New WSU basketball coach: 'You have to win'

Updated: October 16, 2003, 2:23 AM ET

PULLMAN, Wash. -- Shortly into a get-acquainted chat with reporters, new Washington State basketball coach Dick Bennett hustled over to a dry-erase board and began diagramming a play.

It was a sure sign that Bennett's celebrated case of coaching burnout was over.

The former Wisconsin coach is taking over a downtrodden Cougar program that has suffered seven consecutive losing seasons and dwindling fan support.

Bennett's solution? Schedule tougher opponents, focus on defense, and visit a few dormitories to drum up interest. But two decades of college coaching have taught him the true path to success.

"You have to win," said Bennett, 59. "That's very, very, very apparent."

The Cougars hold their first practice of the season at a Midnite Madness kickoff this Friday night at Bohler Gymnasium.

Bennett led Wisconsin to the Final Four in the 1999-2000 season, then abruptly retired three games into the next season, saying he was burned out.

In March, Washington State shocked Cougar Nation by announcing that Bennett would replace the fired Paul Graham. Bennett said he returned to coaching because he missed the game and the interaction with players.

"I was starting to worry because I was beginning to enjoy golf on television," said Bennett, who brings a 453-258 career record to the Palouse.

Moving from the Midwest to Pullman, an isolated town of 25,000 about 75 miles south of Spokane, Wash., hasn't been a great culture shock for a guy who spent 25 years coaching in Wisconsin.

What is new is the lack of interest in a basketball team that has won just nine Pac-10 games the past four seasons, and drew 2,300 fans per game to 12,000-seat Beasley Coliseum last year.

That's a far cry from the packed houses for Wisconsin games.

"I'm used to being asked lots of questions," Bennett said. "There is no grass roots basketball population here."

That makes him worry that his disciplined, deliberate style of play will bore fans even if the Cougars are winning.

Bennett used to visit dormitories at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin-Green Bay to drum up interest when he coached at those schools, and he plans to do that in Pullman.

His openness is a contrast to Graham's tense style with reporters. Graham was 31-79 in his four seasons, and by the end seemed convinced that winning was impossible in Pullman.

Bennett contended the recruiting and financial challenges facing the Cougars are old news to him.

"I've never had great resources to recruit," he said. That's why his teams emphasize defense, which he believes is "the great equalizer" against superior athletes.

But you still have to score points to win a basketball game, and Bennett said the Cougars will stress reducing turnovers and taking good shots.

Bennett acknowledged that will be a challenge for a team that had a run-and-gun offense last season behind returning star Marcus Moore. The team often took ill-advised shots and finished the season shooting 40 percent from the field.

"Guys want to use their own style and moves, and be more spontaneous than they should be," Bennett said.

He's watched film of last year's 7-20 team.

"The talent is OK," Bennett said of that team, "better than anything I've inherited before."

Bennett is unhappy with WSU's schedule, which features non-conference games against the likes of Southern Utah, Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne, Idaho and Montana.

"I want to beef it up a notch, and create some real interest," Bennett said, envisioning games against Big 10 and ACC teams.

"If I can get Knight to come out here, people will turn out," Bennett said, referring to Texas Tech coach Bob Knight.

Graham tried to kick regional powerhouse Gonzaga off his schedule, not wanting to lose to a recruiting rival.

"I would be nuts to not play them," Bennett said, not the least because the Bulldogs drew the biggest crowd at Beasley last season.

To establish better ties with potential recruits, Bennett traveled the state this summer to hold clinics and meet with high school coaches.

He hoped his hiring would produce a little more excitement among top Washington high school players about joining the Cougars. It did not, and the Cougars lost some recruits, Bennett said.

Bennett said one piece of advice Graham gave him was to push hard for a permanent practice gym. The Cougars play home games at Beasley, but that arena is booked for all kinds of events so they don't practice there much.

Bohler Gym, the old arena, is dedicated to volleyball. That leaves both the men's and women's basketball teams traveling among different gyms on campus to practice.

"We need a place that's just basketball," Bennett said.

Bennett's career is notable for quick turnarounds of three Wisconsin teams. At 59, he'll need the same magic at WSU.

"I don't have that much time," Bennett said.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index