Bennett Is Pitt's New Defensive Coordinator

The upset win against West Virginia Dec. 1, 2007 didn't just set off a string of recruiting commitments for the Pitt football team; it also helped convince the Panthers' new defensive coordinator that he wanted to join the team.

Phil Bennett, 52, a 28-year coaching veteran, was the head coach at Southern Methodist University the past six seasons (2002-07). He also oversaw some of the nation's top defensive units while at Texas A&M, Kansas State and Louisiana State University, has known Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt for more than two decades and has coached against him as well.

"That last game at West Virginia ... thank God I watched it, and it was impressive,'' Bennett said during a press briefing Monday at the UPMC Sports Complex. "I came up here and met with Dave and the coaching staff, and I just feel that something is happening here that I want to be part of.''

Wannstedt also announced that defensive line coach Greg Gattuso was promoted to assistant head coach, and special teams coordinator Charlie Partridge will work more with the linebackers as well this season. As the coordinator, Bennett will help coach each defensive group.

Wannstedt added that Pitt's final assistant coach opening, wide receivers, should be filled by the end of this week. He also will name graduate assistant coaches on offense and defense.

"Ever since Paul Rhoads left we have been looking for a guy to come in and head up our defense and take us to the next level,'' Wannstedt said, "and it has been interesting to see the people who expressed an interest. They were from the NFL and college ranks, and some were Pitt graduates. But the one guy I targeted and was glad when he showed an interest was Phil Bennett.

"We go back a long ways, when I was at Oklahoma State, and he was at Texas A&M. And we spent time together when I was with the Bears, and he was the defensive coordinator at Kansas State. So, our relationship goes back years, and we're very excited to have him be part of this. He had opportunities with other college teams and in the NFL, but he chose to jump on board with us.''

Wannstedt and Bennett believed that the best way to get started was for the defensive system that's in place to pretty much stay the same. In other words, it's probably easier for Bennett to learn the terminology than to teach all the players a new system. However, that doesn't mean Bennett won't tweak what's in place in an attempt to get more out of it and the Panthers.

"We want to take the next step,'' Bennett said. "We don't want to change a whole lot here. ... But we want to improve. They've found their niche with what they want to do defensively, and they were good at it. But I want to help us get to the next level, and I think we can do that.''

"We all want to be aggressive. We want to be the dictators, but today's game has changed with the quarterback run game and the spread. My old defensive coordinator used to tell me that when you blitz, somebody's band's going to play. Well, you better make damn sure it's yours.

"So, we'll be calculated, but we want to be aggressive and dictate the tempo,'' Bennett added. "I've always believed that defense is an attitude. These players here last year really started getting the picture. ... And I think we can become one of those aggressive and dictating defenses.''

Bennett wouldn't name any individual performers, but he was impressed by Pitt's defensive line play last season and the way the linebackers developed. And with several young players set to step in on defense, the Panthers should be deeper and more talented in the future.

"In Phil Bennett we're getting an immensely knowledgeable and talented coach,'' Wannstedt said. "Phil is not only going to be a major asset for us defensively, but his tremendous experience will benefit our entire program.''

While rebuilding the program at SMU, Bennett improved the Mustangs' win total for three consecutive seasons, including his 2006 team that reached bowl eligibility and achieved the program's highest victory total in a decade. That squad also received the American Football Coaches Association's (AFCA) 2006 Academic Achievement Award after SMU earned a 100% graduation rate for its freshman class of 2000-01.

Prior to SMU, Bennett was the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Kansas State for three years (1999-2001). During his tenure, the Wildcats finished among the nation's top five in total defense each season, including second in 1999 (235.0 yards per game), fourth in 2000 (270.54) and third in 2001 (262.36).

Bennett's secondary units were equally impressive, finishing in the top 10 in pass efficiency each year. The 1999 Wildcats led the entire country in pass efficiency defense with an impressive 65.7 rating. They also topped the nation in turnover margin (1.55 differential per game), recording 21 interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries.

Two of his standouts in the secondary, Dyshod Carter and Jerametrius Butler, became just the second pair of KSU teammates to record 10 or more career interceptions. Both went on to play in the NFL.

In 1998, Bennett served as secondary coach and co-recruiting coordinator at Oklahoma as he helped the Sooners finish sixth nationally in total defense. In 1997, he was the defensive coordinator at Texas Christian University and helped the Horned Frogs earn their highest defensive rankings in five years.

Bennett was the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M from 1995-96. American Football Quarterly named him its 1995 "Defensive Coordinator of the Year'' after the Aggies ranked in the nation's top 10 in every major defensive category, including total defense (third), scoring defense (third) and pass-efficiency defense (second).

From 1991-94, Bennett served at LSU. During his final three seasons in Baton Rouge, he was the Tigers' assistant head coach and defensive coordinator. During the 1994 season, LSU led the Southeastern Conference in every major defensive category and finished eighth nationally in total defense. He coached the LSU outside linebackers in 1991.

Prior to LSU, Bennett held defensive coordinator posts at Purdue (1987-90) and Iowa State (1983-86). In 1982 he coached TCU's tight ends and tackles. Bennett began his coaching career at Texas A&M as a part-time defensive ends coach from 1979-80 before assuming a full-time position in 1981. Bennett is a 1978 graduate of Texas A&M with a B.S. in education.

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