|1st in a series of features -- dubbed 15 for 15 -- CF.C is running in the 15 days leading to its 15th anniversary on Aug. 15|
A program that had been in a shambles for the better part of a decade had climbed into the national spotlight thanks to Bennett's blue-collar rebuilding.
Now 70, Bennett expressed warm memories for WSU when he was contacted recently at his home on Lake Petenwell in central Wisconsin. He and his wife of 51 years, Anne, had their house built after he retired and turned the Cougars basketball program over to son Tony, who assisted his father all three years Dick spent at Washington State.
Here are highlights from the conversation:
Cougfan: What do you remember about your time at WSU?
Bennett: Those were really good years. I mean, Tony had some brilliant years. It was great … they (WSU players) were good kids, they really were.
Cougfan: What made you proudest about what you accomplished at WSU?
Bennett: It was a job that many felt could not become competitive at that level in that league. I knew that it probably wouldn't be competitive while I had it, because I would be working primarily with freshmen and sophomores. But you could see that at some point, they were going to become competitive. The three years that Tony had (including an NIT appearance in 2009-10) proved that. Any time you see a program go from the bottom to becoming a real capable contender, that's kind of what you work for as a coach.
Cougfan: Athletic director Jim Sterk lured you out of retirement largely because you had great success rebuilding programs at all three of your previous colleges (Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wisconsin). How did the task at WSU compare to your other rebuilding projects?
Bennett: That one was probably the toughest challenge of all because of the recruiting difficulties with our location. When I was in Green Bay or Madison, I had access to a lot more kids in the immediate area. Out there (in Pullman), we had to really find that special kind of guy who would be happy there and would go through the difficult times – the losing times – and stay with it. So we put a heavy-duty emphasis on character in our recruiting.
Cougfan: Can you speak about some of the players you and Tony recruited?
Bennett: Guys like (Robbie) Cowgill and Derrick Low and Daven Harmeling and Aron Baynes and so on … Kyle Weaver … and boy, one (Caleb Forrest) Tony talks about a lot, who hung in there and ate humble pie and just gave all he had for every moment he was there … we loved him. Tony still talks about him, because he could have "written it off" and gone to a smaller school, but he waited his turn.
Cougfan: You and Tony were so grateful and impressed when Taylor Rochestie offered to give up his scholarship as a senior so the Cougars could add Marcus Capers. Another scholarship eventually came free so Rochestie didn't have to give up his, but what did that tell you about Rochestie?
Bennett: Little things like that spoke volumes about the kind of kids that we had. I mean, he's (Tony's) had a number of good kids at Virginia, but not the whole group has been that committed to the program and that unselfish (as the Cougars). He's been able to find his share, but he's also found some who are very selfish. He didn't have much problem with selfishness or problems with kids out there (at WSU). It was a very special group and a special place. We still feel that way about Pullman.
Bennett: I knew they would definitely be better (partly because Rochestie transferred in from Tulane). I didn't think they'd have the success they had … his (Tony's) demeanor was different from mine, and it was kind of a welcome change for them. I had to be kind of a boot camp operator because I knew they needed that. He was able to capitalize on that and push them, but with a smile on his face. I had a grimace, he had a smile.
Cougfan: You cited burnout when you "retired" for the first time just three games into the 2000-01 season at Wisconsin. The Badgers were coming off a Final Four appearance; the Cougars had finished last in the Pac-10 three straight years. How did Jim Sterk talk you into coaching the Cougars?
Bennett: He had somebody contact me initially to see if I would confer with them about building a program, and if I would speak to Jim about it. I did both, and then Jim said, "Would you mind if I came out to see you?" So Jim flew into Madison. We were living in Madison. I realized then that it was to be more than a consultant, that they wanted me to come out there and bring Tony as an assistant. They were interested in both of us and hopeful that Tony someday would take over the program.
Cougfan: What did your wife think of all this?
Bennett: She wanted to make sure I had coached all I had wanted to coach. She didn't want me to leave the profession with another opportunity. I thought I was done. I had done what I wanted to at Wisconsin. We had rebuilt the program, but yet, there was still a part of me … I followed it (college basketball) pretty closely, followed the coaching, was still doing clinics. I think she felt I had a little more coaching in me.
Cougfan: Did Tony's decision to leave for Virginia surprise you?
Bennett: Right up til the end, I thought he was going to stay. The last conversation I had with him was (the night before), and he was pretty much going to stay. I think it was that day that John Paul Jones – who paid for the (Virginia basketball) arena – they flew his private plane out and picked up Tony and (wife) Laurel and flew them back to Virginia and made a second pitch to him. I didn't know about any of that … we were golfing. And then afterwards, we're in the bar having a drink, and I saw it come across the ESPN station on the bottom. That's when I first knew it. It turns out he was trying to get ahold of me all day. I didn't take my phone on the course.
Cougfan: What tipped the scales in Virginia's favor?
Bennett: When I talked to him, he compared it to a 52-50 basketball game. It was that close … We're from the east. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. One of my brothers is in D.C. His godfather is out there. Most of the connections he had from when he played with the (NBA's) Charlotte Hornets are on the east coast. It (the Virginia job) was a little more of an attraction because it was an area he was familiar with, and just the ACC. It was a tough decision, but he realized it was time for him to do it.
Cougfan: Reporters who cover the Cougars miss your colorful quotes. Do you remember comparing Aron Baynes to "a big bear with a sore ass"?
Bennett: I'll give you one more story about him that no one knew about. I had to penalize him once for drinking. It was right at the beginning of the season of his freshman year. He drank in the dorm, and I ran him and ran him and ran him, expecting him to get sick. Of course, he just kept doing it (running). Finally, I couldn't bear to do it anymore. I just looked at him and I said, "Well, Baynes, you want a Foster?" And he looks at me. He says, "I hate Foster. Give me a Bud."