It was late November of 2000 and I, like most freshmen, was just getting to know Dick Bennett. I had seen the “Welcome to Mr. Bennett’s Neighborhood” T-shirts worn proudly around campus and, after being captivated by the Badgers’ surprising run to the Final Four the previous March, I had found myself as a new student at the University of Wisconsin proudly on the Bennett Bandwagon.
And just as he had written another chapter to his legacy, Bennett decided coaching had become a physical and mental drain. A day after defeating a Maryland team ranked No. 13 in the country in overtime, Bennett announced his retirement, citing the strain the game had taken on his body and mind. He had told his players in the locker room directly after the victory. It was an abrupt end, but the man had already left his legacy and had turned the program around, winning 93 games in five seasons and becoming the only Wisconsin head coach to lead the Badgers to three NCAA tournament appearances.
Simply, Bennett specializes in rebuilding. He turned Stevens Point into one of the best Division-III programs in the country before building UW-Green Bay into a consistent powerhouse in the MCC and the upset story of the NCAA tournament in 1994, defeating Jason Kidd and Cal in the first round. With every school, through disciplined play and stingy scoring defense, Bennett has left his mark.
Now Bennett has left the state, discontent with retirement. He has set up in Pullman, Wash., in hopes to rebuild Pac-10 doormat Washington State, where the Cougars might pose the biggest challenge of Bennett’s career.
Not that his career always hasn’t been a challenge. With his disciplined, slow down philosophy, Bennett isn’t a coach for every player.
In fact, senior guard Marcus Moore, one of the most underrated players in the Pac-10, almost left Washington State for the NBA draft after feeling hesitant about the style of play that would come with Bennett’s hiring. But the team’s leading scorer decided to return after meeting with Bennett and his assistant, his son Tony, who persuaded the Inglewood, Calif., native to stay in Pullman so the younger Bennett could help improve Moore’s shooting.
And like so many coaches coming into a new program, that will be the biggest challenge facing Dick Bennett? Will the players buy into his system? They’ve been informed of its results, but will they understand the importance of discipline and the clockwork movement that Bennett’s defense needs to function correctly? And it can’t just be a select few who buy into it. It must be the entire team because, as any Wisconsin hoops fan has seen, it was a team effort that made Bennett’s tenure in Madison a success.
But at age 60, can Bennett still relate to today’s players? Like Joe Paterno at Penn State, might Bennett be past his prime? And like many have questioned, is Dick Bennett taking this job only as means to set Tony Bennett up with a head coaching job after a couple of seasons? Both Bennetts have refuted these rumors, but how long can a man almost ready to cash in his fish fry discount keep coaching?
Despite his age, I’d take my chances with Bennett. A very personable man, he runs a clean and candid program. It’s hard not to like the guy, (although Travon Davis had his problems with Bennett while in Madison), and it’s hard not to respect him. We all know Bennett can beat Arizona, like he did during the Badgers’ 2000 tournament run. And a Bennett team takes extra preparation from the opposition. Much like defending the option in football, patience will be a key in minding the tough Bennett defense, a trait difficult to find in many of today’s college basketball players.
Through his love of teaching, Dick Bennett is seeking a cap to his legacy. Getting out of Wisconsin and the pressure of the spotlight he would endure was just what he needed. The clean, friendly air of Washington provides something of a clean slate for Bennett. He has the knowledge and the love to keep producing good teams and, more importantly, good young men. Bennett’s latest venture takes the floor against VMI Nov. 21. It’s a story and a program I have no problem buying into.