Building a Program, Tony Bennett

(Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post) (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Isabelle Khurshudyan, Washington Post (

Tony Bennett had just become Virginia’s men’s basketball coach in 2009 when he visited guard Jontel Evans at his Hampton, Va., home and laid out his blueprint for the program. Evans had committed to Virginia’s previous coaching staff, so Bennett now had to re-recruit him.

His eyes lit up when he told Evans about the defense the Cavaliers would play. Evans said Bennett talked about recruiting under-the-radar players and developing them. The Cavaliers wouldn’t win because they were the most talented, but because they played as a team.

Bennett said one more thing to Evans as he was in the doorway and about to leave: “Live by faith, and not by sight.”

“Me and my mother looked at each other, and I was just like, ‘That’s really kind of deep, I’ve never heard it before,’ ” Evans said. “That’s what sold me. After that, I was like, ‘I want to play for this guy.’ ”

“There’s a reference in the Bible that if you’re faithful to the little things, then there’ll be more, and you’ll be faithful with more,” Bennett said, alluding to Luke 16:10. “I think it’s really that mind-set of when it wasn’t going so well, were the young men in our program and were we as a coaching staff staying faithful and staying true to what we thought would give us success, even when you didn’t see it?

“It was just being faithful to the things that matter to our program. . . . When you’re fortunate enough — and some of it’s validated when you have some success — and things start happening, it’s still the same mind-set. Will you still be faithful to the things that have gotten you there? It doesn’t change.”

“When you come in and you’re trying to establish a new program and a new system, you have to get the right kind of guys, but then it’s not quick-fix stuff,” Bennett said. “There’s kind of a process you have to go through, and you can’t short cut certain things. If you try to, it may give you a little bit of a spike or a blip on the radar, but it usually ends up hurting you.”

Bennett put the program’s biblically-derived five pillars — humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness — on the wall of the locker room. The pillars were a creation of Dick Bennett, who once told McKay, a longtime friend, that he would “recruit to the pillars, hire from the pillars, make decisions and try to model his life after the pillars,” McKay said. Virginia players said the pillars are discussed and applied for basketball every day.

“You’ve got to get a group of guys you can lose with first before you win,” Bennett said. “You’re going to go through tough losses, and it’s going to be hard, so you want the guys that will stay together and stay with it when it’s rocky and there’s some hard things. You learn from all that, and then as they mature, boy, there’s a chance for you to turn it around and taste success.”

McKay said he doesn’t look at prospects’ national rankings when recruiting, but rather he evaluates them based on whether they would be a good fit for Bennett’s system, from an athletic standpoint and a willingness to be coached. Prioritizing defense is ingrained in early conversations with recruits.

Bennett can been turned off by a highly rated player if he senses entitlement. While some coaches promise playing time during the recruiting process, Bennett instead paints a bleak picture, as he only guarantees players an opportunity to earn minutes and candidly outlines their role on the team. Bennett said he looks for “blue-collar” players because the Cavaliers are that kind of program. Just one player who has committed to Virginia’s 2016 recruiting class, shooting guard Kyle Guy, is rated in ESPN’s top 50 for the class.

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