For three years, Duke quarterback Ben Bennett has made a name for himself in the Atlantic Coast Conference with two things: his right arm and his mouth.
The mouth has been running since he first stepped on the Duke campus in 1979, a cocky Californian who breezily predicted he would turn a horrid football program around before he graduated. The arm has backed up a lot of those boasts, breaking school, conference and, last year, several national records. The Blue Devils, 2-9 in Bennett's freshman season, were 6-5 each of the past two years.
But as Bennett prepares to begin his final season of college football Saturday night in Charlottesville against Virginia, a team Bennett and Duke blitzed, 51-17, a year ago, he has decided to change his ways. This year, he says, he's going to let his performances do his talking.
"Actually, it's amazing I didn't get killed when I first got here (Durham, N.C.)," Bennett said. "There was no doubt in my mind that I knew everything I needed to know about football and playing quarterback. Now, I'm amazed at how much I had to learn to become a decent quarterback."
Bennett did most of his learning under Steve Spurrier, who was Duke's offensive coordinator the past three years under Shirley (Red) Wilson, the head coach who was fired last November. Spurrier, the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner who is now head coach of the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits, rebuilt Bennett as a quarterback.
"He had his feet messed up, he didn't release it right--he had a lot of problems," Spurrier said. "He had all this natural ability. It was just a matter of getting him to use it right."
According to Steve Sloan, who will make his debut as Duke's head coach Saturday, Spurrier did excellent work with Bennett. Sloan, a former Alabama quarterback, said Bennett is almost flawless mechanically. "His footwork is excellent. He throws it extremely well, with a lot of touch," Sloan said. "I really couldn't be happier with Ben right now. He's had a great attitude since I got here."
Attitude has always been a key word when discussing Bennett. Since he first began playing quarterback as an 11-year-old in Sunnyvale, Calif., he has had great talent. In high school, he broke passing records that that were set by Craig Morton and Steve Bartkowski. He was recruited by dozens of schools but not by the one he coveted: North Carolina.
Born in Greensboro, Bennett grew up a UNC fan, even when living on the West Coast. But the Tar Heels sent back his films with a polite, "Thank you." At that point, Bennett's mother, Rita, a Duke alumna, asked her son if he would at least visit Duke.
"I didn't even know what Duke was," Bennett said. "Except that they had been to the final four in basketball in 1978 . . . "
Bennett was treated well on his visit to Duke. The program was a mess and even having a player like Bennett visit was a minor miracle. Bennett decided to go to Duke.
Things were less than perfect Bennett's first two seasons. Spurrier and Bennett did not become fast friends. In fact, they had several shouting matches on the practice field. Spurrier, by his own admission, is a coach who does not believe you get the most out of your players by praising them often. This was especially true with Bennett.
"Ben's so lazy by nature that if you build him up a lot he'll get cocky and stop working," Spurrier said.
Spurrier's approach paid off and last year, Bennett was the ACC's player of the year. This year, if Bennett passes for 3,009 yards he will break Jim McMahon's NCAA career record for passing yardage. Bennett knows that, and knows that another outstanding season would ensure his being a top draft pick in the USFL and likely a high NFL pick, although his size (6-1, 195) makes him less of a certainty with the NFL.
But, the new Bennett doesn't talk individual statistics and goals. He talks team. "If we go 6-5 again this year, it'll make me sick," he said. "This school hasn't been to a bowl game for 20 years (actually 23), and I see no reason why this shouldn't be the year.
"But," he said with a smile, "talking about it won't get it done. I believe in the old Dizzy Dean saying: 'It ain't braggin' if you can get it done.' This is the year we have to get it done."