Benn savors his 'cup of coffee'

The term 'cup of coffee' in sports jargon usually refers to a minor league baseball player that gets called up long enough to play one or two games - long enough to have a 'cup of coffee' - before being demoted. Kyle Benn thought he already had his 'cup' after being picked up as a free agent by the Tennessee Titans after a storied career on the Washington offensive line, but life had another 'cup' waiting for him in the wings.

Benn is known throughout Husky nation as being the bedrock center that helped lead the Huskies to their last Rose Bowl appearance - and win - back in 2001. He was a four-year letterwinner and an All-Pac-10 pick as a senior. But when things didn't work out with the Titans, Benn slimmed out and started thinking about career opportunities outside the NFL, ultimately coming back to Montlake to work as a graduate assistant in 2004 and 2005. He first helped out Charlie Dickey, but when Tyrone Willingham was hired he basically became the assistant to Willingham's offensive line coach at Notre Dame - Mike Denbrock.

When his second - and last - stint as GA came around at the end of last season, Benn took a well-deserved break from everything, and was in the process of sending out resumes and setting up interviews for coaching opportunities, as well as job options in the business world. Being an All-Pac-10 and Region VII Academic All-American, there was never a doubt that Benn was going to put his degree to good use, but continuing with coaching was always there in the back of his head too. Fast-forward to the Tuesday before spring ball was set to commence at Washington.

"Coach Willingham called and wanted to meet with me," Benn told Dawgman.com. "I came in and he told me what the situation was and I was out at conditioning that afternoon. So what the 'situation'? It had to do with the health of Denbrock.

Mike Denbrock had been diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, an illness that attacks the intestinal tract. Denbrock had been diagnosed back in July 2005 and had gone through the Huskies football season that fall without incident, due to his diet and medication. But that all changed right before spring ball. A relapse had occurred, forcing Denbrock into the hospital and the Huskies scrambling for options.

Enter Kyle Benn.

"It all happened so fast, but why wouldn't I want to do this?" said Benn. "I met with him (Willingham) at 2 p.m. and I was out on the field at 4. I jumped on it, even if it was just going to be for a month. Someone made the comment that, I was gone for a couple of months but it felt like a long weekend. The players were great. They've always given me a lot of respect and I gave them the same. Coach Willingham told them what was going on and they treated me just like a regular coach and we went right to work. It was a good deal."

While Denbrock rested and tended to treating his illness, Benn became Denbrock, as best he could. His familiarity with Denbrock's style and way of handling things made him an ideal replacement. "You won't know how good they are until the end of next season, but if you look as last year's o-line and Coach Denbrock may have been their fourth or fifth coach," said Benn. "That's real tough. Every o-line coach teaches different terminology and everything else and when you change that every year, you really are re-teaching everything. You're saying, 'Hey, forget what that guy taught you last year, here's what we do now', and that's a big changeover. They wanted me to come in and help is because I know Coach Denbrock, I know how he likes to teach. Having two years of continuity and knowing that their coaches are going to be here and not going to be fired...everything is in place to help their confidence and their work ethic for getting ready for the season."

And Willingham has stressed time and time again this spring the need for the program to step back and get to fundamentals. The offensive line is no different. "When I was a player, spring ball was all about re-teaching everything, the fundamentals and the fundamentals of the playbook," said Benn. "It felt stupid as a player because they would re-teach stance and steps and how to huddle and it was like, 'I know how to do this'. But they did that every year, because it was so important. And being in this role now, you understand why. And I felt my role was just to make sure they were a little better off than they were at the beginning of spring ball."

The two coaches kept in constant communication. They couldn't be in the football offices handling official business together - that would be impermissable by NCAA rules. But Benn could give Denbrock an idea as to what was going on and Denbrock could pass along notes based on the film of spring drills he was being sent. "I told him what I was going to do with the guys during practice and he was telling me anything that he wanted," Benn said. "He was at home on the couch and pretty bored, I would imagine."

There's little doubt Denbrock trusted Benn implicitly. "He kept telling me, 'You're doing fine,'" said Benn. "I tried not to bug him too much, but he didn't seem to be too worried about it. It was like having a mentor to talk to every night. It was a good experience."

And in the short time Benn was an assistant coach, he picked up some uncanny mannerisms - one that was very specific to a former UW head coach. "When the guys came back for the alumni barbeque, they said, 'When did you pick up the 'Gilby hat throw'?'" Benn said, referring to Keith Gilbertson. "I told them, 'Now I know why he did it all the time.' There's a lot more stress. It was never a 'what did I get myself into'-situation. It's just a lot more responsibility. That's how it goes.

"I'm so familiar with everything. The only thing that was different (from being a GA) was the idea that when they miss a block, it's like you miss a block. Like being a tight ends coach, if they drop a ball, it's like you dropped the ball."

Benn tried to reach Gilbertson, but never was able to connect. He did, however, talk to Dickey and former UW players Pete Kaligis and Dominic Daste, who are now coaching at Montana. "They are all great guys," said Benn. "It's nice to have a brotherhood of guys you can call up that are going through the same things with football, the same issues. You usually talk to them about their families and stuff, but now I could talk shop with them."

So after three weeks of being as close to the offensive line as possible, what was Benn's assessment? "They are all getting better," he said. "The thing I noticed is that they are eager to get better. And that's moreso than I've seen here before. If they did something wrong, they'll say, 'Hey, what do I need to do to do it right', and they'll try to do it the right way. Guys like Stan (Daniels) and Clay (Walker) have had good springs and Ben Ossai has really stepped up, he's running with the ones. Juan Garcia...everyone has had a good spring. There hasn't been any huge flops, huge disappointments. Everyone has steadily progressed and worked hard and are eager to do it. They know there's a lot of work to do, so let's get to work. That's made it a lot easier for me."

But now that Denbrock is back in his official capacity as of Monday, Benn's 'cup of coffee' has just run out of refills. And frankly, he's not sure what he can do about watching the team. But he desperately wants to see the results of his teachings in action. "There are such strict rules on how all of this works that I think I'll just go out there and be a fan for the Spring Game," he said. "But I'm going to ask first. God knows we've had problems with rules before, so I'm going to make sure we're doing everything right. But absolutely I want to be out there, peaking around the corner and seeing how they are doing. Hopefully I got them going just how Coach Denbrock would have and I know they are already getting better with him back. There's a vested interest and I want to see how they play."

And while it's back to what he was doing before he got the call - posting resumes and setting up interviews - Benn admits that his job search might be slanted just a little bit more toward the coaching track as a possible profession. "You get a taste of what it's like to be a full-time coach and I liked that feeling," he said. "I liked that responsibility and everything that goes along with it. It definitely piqued my interest again."


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