A standout point guard for his dad at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Tony played for the NBA's Charlotte Hornets from 1992-95, before foot and knee
injuries halted his career. He wound up playing for a pro team in New Zealand, where he would later become the head coach.
In 1999 he returned stateside to join his father on the staff at the University of Wisconsin, where Dick was in the process of leading
the Badgers to the 2000 Final Four. Dick retired the next season, and Tony stayed on the Wisconsin staff for three years.
When Dick took the WSU job in 2003, Tony joined him as an assistant, with the understanding that he'd be first in line to the throne when his dad decided to retire.
CF.C recently sat down with Tony for a wide-ranging Q&A covering everything from what it's like to go one-on-one with Michael Jordan to living and working with a Hall of Fame coach. Here's Part I of our conversation, with Part II coming later this week.
Q: How and why did you get into coaching?
A: As a player growing up, I always said the last
thing I wanted to do was coach. I saw my dad and my sister (Kathi Bennett, in her fifth season as women's head coach Indiana University, has been a college coach for 17 years) and said "That's not for me. I just wanted to hoop and enjoy it. Like most guys, I
thought I was going to have a long, prosperous 10-15
year career in the NBA. When the injuries cut it short
and I started coaching overseas, I realized pretty
quickly that this is like the next best thing. It was
a way to stay involved with the game.
Q: Why did you leave Wisconsin to come to WSU?
A: I was at Wisconsin and we were doing great, then
[Dick Bennett] said, "I'm going to take the Washington State job." I was like, "wow." I didn't know a lot
about [WSU], so I was surprised. But I looked at it,
and I'd rather come out here and struggle trying to
turn things around than win national championships at
Wisconsin. The main motivation was that I got a chance
to be with my dad again. But it's also good for a
young coach to be part of a rebuilding process. At
Wisconsin we went to the Final Four, the next year we
won 20-plus games, the next year we won the Big Ten
championship...This here is down in the trenches. We
have to get recruits, we have to try and turn it
around in one of the best leagues. That's very good
for a coach to see and be a part of.
Q: As "associate head coach," what all are you resposible for?
A: It was funny, my dad called me and said, "I got
some good news and some bad news. The good news is
we're changing you from assistant coach to associate
head coach. The bad news is your salary stays the
same." Basically I do everything the same as far as my
responsibilities. [The title] just means that in time
I might be the next guy in line here if things go well
and we keep moving in the right direction.
Q: So what do the WSU assistant coaches do?
A: A lot of recruiting, a lot of developing players.
We break things up. Like Coach (Mike) Heideman deals
with academics; he makes sure he's meeting with the
kids and their academic advisors. I'm mainly doing
recruiting. Everyone has different roles in the
Q: When do you see yourself taking over as full-time
A: No idea. Hopefuly it'll happen in time...My dad
always makes the joke that for the last 15 years of
his career, it's always been his last year. The main
reason I came out here was to enjoy this experience.
How many sons get to enjoy this stage in life with
their dad? My dad is 61, and I'm just trying to enjoy
this time and cherish it. We kind of go one year at a
time as far as what he's going to do. It could be
three years, it could be one year, two years, who
knows? It's impossible to say.
Q: When you do get the head coaching job, is there
anything style-wise that you want to do differently
than what your father is known for?
A: A good coach always looks at his team and says,
"What gives us the best chance to be successful?" and
that's what I'll always do. When I played for my dad
we scored in the 70s and we pushed
things, because we had the ability to do that. That's
starting to happen here. Now if you ever think you'll
be able to run with a Washington or an Arizona, you'll
never win here. You have to be sound defensively and
you have to learn to play in the half court, but you
also have to push it when you have opportunities, and
that's what we're trying to move towards.
Q: Does the defensive-minded, low-scoring "Bennett
Ball" style negatively impact recruiting?
A: This is a unique challenge to recruit to, no
question about it. People will negative recruit on us
for location; they'll use style of play, too. That's
why it's so important to find the right kids who want
to have a chance to play in one of the best leagues in
America, to have a chance to help turn a program
around and play early in their careers. That's how you
become a great player; you play early in your career.
People who negative recruit, yeah, it affects some of
the kids, but hopefully if you build strong enough
relationships with players, they will come here. There
are some challenges here that are not present at other
places, like location and climate. And some kids want
to try and score 100 points a game and don't wanna
have to play defense, but most of those kids aren't
going to win.
Q: What is your ultimate goal as a coach?
A: As a player I always wanted to get Green Bay into
the NCAA tournament. I would love to have played in a
Final Four. As a coach, my dad's dream was getting a
team to the Final Four. So to take a team to the Final
Four, that to me would be the ultimate, to win a
national championship or to take a team to the Final
Four. Now obviously you have to look at the program
you're at and the spot you're in and be like,
"Alright, first we want to get to the Pac-10
tournament, then we want to try to get to the
postseason, and be realistic about the time it's gonna
Q: No plans to coach in the NBA?
A: The NBA is appealing, but when I think about it,
the impact and influence you can have on the young
guys you coach [in college] is awesome. You build
relationships with these guys and you're instilling
things into them that are gonna be life-lasting. I
really want to try and be a positive influence in
their lives, because so many people have done that for
me in my playing career. If I can help people become
better men and people of character, I can't think of a
more lasting goal. There are so many coaches that
never went to a Final Four or never had great success,
but the impact they had on those young men's lives is
very cool. It's almost like being a teacher or being a
minister; you have such an opportunity to influence
kids and you can't lose sight of that. It's not just
all about winning.
Part II of the Q&A coming later this week