Bennett's Cougars Are on the Up-and-Up
Monday, November 5, 2007
PULLMAN, Wash. Dick Bennett still recalls the day he escorted the group of teenagers no other major college basketball team wanted to a construction site near the Washington State campus. While pointing to the framework for what would become Bennett's two-story home, the coach told his recruits they represented a similar foundation for his undeveloped program.
Four years later, Bennett has retired, his 38-year-old son Tony has control of the Cougars and the players who made that tour have become the cornerstone in the unique architecture of a college basketball anomaly. In an age when tradition and star power are often prerequisites for success, the Bennetts have erected a national contender without either component. After last season's near unprecedented turnaround, during which the Cougars won a school record-tying 26 games and first-year coach Tony Bennett earned national coach of the year honors, Washington State enters this season ranked 10th. The Cougars are the most unknown and unlikeliest nationally ranked team in the country.
"The odds are stacked against them forever and a day," said Jim Marsh, a former NBA player and longtime summer league coach in the Seattle area. "For every reason they should be a top 10 program, there are 50 reasons why there is no way they can be a top 10 program. And yet they do it."
Instead of a long r¿sum¿ of success, Washington State claims only five NCAA tournament appearances, including last season's trip that ended with a second-round loss to Vanderbilt. Instead of a roster dotted with all-Americans, Washington State relies on players not recruited by another power conference school. Instead of a metropolitan hub, Pullman offers a pastoral climate that lacks even one shopping mall. Driving from Oregon to Pullman will provide a glimpse of a llama ranch, thousands of acres of wheat fields and a stretch of buttes and gorges that seem comparable to the surface of the moon. During his recruiting visit, senior Kyle Weaver could not help but look around and say, "There is a school here?" Tony Bennett joked last week, "We're not going to make you go out and harvest in the wheat fields or anything."
The scene contrasts sharply with the vibe at two other successful Pacific-10 Conference schools, UCLA and Southern California, which will showcase celebrated freshmen Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo, respectively, this season against a glitzy Hollywood backdrop. Despite the lack of notoriety, the unheralded Cougars have four starters back and are expected to compete for the title in a conference widely considered the nation's strongest.
"The thing that makes their success so unbelievable now is I think the Pac-10 is at an all-time high in terms of competition," said Indiana Coach Kelvin Sampson, who coached at Washington State from 1987 to 1994. "That is why what Tony has done is so impressive."
After watching the toll it took on his father, coaching was a job Tony Bennett never wanted. The sharpshooter figured he would spend a decade in the NBA, but injuries forced him to become player-coach for the Burger King Kings in New Zealand. Once the affable Bennett took a position on his father's Wisconsin staff for the 1999-2000 season, the year the Badgers reached the Final Four, he had fallen for the profession.
Nothing prepared him for the challenge after Dick Bennett came out of retirement in 2003 to coach Washington State. Bennett had rebuilt Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wisconsin, but views Washington State as "by far" his most challenging reclamation project.
In fact, he told his son to stay at Wisconsin rather than join him in obscurity. His son did not listen, valuing bloodlines over basketball tradition, but soon learned the depth of the Pullman challenge.
Before Washington State's first exhibition, Tony Bennett pulled back the curtain that led to the court and saw 200 people in the arena. Bennett felt as if "someone threw a bucket of cold water on us. It was a depressing site. It was a morgue in the arena."
Dick Bennett won't forget that moment, adding, "Oh, my word, we would get that many people at practice at Wisconsin. Was that a nightmare? It really was. I just said, 'What have I done?' "
Even by his third and final season, following mild stretches of success, Dick Bennett remained largely anonymous on campus. He sat in a local Starbucks once when an employee asked him if he was some type of coach. Bennett heard the question all the time, but what surprised him was when the employee told him that, to jump-start the program, the school should hire Rick Pitino. "I'll tell the athletic director," Bennett replied.