Bennett changed mind overnight; Bone is eyed

TONY BENNETT

TONY BENNETT told Jim Sterk as recently as Sunday afternoon that he was going to stay in Pullman despite Virgina's lucrative offer. In fact, Bennett went so far as to say he wanted to donate $100,000 back to the basketball program. By Monday afternoon, though, Sterk was tracking down phone numbers for Portland State's Ken Bone and San Diego's Bill Grier.

Sterk, WSU's athletic director, said Bennett told him Monday morning that he had changed his mind.

In a teleconference Monday night with reporters, Sterk said Bennett seemed excited about next season and was pleased with recent improvements in WSU's basketball facilities and travel arrangements.

Virginia presumably offered Bennett more money than the Cougars, but Sterk said he did not know terms of Bennett's contract with the Cavaliers.

Asked why Bennett changed his mind about staying, Sterk said, "You'd have to ask him that." Bennett did not respond to phone or e-mail requests for an interview.

"He's a heck of a coach and a great person," Sterk said.

Bennett, whose $1 million annual salary made him the highest-paid employee in school history, signed a seven-year contract last year. Sterk said Virginia will pay Bennett's $400,000 buyout fee for leaving early.

"I'm not bitter," Sterk said. "I think we're in a heck of a lot better place than we were six years ago when I first talked to Dick and Tony about coming to Washington State, so I'm thankful for what they have done."

Sterk said the Cougars have already contacted Portland State regarding Bone, a former Washington assistant and Seattle Pacific head coach. Sterk was associate athletic director at Seattle Pacific when Bone coached the Falcons.

Sterk said the Cougars have yet to contact San Diego in regard to Grier, but plan to do so. Grier was a longtime Gonzaga assistant before spending the past two seasons as head coach of the Toreros.

Asked if WSU has contacted Saint Mary's about Randy Bennett (a former Idaho assistant), Sterk would only say, "No comment on that." Saint Mary's AD Mark Orr said Monday night he has not heard from the Cougars. Sterk said the hunt for a new coach "is going to be short and quick." Sterk said candidates must have NCAA Division I head coaching experience.

Sterk said he is uncertain if any assistants will follow Bennett to Virginia or remain at Washington State as assistants. None have major conference head coaching experience. Sources within the athletic department said early indications are that Bennett doesn't plan to bring any of his assistants with him.

Bennett, 39, has drawn suitors after each of his three seasons as WSU's head coach. In his first college head coaching job, Bennett compiled a 69-33 record as the only basketball coach in school history to guide the Cougars to three consecutive postseason tournaments.

Bennett's first two teams tied the school record of 26 wins, and the Cougars made back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

A far less experienced team finished 17-16 this season, losing to Saint Mary's in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. Bennett replaces Dave Leitao at Virginia. Leitao resigned, possibly under pressure, after a 10-18 season. The Cavaliers finished 11th in the 12-team Atlantic Coast Conference with a 4-12 conference record. The top six scorers are set to return. Neither of Virginia's two seniors were regular starters.

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