Bennett nor his players define themselves by those 40 minutes of basketball. And that for this coach and this program, joy will come in the morning, after a dark night.
So here's to the Virginia Cavaliers winning the 2019 national title. Here's to redemption.
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