A Bennett Believer

<b>CHARLIE FLAGER</b>, an old friend who played for <b>Jim Walden</b> way back when, was and still is the classic offensive lineman. He loved sweeps and the chance to pancake those pesky little cornerbacks. He was so tough that he lost a chunk of his left ear in a game against USC and didn't even blink. He's a stock broker now, but still eats pigksin for every meal. So imagine my surprise the other day when he started talking about Cougar basketball.

Yep. Hoops. It's a sport he's always tended to view as a quaint distraction to fill time between the Apple Cup and spring practices. But get this: Today, Charlie is excited about Cougar hoops. It's true.

And it speaks volumes about the future of roundball on the Palouse.

He's read about Dick Bennett. He's met Dick Bennett.

"I really like this guy," he says.

There's no two ways about. Charlie is a true blue Bennett believer.

That's notable because Charlie is no easy sell. He started 26 games in the trenches and earned all-Pac-10 second-team honors in 1983 because he had eyes for one sport: Football.

So committed was he to winning the Apple Cup that he once ripped the t-shirt off the back of an unsuspecting freshman from Seattle because of eye pollution (purple shirt with a Husky logo). Charlie is a gladiator trapped in the 21st century. He's never been impressed by people who consider it sport to run around indoors wearing shorts, a tank top and cleat-less shoes.

And now, just 59 days before his beloved Cougar footballers kickoff the Doba Era, he's talking about basketball. Basketball, fergawdsakes!

In his 42nd year, weary of the Cougar name being sullied by seven straight years of really bad toil on the hardwood, Charlie is ready for a rebound.

"I can actually say I'm looking forward to basketball," he confessed this week. "I'm excited about Dick Bennett and his son Tony. I know they are going to bring some life back into our program."

Charlie's not the only one singing a snappy new tune. There's a pervasive buzz in the Cougar Nation right now about basketball. It's a buzz that hasn't been heard since Mark Hendrickson hung up his legendary high tops in 1996.

Marcus Moore's decision to pass on the NBA draft for one final season in crimson --- one chance to learn about hard-nosed defense from one of the nation's proven masters --- has fueled the anticipation.

Heck, a friend of mine recently overheard former Gonzaga head coach Dan Fitzgerald, a.k.a. the mentor of both Dan Munson and Mark Few, talking about the enormity of Bennett's decision to come to Pullman. In short, the story goes, Fitzgerlad thinks Eastern Washington could one day be home to two powerhouses in the Bulldogs and Cougars.

What's more, all this excitement goes beyond Planet Coug. You can hardly pick up a national newspaper or magazine these days without talk of Bennett.

USA Today ran a great story a month ago about retired college coaches who are getting back into the game. Bennett was prominently mentioned. He said he knew he belonged back on the sidelines when he went ballistic over an official's call against the Indiana women's team, which is coached by his daughter Kathi. "Hey," Bennett said to himself, "I could be getting paid for doing this."

And now comes the latest issue of The Sporting News, where college hoops columnist Mike DeCourcy chose not to talk about what's cooking at Duke, Kansas or Syracuse. He didn't reflect on Miami's pending departure from the Big East or the fraud charges circulating around UNLV.

Nope. He devoted an entire page to Dick Bennett taking on the greatest challenge of his esteemable coaching career.

The column noted that the Cougars have won a collective eight conference games over the last three seasons and reached double digits in victories just once over the last six years.

"I've been an underdog at heart all my life," Bennett told DeCourcy.

More specifically, an underdog with a track record of winning everywhere he goes.

That combination, at school known to embrace the underdog role with passion, is downright magical.

That's why there's a flicker of electricity in the air around Beasley PAC again. That's why a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the grid game like Charlie Flager is talking about hoops even though football season is just around the corner.

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