Tony Bennett, A Coaching Original

I had just finished reading Adam Grant’s book Originals when I came across a great profile of Tony Bennett in the Washington Post.  Tony Bennett, the University of Virginia Men’s Basketball coach is an original. Bennett pretty clearly exemplifies the qualities of an original.

He’s a hard working guy who has created a plan that goes against convention, stuck with it,  sold it to his team, and come out the other side a consistent winner.

Grant makes the point that originals are often pushed into the spotlight by others. He uses the example of Martin Luther King and Lincoln. This is certainly true of Bennett who reluctantly chose coaching as a profession and eschews the spotlight.  He believes that most things are better without the glare.

The Washington Post profiles the media shy coach and examines the keys to his success. The UVA team has been excellent for awhile winning the ACC three out of the past five years.

Much of his success mirrors the success of other coaches; Bennet works hard and is a fierce competitor. The article tells of his own work ethic as a player. While his friends went to parties he practiced extra in the gym or in a darkened racquetball court.

He delivers the same belief system to players believing they are made and not born.

There are no short cuts in the UVA program. But look behind the curtain with most successful coaches and some version of this would be probably be true.

Here is how he is different.

Comfortable with his choice

He really knows himself and sticks adamantly to his principles.

He eschews the spotlight for both himself and his program believing that work ethic and depth of character would be more significant than attention and celebrity.

“There’s a lot of things, just like in sports and our society today, that weren’t as interesting to me,” Bennett would say much later. “I felt comfortable, but I also knew who I was.”

He wants to be one of the greats and is a deep competitor, but not at the expense of his own belief system.

Bennett is ruthlessly competitive and driven to prove that his name belongs among the game’s great coaches (or at least that of his father, Dick, who in 2000 led Wisconsin to the Final Four), but he is almost defiantly unwilling to conform to the trends that seemingly would make that rise easier.

Invest in loss

There’s a phrase he used early on at Virginia which confused his staff. He said “we have to lose before we can win.”

He wanted to take a step back and return to the basics he thought would drive an ultimate success.

Cavaliers would run a most unglamorous version of the man-to-man defense called the “Pack Line.” They would minimize possessions, even as successful programs took more shots. They would be slow, not fast. They mostly would avoid blue-chip recruits and the entitlement he had witnessed in the NBA. “We have to lose before we can win,” Bennett told his confused staff in those early days.

The phrase reminds me of Josh Waitzkin’s term “invest in loss” in The Art of Learning.  

Waitzkin was willing to lose early in his martial arts career in order to get better.  He competed a particular way against stronger opponents in order to steadily surpass those same opponents.

Not for the cameras

Last season after winning the ACC  his staff convinced him to allow the players to cut down the nets publicly. He relented.

They lost their next game.

Lesson learned. When they won regular season the next year. They waited to return home to their own quiet gym.

Where they cut down the nets.

Tony Bennett, the University of Virginia Men’s Basketball coach is an original.

Tony Bennett, the University of Virginia Men's Basketball coach is an original.


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