Basketball coach Tony Bennett told his team to promise him they would remain humble and thankful after they won the NCAA Championship. "Don't let this change you," he told the Virginia Cavaliers from the University of Virginia. "It doesn't have to."
Many are singing Tony's praises for turning down a "substantial" pay rise so others could make more money. On top of that, he asked that the money be redirected into additional compensation for his staff and improvements for their program. He and his wife Laurel then pledged $500,000 toward a career-development program for current and former Virginia basketball players.
In a game where the meek are more likely to be blasted than blessed, Tony is a committed Christian who sets an example of indomitable faith in what can be an unforgiving and stressful arena.
He holds fast to his beliefs and what he calls the 'Five Pillars of Life': humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness.
"Whether you're a believer or not, those are significant for a team," Tony says. "They're posted in our locker room and they're everything to our program. To be great in basketball, those things have to be there."
When his team won the national title last April, he told a post-game interviewer, "I do want to thank the Lord and my Saviour."
He prays regularly for his players in the hope that "they'll be able to find the truth in their lives that has really transformed my life" and asks God that they perform with excellence and reach their full potential; that he'll coach them well and that they will come to faith in Jesus Christ.
"How many people can be mad at you when you tell them that you've prayed for them?" Tony chuckles.
It's therefore not so surprising Tony turned down the raise. "I have more than I need," he said. "I'm blessed beyond what I deserve."
Having committed his life to God at a youth camp when he was 14, Tony lives out what the Bible teaches about true riches, to "be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15).
Using money to serve the purposes of God gives it a deeper spiritual dimension, an eternal perspective. As Rick Warren has said: "Most people fail to realise money is both a test and a trust from God."
"If my life is just about winning championships, if it's just about being the best—then I'm running the wrong race," the coach said. "That's empty.
"But if it's about trying to be excellent and do things the right way, to honour the university that's hired you, the athletic director you work for and the young men you're coaching—always in the process trying to bring glory to God—then that's the right thing."
Tony has become one of the nation's most highly regarded college basketball coaches. He has a 320-122 record in 13 seasons at Washington State (2006-2009) and Virginia (2009-present).
In 2017-18, he led Virginia to its eighth ACC regular-season title and its third ACC Tournament championship, breaking records along the way.
He has also won the prestigious Henry Iba National Coach of the Year award, which recognises the best college basketball coach of the year, three times.
During the 2019 NCAA tournament, Tony said his faith helped him through stressful situations.
"You certainly feel things – things bother you, but where does peace and perspective come from? And as I always tell our guys: It's got to be from something that is unconditional," Tony said.
"My faith in Jesus is where I draw my strength from – my peace, my steadiness in the midst of things.
"My faith defines me. It's what gives me my meaning and purpose and how I try to treat people and live my life.
"I make so many mistakes, and the fact that I know I'm forgiven is the greatest joy that I have. That is the bedrock of my life and the foundation of why and how I coach."•