What makes this team special?” a reporter asked University of Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett after his Cavaliers beat Syracuse to sew up the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. It was a typical sports-journalistic question, but Bennett’s answer wasn’t typical. “Humility,” Bennett instantly replied, then looked down and waited for the next question.

He explained a moment later. He’s trained his players not to care who packs his stats or gets the glory. “Don’t think too highly of yourself,” he tells his team. “Whatever your role is, be a servant to the team and make your teammates better.” Humility is the first of the five pillars holding up the UVA program, along with passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness.

I became a fan of Bennett when he succeeded his father, Dick Bennett, as coach at Washington State University back in 2006. The Cougars had been bottom-feeders in the Pac-10 for a long time, but the Bennetts turned things around. Before Tony Bennett left for UVA in 2009, Washington State had become a top-25 team.

Wazzu improved without any All-American stars to lean on. Many of the players were lightly recruited out of high school, and the Bennetts rounded out the team with players from Serbia, New Zealand, and Australia. They recruited for character—willingness to sacrifice, work ethic, and off-court conduct. To give them a fighting chance against more talented teams, they emphasized fundamentals—tough defense, team play, ball control, hustle. The essence of Bennettball wasn’t a basketball strategy but the quality of the players. During his senior year, guard Taylor Rochestie, now playing professionally in Europe, gave up his scholarship to free up funds for new recruits.

Now Tony Bennett has repeated in Charlottesville. The season before he arrived, the Cavs had gone 10–18, 4–12 in the ACC. During Bennett’s first years, the team improved slightly. By November 2013, his record was 76–53, and he had led the Cavs twice to post-season tournaments. Since January, the years of building have paid off dramatically, as the Cavaliers won the regular season title and the tournament in the ACC, college basketball’s flagship conference. Bennett well deserves his selection as the conference coach of the year.

Bennett’s virtue-based coaching has a venerable history in college basketball. We wouldn’t remember John Wooden if his UCLA teams had not won ten national championships and set an NCAA record with eighty-eight straight wins. But as Seth Davis reminds us in his recent Wooden: A Coach’s Life, Wooden always viewed sports as a training ground for virtue, symbolized by his “Pyramid of Success,” which rested on a foundation of industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, and enthusiasm and rose to a peak of success through ambition, adaptability, resourcefulness, sincerity, honesty, integrity, patience, and faith.

Today, sports superstars share demi-divinity with entertainment celebrities. Except in its original sense of “human excellence,” virtue doesn’t affect the way our best players play. This is a diminution not only of our culture but of sports.

Just before March Madness broke out in 2008, Leon Kass and Eric Cohen published a long piecein the New Republic analyzing the moral crisis of professional sports. While focusing on the steroid scandals that were rocking Major League Baseball, Kass and Cohen argued that abuses of biotechnology were symptoms of a deeper and broader adulteration of play.

Kass and Cohen traced the problem to a failure to grasp the proper ends of sport. It’s not all about winning and losing, “the separable, the measurable, and comparative results.” Sport is about the “humanity of the human performer.” Play concerns “the lived experience, for doer and spectator alike, of a humanly cultivated gift, excellently at work, striving for superiority and with the outcome in doubt.”

The beauty of individual performance is multiplied by the choreography of team play: “Players survey the entire scene as they perform in concert with others, attending to where their teammates are heading and how their opponents are defending. They embody the rules, manage the clock, execute their game plans, and make innumerable strategic adjustments when things go badly.” Team sports cultivate not only “game-specific skills” but “determination, discipline, courage, endurance, enterprise, perspicacity, and mental toughness.” And, Tony Bennett will tell you, the crowning sports virtue, humility.

The Cavaliers have their work cut out for them, as they face a healthy Michigan State team tonight. But their success has drawn attention to one place (of many, no doubt) where sports still exhibit “the drama of the game,” where “in microcosm, the human drama is on display, with all its pathos and possibility.” 

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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