NCAA Basketball Champion Coach’s Advice: ‘Stay Close to Christ’

Virginia Cavaliers’ Brad Soderberg is thankful for silent adoration amid March Madness.

Virginia Cavaliers Assistant Coach Brad Soderberg (l) and Head Coach Tony Bennett (c) look on from the bench during the first half of the game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Virginia Cavaliers on March 2, 2019, at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Cavs went on to win the 2019 NCAA National Championship.
Virginia Cavaliers Assistant Coach Brad Soderberg (l) and Head Coach Tony Bennett (c) look on from the bench during the first half of the game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Virginia Cavaliers on March 2, 2019, at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Cavs went on to win the 2019 NCAA National Championship. (photo: Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire (Icon Sportswire via AP Images))

The Virginia Cavaliers won the 2019 NCAA Basketball Championship, but since COVID restrictions forced the cancellation of last year’s tournament, they were technically the defending champions this year. Although seeded No. 4 at this year’s tournament, their stay in the brackets did not last long, losing by four points to No. 13 seed Ohio University in the first round. 

This upset was not enough to upset Virginia Assistant Coach Brad Soderberg, however. He knows it is the nature of the game to be fast-paced and open to surprises. He was with the Cavaliers in the 2017-18 season when they were seeded No. 1 and lost in the first round of the tournament, only to come back the next year and win the whole thing.

If the same resurrection-themed scenario is to repeat itself next year, Soderberg knows that in his own preparations for the game, it will start, ironically, with silent reflection. Even with a naturally outgoing and energetic temperament, the 58-year-old Wausau, Wisconsin, native has found silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament to be of incomparable value.

Soderberg’s main message, not only during the trials of Holy Week, but throughout the year, is to stay close to Christ. It is only by patiently being with the Lord in suffering that the faithful are able to partake in his definitive victory over death. 

As this year’s Final Four ended, turning the sadness of March Madness into the joy of Easter gladness was the overarching theme during Soderberg’s interview with the Register.

 

There are dozens of baseball stories at the Register, but only about eight — Cardinal Juan Cipriani, Bishop John Barres, Father Richard Pagano, Ron Baker, Kyle Goldcamp, Martinas Geben, Pete Burak and Keegan Ruddy — for basketball. Perhaps that may reflect the fact that baseball’s slower, quieter, more reflective pace is more conducive to faith-related sports stories. How does basketball compare to baseball as a parallel to the faith life?

That’s an interesting dynamic. It could be an example of how relative silence and deliberation help to make people more receptive to God. As a type-A personality, I’ve gradually learned the value of shutting off the noise and slowing down to think and pray.

I would also say that, aside from sports I do or don’t play, the main reason I’m a practicing Catholic is the upbringing my parents and grandparents gave me. Maybe it took a great upbringing to temper my personality. 

I really like to get things done and enjoy action — which is fine — but it’s also tremendously beneficial to slow down and shut up on a regular basis, so that the action will be directed by wisdom rather than raw energy.

 

You won the 2019 NCAA Championship but were not allowed to defend the title the following year, due to COVID-19 restrictions. How disappointing was that?

That was an unprecedented letdown for everyone, but most especially for our returning seniors. They were ready to go for a second straight title but were prevented from doing so after a good regular season. Not only was our ACC Tournament quarterfinal matchup against Notre Dame cancelled, but then the entire NCAA Tournament was cancelled, too.

Even though this season had been allowed to be played out, there were requirements that made it a very strange experience. Our ACC Tournament was cut short due to COVID and then there was even talk about not being able to play in the NCAA Tournament. As it turned out, we were able to play, but we just didn’t get it done against Ohio in the first round.

That was a sad loss, but that’s the nature of basketball: Anything can happen. Now it’s up to us to rebound and do better next year. We already have one example of losing in the first round of the tournament and then winning it the following season, so it’s up to us to work toward that again now.

 

With a winning percentage of .741 and the 2019 Championship title, the Cavaliers know how to win under Tony Bennett, but the coaching philosophy is not about winning per se, is it?

Tony Bennett’s philosophy is as far as possible from a get-the-win-today mindset. He is all about foundational principles that, if followed, will transform players into men of virtue. That way, they are productive wherever they are, whether that’s on the basketball court or any other place.

Tony’s five main pillars — all of which can be found in the Bible — are humility, passion (or enthusiasm), unity, servanthood, thankfulness. Anyone would acknowledge those as good ideals, but it’s not always easy to enact them. Because of original sin, our tendency is toward the opposite vices. It’s much easier to be proud, lazy, disruptive, self-seeking and bitter. 

That’s why it’s important to hold up the pillars for our reflection and imitation. In fact, Tony spends more time with the players on the pillars than he does on passing, shooting, blocking, rebounding or any other physical skills.

 

There are so many life lessons that can be learned by playing sports.

That’s right. Athletes learn how to be disciplined and how to deal with unwarranted criticism, overcome adversity, communicate with teammates and coaches, and make good decisions. 

Even at a top basketball school, most of the players will not go on to play professionally. The majority will transition into occupations that are not related to basketball, which means they’ll need to know more than how to shoot a 3-pointer or get a rebound. That’s one of the things I appreciate most about working with Tony Bennett. His heart is not just on playing basketball well, but on helping young men become great from a virtue standpoint.

After winning the National Championship in 2019, Tony declined a pay raise later that year. Instead, he pledged $500,000 to fund a career program for Virginia basketball players who will work outside of the sport.

 

Since you played for Tony’s dad, you probably first knew the younger Bennett as a kid rather than as a coach. 

When I was a senior at [the University of] Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Tony was probably in seventh grade. I remember him on the sidelines taking in his father’s great coaching skills. 

I think Dick Bennett was, and still is, a huge reason for Tony’s success. At any time, he can call up his dad, who was also a successful Division I head coach, and ask for advice on a specific situation. That’s a very valuable resource.

My own father was a coach and my younger son is a coach, so I know how it can be “passed on” to the next generation. It’s helpful in any career to have other family members in the same line of work, but when it’s the exact category of that line of work — in this case, a Division I head coach — it’s all the better.

 

It might be parallel to having a spiritual director.

It’s kind of like that, yes. My spiritual director is more knowledgeable than I am, so I routinely ask him for advice. One of the best pieces of advice he gave me was to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church from cover to cover. 

That advice shook me at first, because I was thinking in terms of reading the entire thing all at once. Then I realized that if you break it up into smaller pieces, it’s easy to do. I went on to learn a ton about our great Church from paced reading of all the four major parts — creed, commandments, sacraments and prayer — of the Catechism.

 

That reminds me of when Michael Jordan averaged 32 points per game but thought it was easy because he divided it into quarters. In his mind it was 8 points, 8 points, 8 points and 8 points.

That’s a great example of how having a different outlook can help you get the work done. It’s still 32 points, but seeing it as 8 at a time makes it possible to do. It shows how smaller things can lead to great things.

Another book somewhat related to that concept is The Power of Silence by Cardinal Robert Sarah. In today’s world, we see noise as power. To us, noise means something is happening, while we tend to be afraid of silence, because that signifies that nothing is getting done. Silence seems “small” or even harmful, but nothing could be further from the truth. Silence is very beneficial, and it does lead to great things.

I was floored by how Cardinal Sarah’s book shows the power in letting go of the hustle and bustle and being open to God’s voice. He even asserts that unless the world rediscovers silence, it is lost. 

Silence paves the way to our connection with God, because in silence we are able to hear God’s voice and then respond. When we are inundated with noise, this great connection is all but impossible to maintain.

The Power of Silence just might be my favorite book, but others I enjoy include In Conversation with God by Father Francis Fernandez, and [three separate books] The Way, Furrow and The Forge, by St. Josemaría Escrivá. 

I’m also reading a book about St. Josemaría’s life, and I deeply appreciate how he taught that everyone is called to live for God. Wherever we’re at — whether an office building, a store, a basketball court or a nursing home — that is the place we need to bring God into our actions. 

Another book I recently read about Padre Pio is fascinating, but most of us are not going to receive the stigmata or become priests. That’s why St. Josemaría and Opus Dei are so important. Their main teaching is that holiness is to be found wherever we’re at.

 

So even though you’re at a secular school, you don’t need to find a Catholic one in order to embrace and act for the good. 

Right. I’ve coached at both Catholic and secular schools, but the main thing is my own soul’s disposition. It’s even possible that I could wind up doing more at a secular school. I just hope my own deficiencies get out of the way enough for players and students to see Christ.

When I get a chance to speak to groups, the main thing I try to get across to them is this: Stay close to Christ. That might seem obvious, but if you think about it, when were the times you got into trouble? When you were not living with Christ. He was not on your mind, in your heart, or in your actions.

The key, then, to living virtuously — which also means happily — is to maintain a vital connection with Christ. This is done through receiving the sacraments, evangelizing, forgiving, encouraging and performing other good works — all done with prayer as the constant background or soundtrack, so to speak.

Great things have come from coaching at Loras College, a Catholic school in Iowa, from 1987 to 1993. I met an admissions officer, Jim Collins, whom I introduced to my sister. They were married, have six children, and he became the president of the college. 

I can’t replicate that at Virginia, but there are wonderful things I can do here that I couldn’t do there. Each place has its own opportunities.

 

You’ve spoken of the importance of Eucharistic adoration. What would you say to people who are not familiar with that practice?

We can imagine what it would be like to live with Christ when he walked the earth preaching, healing and leading people back to the right path. Maybe the most important things to remember about Christ, especially since this is Holy Week, are his sufferings willingly endured out of love for us.

After hearing or reading stories about Christ, we have to act upon them. When we read the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, what else could we do but be drawn toward receiving the Eucharist, truly — not just figuratively — the Body and Blood of Christ?

That’s the summit of the Christian life, and Eucharistic adoration outside of Mass is a prolongation of that most special moment. It’s a matter of being drawn to the Lord’s presence before the Blessed Sacrament and remaining there with him. Who wouldn’t want to go visit the Son of the Living God in the tabernacles of every Catholic church?

That invitation goes as much for Catholics as it goes for non-Catholics. Simply being baptized doesn’t automatically mean we’re united forever with Christ, since we can, unfortunately, break our baptismal promises. 

I used to take the Eucharist for granted, but, because of my association with Opus Dei, which started about 15 or 20 years ago when I was coaching in St. Louis [at St. Louis University], I’m much more aware of the awesome reality that takes place in every Catholic sanctuary. The first time was Holy Thursday, 2,000 years ago, and the Church has been blessed beyond measure by this superabundantly miraculous occurrence countless times since.

 

 

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.

His book Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015)
contains numerous Catholic sports interviews,
most of which have appeared in the Register.

His latest book is Apostolic Athletes.

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