- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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PULLMAN, Wash. -- Dick Bennett was frustrated and with good reason. His players were tossing the ball away as if it were a game of keep away. His motion offense was being abused, his players were confused and the Cougars looked nothing like a team ready for the season to begin but just individuals milling about the court.
"You can't wait for a plan," Bennett implored to his team, rubbing his face while expressing his unbelievable passion for every possession -- regardless of it being in a game or practice. "You've got to make decisions on your own."
Bennett made maybe his biggest decision last March, a life-changing move that brought him out of the depths of boredom that came with retirement. He returned to college basketball less than three years after walking way from Wisconsin following a win over Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. It was a sudden end to his coaching career, one that came less than eight months after his Badgers reached the 2000 Final Four.
But in deciding to pick up the clipboard again, Bennett couldn't have picked a destination further from his Wisconsin roots. Or one further away from the success he enjoyed in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament.
Washington State is, by definition, the Pac-10's doormat. It's a program with three -- yes three -- Pac-10 wins the past two seasons, nine over the past four campaigns and just 21 over the last seven trips through the Pac-10.
Madison is a college town. Pullman is a pit stop.
But for Bennett, this quiet Northwest town will be where his legacy could ultimately be framed. Because, if he can create a winner at Washington State, he will go down as one of the greatest coaches, ever.
"There are days like today that make you wonder," said Bennett following a late-October session. "But then you realize you're alive again.
"I remember Al McGuire saying, 'If you're going to coach, you have to love two feelings -- one is winning and one is losing.' If in losing and playing poorly it arouses your passions then that's OK. It says that you're alive. If you're retired and nothing is there to arouse your passions then it can become a very depressing situation. As much as I love golf, I found the last year or so that I was bottoming out and losing my zest."
Paul Graham had a passion to succeed at Washington State. But in four seasons, he was hampered by a myriad of injuries while never creating enough of a steady stream of talent to compete in the Pac-10. Enter Bennett.
Washington State athletic director Jim Sterk decided to make an abrupt change, knowing he needed to bring in someone who could revive the interest in the program beyond the state's borders. Graham was an outsider. Kevin Eastman, his predecessor, was as well. Not since Kelvin Sampson, who knew the state and Northwest, have the Cougars been competitive, going to the 1994 NCAA Tournament before Sampson left for Oklahoma.
But the Pac-10 isn't the same since Sampson left. It's better with Stanford joining Arizona as a perennial power. Cal and Oregon are back to being regular contenders. Arizona State is on the verge of joining that group, too, while USC is a consistent presence in the upper half. Last season was a blip on UCLA's postseason radar and the Bruins will assume their rightful place among the Pac-10 elite soon enough under Ben Howland.
Washington State? Along with Washington and Oregon State, the Cougars go all but unnoticed each year.
Ah, but the same could be said about Wisconsin prior to Bennett's arrival in 1995. Sure, the Badgers had been to the '93 NCAA Tournament, but it was their only such trip since ... 1947. The Badgers weren't at the depths of Washington State, winning a handful of Big Ten games each season. But Bennett was Wisconsin's fourth head coach in five seasons.
Bennett, however, was a sharp change from the past, someone who had a style that could work if he had the right players who understood what he wanted to do. He didn't need super athletes or McDonald's All-Americans. He just needed fundamentally sound basketball players. And he took those types of players to the 2000 Final Four.
It was the same story at Wisconsin-Green Bay when his Phoenix upset Jason Kidd and Cal in the 1994 NCAA Tournament and at UW-Stevens Point where he won 173 games in nine seasons before his stint in Packer country. But in the winter of 2001, Bennett had had enough, leaving not only the bench but the state he'd become so successful in coaching.
He and his wife Anne did what most retired couples do -- they spent January and February in St. Augustine, Fla., playing golf and walking the beach.
"It was a good life," Bennett said. It wasn't, however, a fulfilling lifestyle. Then Sterk called.
"They didn't push me, they just kept it low key and then came down to see me," Bennett said. "I finally became attracted to the whole situation. I am happy I'm back because I can feel the passion again."
When Bennett arrived in Pullman, Sterk tried to get some of the current players in town to meet with their new coach. But the only player within driving distance during spring break was junior guard Thomas Kelati, who lived two hours away in Walla Walla.
"I was impressed in the first 10 minutes," Kelati said. "I was impressed with the strategies, his style. I wish I could have had him the last two years. I'm so excited. I have a chance to be a part of change for Washington State."
Still a few years away from social security, Bennett has plenty of years in the coaching tank to see his system succeed in Pullman.
Maybe that's why it's no surprise to see fellow sixty-somethings Tom Davis and Billy Tubbs back in the business, too. But, unlike the 60-year-old Bennett, both Davis and Tubbs remained in their comfort zone. Davis remained in Iowa, coming out of retirement to lead Des Moines-based Drake this season. Tubbs, who left TCU to become the athletic director at Lamar, returned to coaching the school where he first made a name for himself, replacing Mike Deane with himself during the offseason.
"I couldn't do that. I needed to break away," Bennett said. "I had been in Wisconsin for 36 years, 11 as a high school, at Stevens Point, Green Bay and Wisconsin. Familiarity does breed contempt. Everybody knew what I was going to do in clinics. My critics were always going to be my critics. I couldn't do another clinic in the state. People were starting to only come out of loyalty instead of learning something new. I had used up my time there. Coming out here was such a fresh start."
Still, Bennett isn't on an island. He has surrounded himself with mostly friends. Longtime colleague and former UWGB coach Mike Heideman is his stay-at-home assistant, working with Bennett instead of going out on the road recruiting. Bennett grabbed a local voice in assistant Mike Burns, formerly of Eastern Washington, but also added Ron Sanchez as the director of basketball operations out of Indiana's men's program where Bennett's daughter, Kathi, is the women's coach.
And then there is Tony, as in his son Tony Bennett. He is simply an extension of Dick as WSU's top assistant.
Tony Bennett played for his father at Green Bay, and following a pro career, worked his way up as a glorified manager on the Final Four team to third assistant under Brad Soderberg during the 2000-01 season. He was an assistant the past two seasons under Bo Ryan during the Badgers' back-to-back Big Ten title runs. He had a chance to stay with Ryan, and was on a fast track to getting a head job in the Midwest. But the lure of going West with his father for his biggest challenge, not to mention the potential of taking over for his dad after Bennett's five-year contract runs out, was too good to pass.
"The first thing I said to Tony, as much as I wanted him here, was that I wasn't sure he should come," Bennett said. "I didn't know if I could get it going, and I would have hated to see him give up a good position."
Bennett made it clear his son was his first and only choice to succeed him at Washington State. And the WSU administration has stated it will strongly consider Tony down the line if Bennett can make Washington State a winner. There is no clause in Bennett's contract, however, that says Tony will take over for his father.
"I'm not ashamed to say that," said Bennett, who with Anne gets to see Tony's two children daily as an added bonus. "What father wouldn't want his son in the same business.''
"How many sons get to be with their father every day," said Tony, 34. "I cherish that. He's been a steadying force here. I've never been a part of rebuilding, but he said he has done this everywhere he's been.
"If he can do it here, wow."
Nobody is expecting Washington State to suddenly rise to Pac-10 contender, but respectability is within reach. There is some talent in Pullman. Senior Marcus Moore is a Wooden preseason All-American. The scoring point declared for the draft, but withdrew his name after the Chicago pre-draft camp because he was told he wouldn't be chosen in the first round. Moore averaged 18.2 points in just 18 games last season because of ankle surgery.
Kelati led the Pac-10 in 3-point shooting (45.6 percent). Junior Chris Schlatter, who is playing for his third coach in four seasons after transferring from Saint Mary's in 2001, averaged 10.7 points in the final three games and put up a season-high 19 against UCLA. Shami Gill, the one player who actually looked like he understood what a "blocker" and "mover" was within Bennett's motion offense, could be a hidden gem with his ability to play inside and out. He averaged a decent 7.8 points and 6.2 rebounds in non-conference games before back and foot injuries hampered him in the Pac-10.
And transfer guard Jeff Varem, a native of Nigeria, gives the Cougars size and toughness on the wing. He still has to work on his fundamentals, but he'll become a factor once he's eligible (Washington State and the NCAA are reviewing how he got to the U.S. before going to junior college and his eligibility is in limbo to start the season).
"I definitely know I can play in this system," Moore said. "This was made for me. There are a lot of screens, a lot of movement and that will create angles for me. I can definitely play in it. We trust him. We believe in what he's doing and we'll work through this."
Both Bennetts say the Cougars are grasping the defensive man-to-man principles faster than the offense. The team, however, is too timid at this stage in the season to fully understand how to play motion under Bennett.
When Bennett did raise his voice during practice, the players froze and listened.
"He has that presence," Schlatter said. "Everything he says my ears are wide open. I try to get as much out of him every day. When he raises his voice, we've all got to listen to what he has to say."
During practice, Bennett singled out Kelati and Schlatter as the team's top shooters saying they must find a way to get their shots.
"I'm not as assertive as I need to be," Kelati said. "Last year I didn't want to make a mistake because I would get subbed out. We're still getting used to everything. It will catch on.
"All of these guys are finesse players, and you can see that we're not as mentally tough as we need to be. We've got the players to do it, but we've got to get mentally tougher."
Said Schlatter: "We need to be fundamentally sound but we're not doing a good job of that. But it's early and we're still working hard."
What may be the most amazing aspect of a group of Cougars not accustomed to winning is how much they want to win for Bennett. Bennett, meanwhile, wants them to grasp that they should win for themselves. But both parties are invested in each other. They understand the nation will notice Washington State, if for no other reason, because of Bennett. And that has put the onus on the players to produce.
"He told us he came here for one reason and that was to win," Schlatter said. "It's just a matter of time before things start happening. It already has brought us credibility. He wants us to play physical inside. There's no reason why we can't do it."
Moore, for one, is glad the eyes of the nation are on Bennett because that means they are also on Washington State and "we need that added pressure."
Bennett hasn't been shy, either, in telling his players that he has four recruits coming in for the 2004-05 season who understand the game. He's tickled that the Cougars were able to get the four players they wanted, players who are skilled and ready to contribute. He's looking for basketball players -- smart players, savvy players -- not just athletes.
Commitments from center Chris Henry (Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif.), forward Daven Hamerling (Fruita, Colo.), forward Robbie Cowgill (Austin, Texas) and point guard Derrick Low (Honolulu) will likely translate into four-year players who will buy into the whole system from Day 1.
"I didn't know he was so well known, but he is huge in recruiting," Tony said of his father. "It's almost easier outside of the state. A kid from in-state feels like Washington State isn't a good program. But further away, Dick Bennett and the Pac-10 is a huge plus."
Tony Bennett said his father is at peace coaching at a place where "people say it can't be done."
"This is probably the greatest challenge he's ever had," Tony said.
And Dick Bennett expects the Cougars to turn the corner. He just can't predict when.
"What I love seeing is a group coming together," Dick said. "It's like a blank canvas. You can throw the paint out there and see it become something. It fills a creative void. I guess that's why I'm back."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Dick Bennett walked away after reaching a coaching pinnacle. So why has he returned in Pullman, Wash.?