Sterk talks Bennett, deal, program upgrades

ATHLETIC DIRECTOR Jim Sterk and basketball coach Tony Bennett are still working out details on the coach's new contract, but Sterk says he's hopeful one aspect of the deal -- Pullman itself -- will prove the biggest incentive of all to the national coach of the year. Because Pullman is such a special place, "The longer he stays, the tougher it will be for him to leave," says Sterk.

In a recent wide-ranging interview, Sterk talked about the State of the Crimson Nation -- much of which we'll address in another story tomorrow. But Topic One was the 37-year-old men's basketball coach who took Planet Coug by storm with 26 wins and a No. 3 NCAA tourney seed.

In one year on the job, Bennett has gone from just another guy on the list of most desirable draws at Cougar Club golf events, to genuine Palouse rock star.

Over the last two months, Coug fans have donated over $600,000 to Sterk's "fund for basketball excellence" to improve facilities and keep staff compensation competitive. The outpouring is testament to Bennett's unprecedented grip on the crimson faithful.

For perspective on how much catching up is needed, though, consider that Bennett last year offered to give up money earmarked for upgrading basketball offices so WSU could acquire cutting-edge hydrotherapy pools that will help put injured athletes from all sports back in uniform sooner.

Bill Doba called Bennett's selfless act a classy move that shows "his parents raised him right."

But it's the type of sacrifice you can bet Ernie Kent and Tim Floyd have never been confronted with.

Sterk won't publicly say how much he'd like to raise for the basketball fund, but it would probably be fair to assume $600,000 is around one-third of what's needed to put a rock-solid foundation underneath the program.

Progress, independent of that effort, is underway, Sterk said. Bennett's new, seven-year contract is the most visible. Practice locker room renovations were completed last summer and the relocation and upgrade of offices should be finished by this summer.

Among the pressing needs is renovation of the locker rooms at the Beasley Performing Arts Colisuem.

As for Bennett's contract, Sterk won't talk specifics because details are still being worked out, but he confirms the deal will include incentive and buyout clauses, plus deferred compensation and salary boosts for assistant coaches.

"I can't say he's going to be here forever but he's made a commitment and he's excited about the future and continuing to build the program," said Sterk. "He's recruiting and getting commitments for the '09 class and I think that says something. And the longer he stays, the tougher it will be for him to leave. And that's the kind of place this is, it's very special."

To donate to Sterk's basketball excellence fund, call Kori Kaufman at 206 219-2425 or kori@wsu.edu.

COMING TOMORROW: Sterk talks about the Martin Stadium upgrade and expansion; fundraising; and the annual Qwest Field football game.

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