In more than three decades of coaching, Dick Bennett has developed a simple philosophy about basketball. It’s a team game.
“Once players understand and embrace that concept, basketball becomes simple-at both ends of the floor,” he says.” Viewed strictly as an individual showcase, it becomes more difficult. There is room for individual play to shine within the team framework, but in Bennett’s scheme of things, “we” takes precedence over “me.”
Listening to Washington State University’s new basketball boss talk about the game, one learns about the sport and the man. He’s as much a student of the game as he is a teacher/coach. He describes the gym as “one of the truly great classrooms.” Each game is “a blue book exam.”
Years in the coaching profession have taught him that basketball is a “neck up” endeavor as much as an athletic pursuit. One without the other makes for an incomplete performance. “When you have someone strong in both areas, you have a very special player,” he says. “And when you have a nucleus of players like that, you are going to have a very special team.”
That’s what he wants to create as WSU’s 15th basketball coach. Having earned a reputation for resurrecting languishing basketball programs, he knows it will take time to restore respectability to a program that has been dormant for a decade. He doesn’t say how much time. First there’s an attitude to change, confidence to build. The players will have to buy into his coaching philosophy, and consistently play “hard, smart, and together.”
Easy to say, but the challenge is to get them to do it. College players are at a stage where a coach can help them develop good work habits, but Bennett says it is harder than at the high school level. “You have to accept college players where they are, and work with them on that part of the game that can still be shaped.” His goal is to put them into an environment where they can succeed, and help make their teammates better.
“I want to put a team on the floor that always plays to win, as opposed to just looking good.” His career collegiate record-453-258, including a 280-178 mark at the Division I level-reflects that. He guided the University of Wisconsin, Madison to three NCAA tournament appearances. His 2000 team reached the Final Four, losing to eventual champion Michigan State in the semifinals. That year, the media described the Wisconsin Badgers as “an ugly” team-more hard-nosed than finesse.
“Sometimes it wasn’t pretty,” he admits.
A couple of games into the 2000-2001 season, Bennett abruptly chose to step aside from coaching. He cited burnout. After three years, he came back to the game, because he missed the players and competition. His passion for coaching “has never been higher,” he says.
After interviewing Bennett for the WSU coaching position, athletic director Jim Sterk sensed that burning desire in the veteran coach, and signed him to a five-year pact.
On the competitive side, Bennett acknowledges he’s “relatively intense and focused.” Away from the game, he’s “laid back and private.” His faith is the most important dimension of his life. He and his wife, Anne, were high school sweethearts in Wisconsin. They have three grown children. Kathi, the eldest, is head women’s basketball coach at Indiana; Amy is a speech therapist in Green Bay; and son Tony, a former NBA player with the Charlotte Hornets, is now a WSU assistant.
One of the half-dozen books sandwiched between bookends on Bennett’s cherry wood desk in his office at Bohler Gym is A Season with Coach Dick Bennett. It highlights the 1996-97 campaign at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. With both hands he picks up a basketball from the corner of his desk and holds it thoughtfully. It’s a keepsake from the Badgers’ Final Four appearance, his last game.
Today he is demanding, but flexible and easy going, as long as the kids are competing. When the team yields or quits, he becomes upset. In his program confidence is earned. As players, he says it is who they are in practice, and what they learn from previous games, that will determine their success.
In laying the groundwork for a new era of WSU basketball, he tells his players to be grateful for what they’ve been given-“a wonderful opportunity to gain a quality education and compete at the best amateur level of basketball possible in one of the best conferences [Pac-10].”
He wants his players to take the classroom seriously and be the best they can be. “I often ask them, ‘If you couldn’t play basketball anymore, in what direction would you like your life to go? What excites you?’ It may be a class or a course of study that takes them in that direction.”
As for team rules, he says he simply wants his players to “conduct themselves humbly and appropriately as representatives of the basketball program and University, and as decent human beings. And the hardest part-in all circumstances.”