PHONY TONY: 'I love being a Coug.'
SO WHAT ARE we supposed to do, rip Tony Bennett for taking the Virginia job or thank him for the job that he did at Washington State? I’m torn. It would be a better column to slice and dice him, and I lean toward that approach because of comments he made last May about his allegiance to the Cougs.
At that time, Cougfan.com’s Greg Witter and I spoke to Bennett at the King County Cougar Club’s annual golf tournament at Newcastle. He had been strangely quiet for two months while he weighed offers and/or interest from Indiana, Marquette and LSU. As Coug fans, we all wondered what he planned to do, stay or go, and most of us bet heavily on “go.”
Bennett used his leverage to get what he wanted -- facility enhancements, increased salaries for his assistants and more money to entice quality nonconference teams to come to Pullman.
Then he not only decided to stay, he sounded like he wanted to stay for a long time -- that’s what makes Monday’s announcement even more shocking. Based on what he said last year, you would have thought he’d say: “No, Virginia.”
So you can only take what he said as total B.S. now. All that crap about loyalty to WSU AD Jim Sterk for believing in him and giving him the job when his dad retired? Complete garbage.
Sterk’s list of candidates should be topped by Dick Bennett -- if he returns, we could look forward to him flipping off Husky fans again. But his actual list includes Portland State’s Ken Bone, a former UW assistant, and San Diego’s Bill Grier, a former Gonzaga assistant.
Here’s what I wrote down in the sunshine at Newcastle, the following comments from Bennett. (I guess I’m not as torn as I thought.):
“Jim Sterk and the administration gave me an unbelievable opportunity as an unproven Division I coach. They gave me that chance. I’m very grateful. The loyalty that’s been shown to me really matters to me.”
“There are a lot of good things (here). You’ve got some great advantages being in Pullman and being at Washington State.”
And it just went on from there with Bennett saying: “I take it a year at a time. But the plan is to be a part of building this class and be a part of Cougar basketball.”
When I asked him about the assumption that he’d want to move on to a bigger and better program, Bennett said: “Define bigger and better. I’m where I’m supposed to be. I love being a Coug.”
Put it all in the past tense and into a paper shredder. I bought what Phony Tony was selling, writing at the time: “By staying, Bennett has proved that he’s not like other coaches who chase cash and prestige and aren’t concerned with what they leave behind, a la Dennis Erickson. It is also unusual to see a young coach who, to this point anyway, doesn’t view Washington State as a stopover on the way to somewhere else.”
Should we be surprised? Probably not. We all knew that Bennett would be on every school’s wish list every year because he’s young, good-looking, humble and successful. Sterk once said that Bennett would be on the top of his list, too, if he were looking for a coach.
But to say what he said less than a year ago and to bolt now? I don’t get it. Maybe it’s the attraction of the ACC. Maybe it’s that Charlottesville is closer to his wife’s hometown of Charlotte. Maybe he was motivated by money after all -- surely Virginia will give him more than the million a year he made in Pullman.
The hell of it is, they’re already complaining about him in Virginia because Cavaliers’ fans know nothing about Bennett. How basketball dumb are they?
Former Virginia star and Sonics GM Wally Walker realizes that his alma mater is getting a gem, saying: “It’s a great hire for Virginia. I don’t know Tony, I’ve just watched his teams play. I’m a great admirer. I’m sorry for the Cougs. He’s done a hell of a job.”
I wondered if he’d be under a microscope at Virginia. When Bennett turned down the Indiana job, he was concerned about the impact on his wife and kids – because of huge interest in the Hoosiers, they could not have a normal life. It won’t be quite that extreme in Charlottesville, but the Bennetts will be in a bigger spotlight there than they were in Pullman.
“For the basketball coach and football coach, everywhere you go, they’re gonna know you,” Walker said. “The ACC has intensive coverage. Basketball there is a bit of a cult.”
Expectations just went up for Bennett, way up. Will you root for him? Howard Rochestie will.
“We all wish Tony well,” said the father of Taylor Rochestie, the Cougars’ graduating point guard. “Someone who’s been so great to your son, you want him to have a great career. He deserves everything his career can bring him.
“I was surprised when I heard about it. I know the difference he made at Washington State. He’ll be sorely missed, not just his abilities as a coach but as a mentor. He brought a lot to the program.”
That he did. Bennett brought two NCAA Tournament appearances and one NIT appearance along with a 68-30 record, achievements thought impossible during the Paul Graham era.
But unlike Howard Rochestie, I won’t be rooting for him even though I got to know him a little bit over the past three years. I loved Bennett as a coach and a person, but I lost respect for him Monday. I thought he was different from all the rest, and he’s not.
Call me a bitter old fool if you want, but I will look forward to the day that Washington State plays Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, and we trample Ralph Sampson’s alma mater this time, shoving it in Bennett’s face.
Is that a little harsh? I don’t think so. Ask Klay Thompson how he feels about his coach bailing. Or Marcus Capers and DeAngelo Casto. Or his recruiting class of Brock Motum, Xavier Thames, David Chadwick and Anthony Brown. What in the world did Bennett tell them?
Tony Bennett can have Charlottesville, he can have his Cavaliers, he can have his big contract and the new arena, he can have the ACC and all the glory. But guaranteed, when he looks back on his career someday, he’ll admit to never having what he once had in Pullman.
Jim Moore is a graduate of WSU’s Murrow College of Communication. His columns can also be found at seattlepi.com and cybergolf.com.