Tony Bennett's encore: Can Washington State repeat the magic? Print
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Wednesday, 31 October 2007 12:04
NCAAB Headline News


 PULLMAN, Wash. (AP) -Tony Bennett surprised his team with a slickly produced DVD of highlights from last season. The Cougars went 26-8 and were one of the big surprises in college basketball.
Then the Washington State coach threw the disc in the trash. He said it was time to start over.
``I was like `Nooo! I've got to keep that!''' star guard Kyle Weaver said.
Bennett laughed - plenty of copies were available - but he wanted his players to know there were no guarantees of duplicating a season that stands among the best in school history.
``We need to make new highlights this year,'' Bennett said.
The 37-year-old coach brings earnest enthusiasm to the job, having made the most out of a downtrodden program with players no one else wanted.
e to Vanderbilt in the second round.
Bennett, in his first season as head coach, was The Associated Press coach of the year.
This season, all his key players are back except for Ivory Clark. The team figures to be among the Top 25, with some suggesting the Cougars could make a run for the national title.
``These are uncharted waters for our program,'' Bennett said. ``We are learning on the fly.''
Bennett, a former NBA guard, preaches humility, tough defense and sacrifice. His team, after all, does not attract the kind of athletes who head to UCLA and Arizona.
Bennett does not keep his coach of the year trophy in his office to impress visitors. It's on display in the generic trophy case at the entrance to Bohler Gym, among musty jerseys and battered footballs.
He is a coach wary of hype. When he was a senior at Wisconsin-Green Bay, NBA scouts started coming to his games. Bennett got caught up in impressing the scouts, instead of helping his team win.
``I learned from that,'' he said.
Bennett is the son of Dick Bennett, the longtime coach who rebuilt programs at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wisconsin.
A true gym rat, he was a high school star in Green Bay and played for his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay. He still holds the NCAA career 3-point shooting percentage record (49.7 percent).
He played several seasons in the NBA and overseas. After coaching in New Zealand, he became an assistant at Wisconsin under Bo Ryan. He followed his father to Washington State four years ago, and took over the program when Dick retired before last season.
Known as ``Coach Tony'' to his players and ``Coach Dreamy'' to some female fans, Bennett is religious and family oriented, a seeming Boy Scout in a world populated by sharks.
His wife, Laurel, met Tony at church in Charlotte, N.C., where she was preparing for graduate school and he was playing for the Charlotte Hornets. They didn't start dating for 18 months.
By then, Tony was an assistant to his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay. He proposed the same night the school retired Tony's jersey.
``I've made a lot of moves on this court,'' he told the crowd. ``But the move I'm about to make right now is the best one of my life.''
He got down on one knee and proposed in front of 6,000 people.
``He said to me later that I had to say yes because all those people would have mauled me otherwise,'' she recalled.
Dick has retired to a lakeside home in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., where he spends his time playing golf and enjoying his extended family. Tony built a house in Pullman for his wife and two young children. He had the team and staff over for Christmas Eve dinner last year, but only after a full day of practice, weightlifting and film.
``He said we had to be getting ready for UCLA,'' player Daven Harmeling recalled.
Harmeling remembered his first recruiting call from Bennett.
``I hung up and said, 'Man, there's something different about that guy. I hope he offers me a scholarship.'''
In the basketball offices at Washington State, the Cougar logo is surrounded with the Biblical words ``humility, passion, servanthood, thankfulness and unity.''
``Know who you are as a player,'' Bennett said. ``Make your teammates better.''
Some fans have unbiblical reactions to the telegenic Bennett. Young women showed up at games with signs reading, ``We love you Coach Dreamy'' and ``Bringing Sexy Back to Basketball.''
``I told him to remember that I was the one who loved him when he was losing,'' Laurel said.
Success is not likely to turn the coach's head. He talks about how the Cougars failed to win their first Pac-10 title. He remembers an 81-29 loss at Oklahoma State in his second season.
Bennett is in position now to pursue the best high school players, but he doesn't necessarily want them. The Cougars prefer players who are hungry and want to improve.
``We said we want the same type of kids, maybe with a little more luster coming in,'' Bennett said.
There was much speculation that Bennett would jump to a more prestigious basketball school. But in March he signed a seven-year contract, saying he was grateful for the chance Washington State gave an unproven assistant.
This could be a good investment for the Cougars. Attendance at Friel Court increased from an average of 3,700 a game in 2005-06 to 7,100 last season and 8,800 for Pac-10 games.
``In Pullman, you have a chance to have a balance here, where you can have time for your family,'' Bennett said. ``There is one Lion and one Rotary club. You are not out every day of the week speaking.''
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Sports Writer Gregg Bell in Seattle contributed to this report.
 

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