Dear Coach Bennett,
As a new season approaches, I’m sure you can’t help but reflect on how last season ended. From your illness, to a seeming Final Four appearance, to a devastating loss and the departure of five talented seniors on and off the court, it seems that night of weeping is still enduring. But, what I learned from you last year was to look beyond the mere outward appearance and towards the heart of the matter.
You’re an athlete and former professional basketball player, so I’m sure when you collapsed in the Tournament’s first game, you must have felt embarrassed. I have no way of knowing that, but I do know that you are as steady as they come, never losing your cool and never flinching on the court. It must have felt like a moment of weakness when under the brightest lights with the greatest pressure of your career heaped on your back, you fell.
And yet, as ironic as it sounds, I have never seen you stronger.
You have always been a coach (and man from what I can deduce) of high character and faith. You appear to be one of the rarefied college coaches that understands your role is more than to get wins and championships for your program, but to develop men to become better human beings, employees, coworkers, friends, husbands, and, in many cases, Christians. That is a far harder task to achieve than winning basketball games, and your success in that endeavor could not have been more apparent than after you collapsed.
The rallying of support from your coaching staff, support staff, players, and managers (as a former one, I had to include them) was incredible. Suddenly, the playoff basketball game people had spent years, and even lives, working towards was secondary to the welfare of the man that they all loved. Anthony Gill encapsulated it all when he walked over to you, placed a hand on your shoulder, and prayed for you. It was the most touching moment I can recall seeing between a player and coach on the court. The roles reversed, the student aided the teacher, and the entire country witnessed what type of community you’ve built. Romans 8:28 was on full display – “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”
I’m sure you would defer and give much of the credit to Gill, his parents, and his family, and that is right. Like most, if not all of your players, Anthony Gill is the type of young man you would want as a friend, son, brother, husband, or father, and you would not presume to take credit for the incredible person he is. On numerous occasions, you have expressed your gratitude for the opportunity to coach all the outstanding young men on your team. But, you attract those young men by living what you preach (this paragraph alone mentions two of the Five Pillars, more on that later), and at a very impressionable time in their lives, you help to develop their positive qualities while mitigating whatever negatives they may possess.
After your recovery, the Tournament was going smoothly, and forgive me, but I’m going to get a little personal. Your win over Butler was the last thing to bring a smile to my mother’s face. She was the biggest Virginia basketball fan I knew, and despite her three-year long struggle with cancer, she still watched every game, even when she only had the strength to listen. She passed about an hour after the win. We planned her wake for that following Friday, but being sure not to dishonor what surely would have been my mother’s wishes, we made sure to end the wake early enough to make tip-off. When UVA jumped out to that big lead against Iowa State, it felt like my mother’s now more personal and direct petitions to God being answered. I couldn’t help but feel that this could be a special run for Virginia.
The Syracuse game certainly began that way. I remember thinking about flights to Houston for my father, brother, and myself in the beginning of the second half . Then, the inexplicable happened. My plans for Virginia winning a National Title for my mom ended, and despite my discouragement, I had to try to trust that God had a greater plan. (Romans 8:28 again) Though I couldn’t see beyond the crushing loss, I knew he would use this disappointment for His greater purpose. Still, I couldn’t get that bitter taste of defeat out of my mouth. I was so upset that I couldn’t watch the next game, couldn’t check my phone, and couldn’t even visit with the family and friends that were still in town for my mother’s funeral. I went straight to bed.
Come morning, I saw God’s greater purpose. Against my better judgment, I looked at my Twitter feed, expecting mocking and ridicule for my beloved Hoos. I found something much different instead. Account after account applauded how Virginia handled such a gut-wrenching loss. Curious, I read a few articles about the game and eventually found your press conference. As a mere fan, I had been so immature that I had gone straight to bed, but you, having to face an entire nation with what must have been the greatest coaching disappointment of your career still raw, used the opportunity to spread the message of God’s grace.
“Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning.” Psalm 30:5 (NKJV)
I was both convicted and proud to be a Virginia Cavalier. Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough. I eagerly watched the players’ press conference, knowing how crushed those seniors must have felt, and Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, and Mike Tobey faced the fire and echoed your sentiments. All of you, to a tee, held to the 5 Pillars of your program in the face of possibly the worst basketball result of your lives. Humility, Thankfulness, and Unity rung out of every voice, and the Passion and Servanthood for each other were also certainly felt. On display for all to see was a team that loved and served each other and refused to put the heartbreak of a difficult loss before that greater purpose. That was a message I desperately needed in grieving the most difficult loss of my life.
With so much divisiveness, strife, and bitterness in our world, thank you for that encouragement. Thank you for reminding us not to let the thorns of life choke out what truly matters. Thank you for being an example of someone with roots to withstand the troubles of life. Thank you for everything you bring to and do for the University of Virginia.
The night will end; it did not overcome the light (John 1:5). I look forward to witnessing the joy the light of morning brings to you and your team.