Three years after taking over the reigns from Dick Bennett, son Tony delivered 69 wins, three post-season victories, two NCAA tournament appearances and one collective punch to the gut of Cougars around the country.
Sadly, it feels all of the aforementioned list have been negated by Bennett’s last move as the WSU head coach.
Monday afternoon, reports surfaced that Bennett had announced his decision to accept the head coaching position at the University of Virginia. Within minutes of the reports, my cell phone was bombarded with text messages from friends hoping I had some inside information that could negate the reports and restore their sanity.
Sadly, my sources confirmed their worst fears. Tony Bennett—once looked upon as the savior of WSU hoops—was gone.
Sadness immediately shifted to outrage as more details surfaced about the events that led to Bennett’s swift departure—a departure that took everyone by surprise.
The players, the coaches and the administration. None saw it coming. Then, shortly after 2 pm, players were called into a meeting at Beasley Coliseum where Bennett broke the news.
“In the end it’s a business decision for coach Bennett and he has to look at it for his family and what he thinks is best,” freshman guard Marcus Capers told Vince Grippi of the Spokesman Review. “I’m not mad on that part, but he told my mom he was going to stay here so I’m a little hurt by that.”
Just one year ago, Bennett turned down overtures from Indiana, Marquette, LSU and California, signing a contract extension and re-affirming his commitment to Cougar basketball.
“I will remain as the head coach at Washington State and I look forward to building for the future” Bennett said. “I am thankful for the opportunity this university gave me to become head coach and for the continued support of President Floyd, Jim Sterk and the entire Cougar Nation. Washington State University is a special place.”
If Tony Bennett is committed to Cougar basketball, then I’m Brad Pitt.
It’s not so much the fact that Bennett left Washington State for more money that is bothersome. It’s the fact that his move to Virginia seems to be a lateral one in terms of program prestige. It’s the fact that he left his players high and dry after coaxing them to WSU on family principles.
For the last three years, Coach Bennett preached the five principles of Cougar basketball: humility, passion, unity, servant hood and thankfulness. He recruited Capers, DeAngelo Casto and James Watson to Pullman based on promises that he would be there to mentor them through their college careers after surviving difficult childhoods.
But, due to a swift courtship by Virginia, those promises will go largely unfulfilled.
Once it became official, news of Tony Bennett’s departure drew flavorful responses around Cougar nation. Several heartbroken ladies pondered what to do with their, “Our coach is hotter than yours,” shirts. I quickly suggested they save them for times when toilet paper is scarce.
“Tony Phony Bologne,” one person wrote on Cougfan.com.
“Is this an early April Fools joke,” ASWSU President Brandon Scheller asked.
No. It’s no April Fools joke. Now that Bennett is gone, the Cougar administration must go into damage control mode.
First and foremost, WSU must make every effort to retain current players and recruits. But doing so may be easier said than done. In the next several days, players will speak with their families and some have hinted that their decisions may hinge on who replaces Coach Bennett at the helm of Cougar basketball.
“I’m disappointed, I’m really disappointed,” Klay Thompson said. “Shoot, I don’t know. But it’s life. I’ll adjust. As far as my future, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ll see who they’re going to bring in.”
Among those rumored to draw Cougar interest are Portland State’s Ken Bone and St. Marys’ Randy Bennett.
Whoever the Cougars bring in must have the ability to recruit on a national scene. Personally, I like Billy Gillispie or Billy Grier.
Gillispie will be looking for a job offer in a major conference and the Cougars have over one million dollars per year budgeted for a head coach. Gillispie expects to receive nearly six million dollars from his Kentucky buyout and likely wont demand more than a million or two per season.
More importantly, Gillispie has a track record of turning programs around.
In 2004, Gillispie turned the University of Texas El-Paso from a 6-24 pushover to a 24-8 NCAA tournament team. He won 21 games in his first season at Texas A&M, has been to the NCAA tournament four times and has 20 plus wins in five of his seven seasons as a head coach.
Grier, on the other hand, served several seasons under Mark Few at Gonzaga before taking over at San Diego. In just two years, he took San Diego to the NCAA tournament and made them a contender in the West Coast Conference.
The addition of Grier would presumably help recruiting locally thanks to his connections made during his time at Gonzaga.
Perhaps most irritating in the whole debacle is the abrupt void left by Coach Bennett. Not only do I feel for the players, but I feel for those alumni who bought into every word that Bennett uttered.
I feel for those who pledged more into the Basketball Excellence fund, despite hard economic times. I feel for the administration who gave Tony his first coaching opportunity and made every accommodation, only to see Bennett bolt once his last group of impact seniors left the program.
I feel for the fans who feel jaded, jilted, and jolted by Bennett for hopping on a chartered jet out of Pullman without an official statement.
Pullman, WSU and Cougar nation deserved better.
So, as I sit here typing this column watching Bennett’s flight tracker head toward Virginia, I say goodbye Coach Bennett.
Thank you for the three years of success you brought to the program. Thank you for the NCAA memories. You had a chance to engrave yourself into Cougar history. You had a chance to be the Coach K or Pat Summitt of Washington State.
Instead, years from now when people look back this era of Cougar basketball, it will be the players that we remember. You held Pullman in the palm of your hands and threw us out of bounds like an errant pass.
Years from now, when people look back at this era of Cougar basketball, it wont be Coach K or Summitt that you draw comparisons to.
Oh, no. It will be Kelvin Sampson.