Washington State Starting Over Again After Tony Bennett's Surprising Departure

Chris CluffCorrespondent IIMarch 31, 2009

WESTWOOD, CA - JANUARY 12:  Head Coach Tony Bennett of the Washington State University Cougars looks on from the sideline during the second half of their NCAA Pac-10 game against the UCLA Bruins on January 12, 2008 at Pauley Pavilion in Westwood, California.  The Bruins defeated the Cougars 81-74  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

It was going to happen sooner or later, but it was pretty surprising to see Tony Bennett leave Washington State this soon.

Yes, Bennett was highly sought last year at this time after he had led the Cougars to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history, but when he declined to pursue jobs at Indiana and LSU, it seemed it would take an even bigger school to lure him away from WSU.

And when the Cougs were knocked out of the NIT in the first round this season, you had to figure he would be around for another year or two before his stock started to rise again.

But apparently Virginia was still impressed because the Cavaliers swept him away Monday, leaving the Cougs to engage in a coaching search for the first time since Dick Bennett arrived in 2003.

This day was inevitable, but it's too bad it came before Tony Bennett had built the Cougars into a steady NCAA presence. He took the Cougars to the tournament using players his father had recruited—Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, Taylor Rochestie, and Aron Baynes.

He was just beginning to place his own mark on the program, bringing in Klay Thompson, DeAngelo Casto, and Marcus Capers last year, and Brock Motum, Xavier Thames, David Chadwick, and Anthony Brown this year.

As with any coaching change, the question becomes: Will any players leave because the coach who recruited them left?

Thompson, WSU's best potential returning player, told the Spokesman-Review that he was shocked and disappointed. He picked WSU over Notre Dame and Michigan.

He's probably regretting it now.

It won't be shocking to see any of the incoming freshmen transfer. It won't be surprising to see any of the sophomores-to-be leave, either.

So, much like what happened when Kelvin Sampson left back in 1994, WSU is left in the lurch again just as the program was finding solid footing.

In 1994, the Cougars were coming off their first NCAA tourney appearance since 1983 and had Isaac Fontaine and Mark Hendrickson returning.

Even though Fontaine and Hendrickson played together for two more years, the Cougars couldn't get back to the tourney with Kevin Eastman as coach. In fact, once they were gone, the program deteriorated under Eastman and then Paul Graham and did not begin to rise again until the Bennetts arrived in 2003.

If WSU doesn't bring in the right coach, this could be the same cycle starting all over again.

Perhaps Bennett's two classes will be good enough in two years to get to the tournament, but if they aren't, and if the new coach is as bad as Eastman and Graham were, WSU might be in for another long drought.

While Bennett's departure was inevitable at some point, it doesn't change the fact that it's another sad day for WSU.

Its football team is a long, long way from respectability, and now its basketball team has to start all over again, too.

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