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Washington St. basketball coach walking by faith

PULLMAN, Wash. (BP)–Tony Bennett asks a lot of questions.

When he attended his first Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in Colorado as a teenager, it sparked a spiritual curiosity that eventually led to his salvation. Former Nebraska football coaching icon Tom Osborne was the keynote speaker, and Bennett, raised in a Catholic church, took a laundry list of questions back to the small-group follow-up sessions.

“I remember asking a ton of questions,” Bennett said. “That’s my nature. I pinned the huddle leader against a wall.”

Now, though, he is on the receiving end of questions. People want a lot more of your time when you preside over one of the best college basketball teams in the country.

Bennett, the second-year head coach of Washington State University, is leading a modern-day hoops renaissance in obscure Pullman, Wash., where he is a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church. Last season, the Cougars went from perennial PAC-10 Conference doormat to national contender with a school-record-tying 26-8 mark, five wins over ranked opponents and their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1994.

The Cougars, who lost to Vanderbilt in double overtime in the second round of the tournament, finished 13th in the Associated Press poll and 17th in the ESPN/USA Today poll, marking the first time since 1983 that the team had cracked the national rankings.

But Bennett is no one-hit wonder. After returning much of its talent, Washington State started this season with a No. 10 preseason ranking, followed by a 14-0 start that vaulted the team to No. 4 in the polls. And although an 81-74 loss to UCLA on Jan. 12 snapped the Cougars’ chance to match the 1916-17 team for the best start in school history, there is still plenty to be excited about in this small, pastoral town in eastern Washington. The No. 8 Cougars bring a 16-1 record (4-1 in the PAC-10) into Thursday’s game at conference rival Arizona (12-6, 2-3).

“God is teaching me, as always, to walk by faith and not by sight because now we’re in a season that’s more in the spotlight,” Bennett said. “We were higher in the preseason expectations. We talk about not worrying about the end result. We have to walk through the process.”

Last season, he said, “I knew we’d have a chance to play quality basketball, but I didn’t know what that would result in with wins and losses. It was truly a turnaround year for us. The guys truly bought in. It was special. And you keep going.”

Bennett almost never got started. Ironically, there was a time when he detested the idea of coaching, having seen the strain it put on other family members.

His father, Dick, once was one of the most respected coaches in the country. In a 27-year college career that produced a 490-306 record, he became a legend in the Badger State, turning Wisconsin-Stevens Point (NAIA), Wisconsin-Green Bay and the University of Wisconsin into powerhouses during his time at each. Tony’s older sister Kathi coached for 17 years and won the 1996 NCAA Division II women’s championship at Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and he also has an uncle and a cousin with college coaching experience.

“I saw my dad and sister, and it was too much of a roller coaster,” Bennett said. “I thought I’d play in the NBA 10 years and then do something else.”

Bennett had always been a fantastic player. For college, he joined his dad’s program at Wisconsin-Green Bay and rewrote the school’s record books, finishing as the Mid-Continent Conference’s all-time leader in points (2,285) and assists (601) before enjoying a three-year career in the NBA (1992-95) with the Charlotte Hornets.

Various injuries cut Bennett’s NBA career short, so he traveled halfway around the world in 1996 to pro leagues in Australia and New Zealand, where he hoped to regain his NBA form. But after toiling for four years as a player and a coach in basketball’s boondocks, he had a change of heart.

“I got bit by the coaching bug over there,” he said.

Bennett returned to the States in 1999 to assist his father at Wisconsin, and the two led the Badgers to the Final Four that season. While Tony stayed there three more years, Dick retired after that season, only to change his mind when given the chance in 2003 to revitalize another dormant program at Washington State. Tony followed his father to Pullman and the two experienced moderate success before Dick retired after the 2005-06 season.

Now, the younger Bennett, last year’s national coach of the year, is among the profession’s A-list names. At 38 years old, he has experienced success that few at his age can rival. Yet, secular acclaim seems to matter very little to him.

“He’s a classy guy, down to earth,” said Jim Alsager, Washington State’s FCA representative. “If you watch him coach, there’s that burning intensity, too, but there’s a classiness that goes with it, and self-discipline. He knows that whatever he’s doing, there’s probably a small boy watching, or his players.”

Owing to his own humility, Bennett’s recruiting philosophy is long on character and short on hype. Most of his players didn’t even get a sniff from college basketball’s bluebloods. But by emphasizing old-fashioned concepts like a harassing defense, lunch-pail offense and team unity, he has transformed a group of no-names into a gritty force that no opponent wants to face.

“He sold me on a dream that whether we take a step on the court or off the court, we’re going to play for the right reasons,” said junior guard Taylor Rochestie, a transfer from Tulane.

The result has been not only piles of wins on the court, but a spiritual windfall off it. Last season, five individuals associated with the team, including an assistant coach, accepted Christ. Earlier this season, Bennett canceled a Sunday practice so players could honor the Lord’s Day and then held an impromptu chapel service. And get this: Rochestie, one of several Christian players on the team, decided to give up his scholarship next season to an incoming freshman “to give back to the town and to Tony for taking a chance on me.”

This is unheard of stuff at the big-time Division I level.

“The effect [Bennett] has had on the assistant coaches is evident, and it just trickles down to the players,” said junior forward Daven Harmeling, another believer. “I feel really fortunate to be around him every day.”
Joshua Cooley, a regular contributor to BPSports (www.BPSports.net), writes from his home in Germantown, Md.

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  • Joshua Cooley