SPOKANE, Wash. -- It turns out, Tony Bennett's heart is at
Washington State University.
The first-year basketball coach, who led the Cougars to their
finest season is six decades, said Wednesday he had agreed in
principle to remain for seven years at the Pullman school.
His salary and other details will be worked out after Bennett
returns from this weekend's Final Four in Atlanta.
"I want to be a part of Cougar basketball," Bennett said in a
conference call with reporters from Salt Lake City.
"I think our journey has just started," Bennett said. "We
don't want to be a flash in the pan."
There had been speculation that Bennett, who has already won
several coach of the year awards, might jump to a more prestigious
program after leading the Cougars to a 26-8 record and the second
round of the NCAA Tournament, where they lost 78-74 in double
overtime to Vanderbilt.
Bennett, 37, and athletics director Jim Sterk have been
discussing a contract extension for the past week. Bennett, who
made about $350,000 plus incentives this season as the lowest-paid
coach in the Pacific-10, will see a significant raise, Sterk said.
"It will be more competitive," Sterk said. "But it also takes
into account it is not as expensive to live in Pullman as LA."
The contract is likely to include a variety of incentives, plus
deferred compensation and a larger buyout clause, Sterk said.
Daven Harmeling, who will be a junior on the team next year,
said players had expected Bennett to return.
"I think the whole team is just excited to have him back,"
Harmeling said. "We're looking forward to taking another step in
the right direction next year."
Bennett succeeded his dad this season after Dick Bennett spent
three years rebuilding one of the most downtrodden major conference
programs in the nation.
The Cougars had not had a winning season since 1995-96 and
qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994,
and only the fifth time in their history.
The Cougars had been predicted to finish last in the Pacific-10.
Instead, they climbed to No. 9 in the Top 25, finished second in
the Pac-10, and re-energized the moribund basketball atmosphere at
Attendance at Friel Court jumped from an average of 3,797 per
game in '05-06 to 7,177 this season -- 8,869 for Pac-10 games. Sterk
said that produced a $250,000 increase in ticket revenues.
Young women showed up at games with signs reading "We love you
Coach Dreamy," a reference from TV's "Grey's Anatomy," and
"Bringing Sexy Back to Basketball," a reference to Bennett's
Bennett recruited nearly all the key players on the team, many
of them ignored by other major college programs. All but senior
Ivory Clark are expected back next season.
That includes guards Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver and forward
Robbie Cowgill, who will all be seniors. Also expected back for
their junior years are center Aron Baynes, guard Taylor Rochestie
and Harmeling. Nikola Koprivica, a freshman who provided some good
play before a knee injury ended his season early, is expected to
recover and come back.
Bennett was an assistant at Wisconsin, and moved with his father
to Pullman. The Bennetts had an informal agreement that Tony would
be given a chance to succeed his father.
As this year's team tied the 1941 team for most wins in program
history, Sterk and new WSU president Elson S. Floyd said keeping
Bennett was one of their top priorities.
But it was feared that WSU could not match the money offered by
some basketball powerhouses. An e-mail campaign among Cougars'
boosters raised pledges of more than $250,000 to keep Bennett.
Tony Bennett and his wife, Laurel, built a new house in Pullman,
and have said they consider it a good place to raise their
children, Anna, 5, and Eli, 4.
Bennett was born in Wisconsin, played for his father at
Wisconsin-Green Bay and then spent a few years in the NBA at
Charlotte before moving into coaching.
Tony Bennett said he had been contacted about other college
jobs, but declined to discuss them. He also recalled advice to seek
a new job if he had a good season.
But he said he was grateful to Washington State for giving him a
chance to be a head coach.
"I knew I wanted to be back," Bennett said, adding that his
family is comfortable in Pullman, a town of 25,000 people 75 miles
south of Spokane.
"For me it's about fit," Bennett said, adding that is the same
thing he tells recruits. "This program, this job, fits me."