Pulling no punches: Dick Bennett, Part I

PULLMAN—One day before Washington State played their 2004-05 season opener, Cougfan.com sat down with the always compelling basketball coach, <b>Dick Bennett</b>. A myriad of topics were covered in this thoughtful, straight-up talk with one of the game's pre-eminent defensive coaches. If you're a fan of clichés and coachspeak — or just plain weak-kneed — this CF.C exclusive isn't for you.

Four years ago Dick Bennett retired as head men's basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin, citing burn-out.

Fifty-eight years old at the time, with one Final Four appearance and 36 years of high school and college coaching under his belt, even Bennett himself didn't think a return to coaching bench was in his future.

But in 2003 one of the most respected coaches in the game of basketball accepted the head coaching position at Washington State. Last season, he led the Cougars to a 13-16 record and a tie for seventh place in the Pac-10, an immediate improvement from years past.

Cougfan.com: Why did you come back to coaching, and why come to Washington State of all places?

Dick Bennett: I came back because I missed it. I missed college basketball. And I came back because it was a way to get my son (associate head coach Tony Bennett) involved with me and for him to have a good chance at a head job very soon down the road.

I felt bad that I had gone out without finishing the season (Bennett left the Badgers in December 2000). I was never quite comfortable leaving the game that way. And Washington State...I guess the primary reason is because it's the one that was there. I'd had opportunities prior to that year, but I wasn't ready.

I didn't realize even then how big the rebuilding job would be. I used to say that I had one more rebuilding job in me, but this is even bigger than I'd imagined because it's in a league where it's tough to gain ground. And it's in a place where it's tough to generate a great deal of enthusiasm. We're limited in terms of population and resources and so on. It is the mother of rebuilding jobs that I've faced.

CF.C: Why did you retire in the first place?

BENNETT: I had planned to retire at the end of five years at Wisconsin. I'd signed a five-year contract and said if I cannot rebuild the program in five years, I'm just going to step aside. Well, I got caught up in the excitement of going to the Final Four (in 2000) and we had pretty much our same team back and I thought, 'I can come back for another year.

But I realized pretty early into it that I probably should have stepped aside when I had planned. I was just not feeling particularly well, emotionally and physically. I went through as much as I could. It's not the way I wanted to go out, but I felt good about the state of the program. I just needed time away. But I didn't think I was going to return. I didn't plan to return to coaching.

CF.C: After coming to WSU, what did you discover you had missed about coaching?

BENNETT: I really missed the creative aspect of coaching; trying to pull things together, trying to find a way for your team to compete. I have always had an underdog mentality, so it was natural coming here to employ that particular approach, and I liked that.

I like the people. The folks I have met here and have come on to support us have been really genuine. We've made friends here who will always be friends.

CF.C: What didn't you miss?

BENNETT: The travel was more than I anticipated. It's just not an easy place to get from or to. I've never been a good traveler and I haven't improved with age.

The recruiting is very hard here. We have not been able to recruit at the level that I think you need to recruit to be really good at this level.

I look at the guys Washington has attracted (the Huskies recently signed Top-25 talents Martell Webster and Jon Brockman), really after just one year of success, and of course who Gonzaga and most of the Pac-10 schools have attracted, and we really struggle to get in on those kind of kids. Now that can change with success, but it's certainly not easy. It's much harder here than it was at Wisconsin.

Finally, there aren't a lot of pure basketball fans. In the Midwest, even if things aren't good, you've got tremendously interested basketball fans. That brings a lot of criticism if you're not doing well. The lack of criticism I kind of like; it's good to know people are not holding you accountable for every loss, but on the other side of it, it's hard to generate real interest. The student body is lukewarm at best, and because of where we are, you don't get a lot of travel to the games. Until it happens here, I'll probably always miss that intense interest that college basketball fans have.

CF.C: What do you look for in a high school recruit?

BENNETT: I like skill, of course. I like smarts and I like talent. The physical dimension has to be there to a degree, combined with a great attitude and skills. You can divvy those three up any way you want. But if the attitude is questionable, it's never going to happen for that player, at least not with me.

That's the problem we fight (at WSU). In the two years I've been here, I think the biggest weakness is attitude. I don't think we're terribly far behind in skill and physical talent. But when things don't go well, the head drops, and not all guys work as hard as they can. I don't think a lot of college basketball players coming in realize how hard they have to work in order to play that hard in games.

Sometimes we recruit kids whose coaches say, "Oh, he's a hard worker," and then they get here and you find out he's not such a hard worker. He's a hard worker when things are going well. But for almost every kid, college has a lot more downside than the high school game. It's so hard to see how a player will deal with that, and I wish I had a way to predict that.

Coming on Monday: Don't miss Part II of our exclusive interview with coach Dick Bennett. Happy Thanksgiving!

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