UVA Darden Student Who Helped Build ‘Bennett Ball’ Maintains ‘I Was Fouled!’
By Whitelaw Reid
It was nearly eight years ago on Senior Night when former University of Virginia basketball player Thomas Rogers, then a popular senior reserve player, hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds. The shot put an exclamation mark on a 75-56 victory over Syracuse University that clinched UVA’s first outright Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title since 1981.
As the ball swished through the net, Rogers’ teammates went berserk on the sidelines, and John Paul Jones Arena was, arguably, the loudest it has been in its history.
But the shot was so much more than just a shot for Rogers, his teammates, his family members and anybody else who ever believed in him.
Coming out of high school, Rogers — a Farmville native who had played for coaching legend Fletcher Arritt at Fork Union Military Academy — had scholarship offers to play for Division I basketball programs, yet opted to come to UVA as a walk-on and play for Tony Bennett, who had just taken over as the Cavaliers’ new head coach.
Bennett had recruited a half-dozen other scholarship players from around the country whom the Charlottesville Daily Progress newspaper memorably dubbed “The Six Shooters.”
Entrenched behind future NBA players like Joe Harris, Justin Anderson and Malcolm Brogdon, Rogers never got to play very much in his four years, but his do-anything-for-the-team mentality epitomized what Bennett was attempting to build through his “Five Pillars.” And it was the reason Bennett awarded Rogers a scholarship for his senior season.
Rogers, in his own quiet way, helped lay the foundation for a powerhouse program that would go on to win the NCAA championship in 2019.
After graduating in 2014, Rogers worked in investment banking, private equity and then in the tech world. In the fall of 2020, he returned to Charlottesville to pursue his MBA from UVA’s Darden School of Business. As part of the program, he had an internship at Credit Karma, a financial tech company. Rogers is currently working for MetaCTF, a Charlottesville start-up focused on cybersecurity education, while finishing up at Darden.
UVA Today caught up with Rogers — who lives in Crozet, Virginia, with his wife, CaLoni, and their 1-year-old son, Clark — to learn more about his life before and after basketball.
Q. How big of an impact did Fletcher Arritt (a former UVA player who died in June) have on you?
A. Coach A was an incredible mentor and friend. I learned so much from him about how to be disciplined, how to focus on the “right” things, and how to figure out what those right things are. His philosophies were similar to Coach Bennett — never get too high from a win or too low from a loss. I think about so many of our conversations all the time, to this day.
The amazing thing about Coach Arritt is that every single person that played for him feels the same way. He had such strong relationships with everyone that played for him that you always felt like he was excited to see you or hear from you.
Q. Did you have any favorite classes or professors at UVA?
A. I was an English and history double major. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after school and I took classes in both subjects that I enjoyed.
Two professors stand out, thinking back. Claudrena Harold taught a class called “Black Fire,” which was about Black history at UVA. So good and so interesting. It was definitely one of my top two or three classes at UVA. I ended up taking two or three more of Claudrena’s classes. She’s so smart. … She was also a Hall of Fame basketball player at Temple [University]!
I also loved Mark Edmundson’s classes — he’s in the English department and brought a kind of philosophical approach to teaching. I remember he taught a class called “Self or Soul,” where we read everything from Confucius to Freud. For the final, he wrote “Self or Soul?” on the board and gave us four hours to answer in an essay. Definitely a unique class and such an interesting guy. He’s a huge basketball fan, too!
Q. Do you have a fondest academic memory from your time on Grounds?
A. Hard to choose this one. I met my wife, CaLoni, first year of undergrad. She was also a history major, so we took a bunch of classes together. When we started dating my grades actually got better. I guess that shows she’s a good influence.
Q. Looking back on it, is it sort of crazy to think that everybody in Coach Bennett’s first-ever recruiting class — with the exception of Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell — transferred out of the program? How did the program move past that?
A. That was crazy. There were seven of us that started in June for summer school. It was a pretty transitional time in the program and we could feel it. We talked a lot about turning around the program, and we all got really close very quickly. It helped going through summer school and summer basketball, and then having a couple of long road trips together. We went to Maui, so that was a great bonding experience. When Billy [Baron] left at the end of first semester, that was sad for all of us, but we were happy for him. Then Will [Regan] left at the end of first year. Second year, I actually lived with K.T. [Harrell], James [Johnson], and Akil, so those two guys leaving was another big blow. Even though the seven of us were really only together for a short time, we went through a lot together and it was sad for all of us when they left.
In terms of moving past it, I think we just thought more about what was ahead than what was behind. Guys leaving didn’t change our goals. I think the most special thing about my experience was going from the struggles early on to what we experienced fourth year. I wish the seven of us would’ve been able to experience all four years together, but I think it worked out for everyone. Akil, Joe, and I will definitely have a special bond forever because of what we went through together.
I will say, it’s really interesting seeing reactions to transfers or bad games now that I’m just a fan. I never noticed it when I was playing, but the overreactions to individual games or transfers is crazy. You have to have a level head to deal with it, for sure, or just completely ignore it. As a part of a team, drowning out noise is crucial to staying focused on the big picture.
Q. How were you able to handle the transition from playing all the time in high school to hardly playing at all in college?
A. It was hard in the moment. I chose UVA over better playing time situations because of the whole package, not just basketball. I also wanted to challenge myself to try and play at the highest level I could. Playing time never materialized for me, but I have no regrets. I look at the guys whom I competed with every day and love watching my friends playing professionally. I feel no shame that I wasn’t able to steal minutes from Joe or Malcolm or Justin.
Q. What were your favorite memories from your time on the team?
A. There are so many. I’ll never forget the road trips. First year, when we went to Maui — that trip was amazing. The games didn’t go great, but we had a lot of fun as a team and that was my first time in Hawaii. My wife and I actually went back to Maui for our honeymoon; even more fun the second time around. Going to Europe was an incredible experience. I had never been to Europe, so that just opened up my whole world.
Then there’s just the little things that come with being on a team with some of your best friends. We spent so much time together doing nothing. Some of the best times we had were when UVA was on break and it felt like we were the only ones in Charlottesville. We’d just kind of drive around looking for things to do.
Fourth year was the most memorable on the court, but we were all so close off the court building up to that, it made all the success so much more special.
Q. Now let’s get to that Senior Night game against Syracuse when you hit that 3-pointer to put the exclamation mark on the win. What was that feeling like? What made the moment so special, and do you literally dream about that shot every night when you go to sleep?
A. Someone asked me the other day — I don’t remember a lot about that day and night! It was a blur.
I remember being really nervous about the game for our team. Syracuse was so good that year and it was the biggest game of our careers. I definitely had no expectation of playing that night. So when I checked in, I didn’t have much time to think about what was going on. I knew I was going to put one up if I got it, because why not?
I’m so glad it went in [smiling]. All the video reactions from that night are amazing — it’s really cool to relive it from a bunch of different vantage points. I love the pictures of my teammates freaking out, but the coolest picture is the one of me with [author] John Grisham cheering in the background. I’ve read like 20 of his books — huge fan!
Q. You should have had a chance for a four-point play, right? I remember [former UVA player] Caid Kirven said you were mad because you thought you got fouled on the play.
A. I definitely got fouled! I get it, though. The refs didn’t want to run the score up too much.
Q. Did former UVA player Mamadi Diane, a Darden alumnus, play into your decision to come to Darden?
A. I talked to Mamadi a lot during the application process. He walked me through everything it took to get accepted, but bigger than that, he just encouraged me that I should apply and that I could get in. Applying for grad school is stressful, but I always felt better about the process after I talked to Mamadi. He also introduced me to a couple of professors and friends in admissions, which helped me feel better prepared. Mamadi also made me feel like Darden was right for me. I’m so thankful for all his help.
Q. Can you describe what MetaCTF does?
A. In basic terms, MetaCTF provides real-world education and training for cybersecurity professionals. It’s like a practice range or a gym for cyber-attacks. The more you practice, the better you get at preventing, responding to, or reacting to cybersecurity threats.
For a company to educate, train and develop their employees in cybersecurity, it requires real-world experience. If a hacker tries to break into your system, you as a company have to be prepared. The stakes are high and letting an employee learn how to keep that hacker out on the job is risky. MetaCTF helps companies prepare for those cyber-attacks by creating environments where employees can practice and hone their skills.
Our platform has a database of challenges that puts the user in a real-world situation and tests your knowledge, skills and responsiveness to various cybersecurity-related scenarios. It’s actually pretty fun — we’ve gamified it in a way that makes it enjoyable, but it’s also really important because it’s much better as an employee to see a cybersecurity challenge for the first time on our platform than in their job.
Q. How big of an impact has Coach Bennett had on you?
A. Definitely a big impact. Coach’s philosophies are pretty transferrable to the working world. Also, the older I get, the more I respect his relationship with his family and the way he responds to difficult situations. Tony is just steadfast and composed even when something doesn’t go right. I know my early years must have been difficult for him, but his message was always the same: just keep going, keep working, and trust your work.
It panned out in basketball and I think his approach is a good one for life in general.
This story originally appeared in UVA Today.
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 17,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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