Hoops: Talking to tomorrow's WSU head coach today

<B><i>Tony and Dick Bennett

<B>PULLMAN -- If everything goes as planned, Tony Bennett will succeed his dad as the next head coach of the Washington State men's basketball program. The only question is when that promotion will occur. Bennett, the 35-year-old former NBA player and son of a coaching legend, talks with CF.C about where he's been and where he and the Cougars are going.

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 program.

Q: When do you see yourself taking over as full-time head coach?

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 take.

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

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