Baylor's Bennett knows no pressure

Playoff hopes may rest on defense, but he's survived death and disappointment

Originally Published: August 31, 2014
By Max Olson | ESPN.com

Phil Bennett Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsBaylor's Phil Bennett enters his 35th year in coaching with one of his best opportunities.

WACO, Texas -- While the nation fawns over another deadly Art Briles offense, Baylor's defense remains underestimated as usual.

The Bears' College Football Playoff hopes hinge on the experience of a fiery defensive coordinator whose 35th season of coaching begins tonight. But Phil Bennett isn't worried about pressure.

He's been fired eight times. He's failed as a head coach and resigned at his alma mater. The defensive coordinator of 19 years says this job is his best and hardest. Considering all he's been through, that's hard to believe.

Fifteen years after a lightning strike on a Kansas road took his wife, Bennett sat in the dark in his office last week and reflected on the winding, heartbreaking path that brought him to Waco.

It's the perspective and persistence Briles wanted when he sought Bennett to complete his mission of shaping Baylor into a powerhouse.

"They've evolved into the defense that gives us the opportunity to win the Big 12 year in and year out," Briles said. "That's what I like. There's one thing money can't buy, and that's experience. Phil's got great experience."

• • •

Bennett was 24 when he met Nancy Harris on a blind date, just a part-time coach at Texas A&M making $14,000 a year. After growing up in Marshall, Texas, and playing defensive line at A&M from 1974-77, he'd spent a year working on oil pipelines in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. This was his father's line of work. Bennett was ready to quit every week, he said, "until I got my paycheck and stayed another week." R.C. Slocum broke that stubborn spell with a job offer.

He fell hard for the work and harder for Nancy, an A&M grad attending UT-Arlington nursing school. They married in 1984, the same year they went north for a coaching job at Iowa State. When now-Broncos coach John Fox left ISU after '84, the 29-year-old Bennett landed his first coordinator gig.

An NCAA investigation would cost ISU coach Jim Criner and his staff their jobs. The Bennetts moved on to Purdue. Each time they moved, the coach's wife found work in another emergency room and adapted.

"For them, it was always like a new adventure," Phil's brother Jerry Bennett said.

Nancy even put up with her husband's job when, in 1988, her water broke while he was stuck recruiting in a Chicago snowstorm. He made to the hospital in time, and after her 19 hours of labor, he got back to work on a running back.

[+] EnlargePhil Bennett, Nancy Bennett
Courtesy of the Bennett familyNancy and Phil Bennett chased Phil's coaching dreams across the country.
"My wife just about killed me, because I brought Livetius Johnson, his mother, his sister, his dad and uncle all to the hospital to see my son Sam," Bennett recalled. "He signed with Michigan. Heck of a player."

Fred Akers was fired in 1990. Bennett took a job at LSU. More of the same: four years, couldn't turn it around. When Curley Hallman was fired in 1994, Slocum called Bennett and, with no interview, said, "You're coming home."

• • •

Bennett feared A&M was a bad fit. He was right. But he earned national honors for the top-10 defense he coached up in 1995, and he developed a legendary Aggie, Dat Nguyen, who became practically a second son.

When Bennett got offered an NFL job that offseason, he wanted to go. Nancy convinced him to stay. The 1996 season was a disaster. After a loss to Kansas State put A&M at 3-4, and frustrated over their philosophical differences on defense, Bennett told Slocum he wasn't coming back the next year. At the end of the season, Slocum announced he'd fired Bennett. That did not go over well.

"It was bitter, that ain't no lie," Bennett said. "The way it went down, it didn't have to be that way. I probably said some things I regret, no question I did. But when you leave, they can say anything about you, and I think it all pretty much got said."

There was always another DC job around the corner. He went to TCU in 1997. Coach Pat Sullivan got fired at the end of the season. Then, with the family still in Fort Worth, Bennett went to Oklahoma for what would be John Blake's last season.

This has always been the business for Bennett: Coach 'em up until they don't want you anymore, pack up and start over.

"It's like an addiction," Bennett said. "I guess 'cause my dad was a pipeliner and went from job to job, you just don't judge by what you did but by the whole. Sometimes you can't control it. I want to do the best I can do, and then when it's time to move on, I move on."

His next gig came on an unexpected assist. After one year together at OU, Rex Ryan demanded Bennett follow him to K-State in 1999.

"He called and said, 'Philly, Bill Snyder just called me. I told him if he throws you in the deal, we're in!'" Bennett said. "How 'bout that? Honest to God truth. Then Rex gets there, realizes how strict Bill is and takes the D-line job at Baltimore."

His wife had a good feeling about this job. She told Phil they'd stay in Manhattan as long as they could.

• • •

Nancy was on her usual 6 a.m. jog on Aug. 11, 1999, when the lightning entered her skull and exited through her feet. Her children, then 11 and 8, were still asleep at home when Phil realized it was raining. He thought he'd heard a rumble, so he went for a drive to find her. He found a police car instead.

"Have you seen a good-looking blonde jogging?" he asked the officer.

The next 17 days were a tear-soaked blur. Coaches, brothers, friends, neighbors and a nanny stepped in to help the Bennetts survive. Snyder set up an extra desk in his office so Phil's daughter, Maddie, had a place to study. He saved two of her drawings -- one of a play diagram, the other of her family someday reunited.

It's like an addiction. I guess 'cause my dad was a pipeliner and went from job to job, you just don't judge by what you did but by the whole. Sometimes you can't control it. I want to do the best I can do, and then when it's time to move on, I move on.

- Phil Bennett, on a life in coaching
On Aug. 28, 1999, Nancy Bennett passed away at the age of 41. When Phil told his children their mother was dead, they ran into his arms and tackled him.

"All that used to echo in my brain at that time was: It's not about you. It's about Sam and Maddie, about their quality of life," he said.

But there was also the matter of coaching. Nancy died 14 days before the season. Phil knew he had no business being back on a sideline, not with his life suddenly a shattered and exhausting mess. So he offered to resign. Snyder couldn't let him do it.

"I stayed in it because I don't know anything else," Bennett said. "Because Coach Snyder told me, 'You're not going anywhere.' I text him every year and tell him I can't thank him enough for that. I'd be out of coaching if I had not been at Kansas State with him. He saved my life."

A weird thing happened in 1999: Bennett had the best season of his career. Kansas State went 11-1 with the No. 2 total defense in the country. How the hell did he do it?

He got up at 4 a.m every day. He stopped home at night to cook dinner. When the homework was done and the kids were tucked in, he snuck back to the football office until 1 a.m. He needed the distraction.

"There wasn't any doubt he was in dire pain," Snyder said, "but he had a way of being able to manage it. When he was with his players, he was all-in. With his children, he was all-in."

• • •

Back in 1999, on the flight home from Nancy's funeral in Alvarado, Texas, the plane carrying the grieving Bennett family soared over SMU's Gerald J. Ford Stadium. Phil noticed. He took it as a sign.

Three years later, Bennett accepted the SMU head coaching job. He was ready to be a head coach, and better yet, relocating to Texas gave his kids a chance to spend time with their grandparents. He even got to coach Sam, a long snapper for the Mustangs in 2006 and 2007.

[+] EnlargePhil Bennett
Getty ImagesPhil Bennett finally got his head coaching shot at SMU, but the rebuilding task proved too daunting.
Bennett harbors few regrets about his six years at SMU. Peers told him not to take the job. Despite the 18-52 record, he's glad he did.

"I thought I could flip it," he said. "We came damn close."

How close? SMU went 6-6 in 2006 but was passed up for its first bowl game since the NCAA's infamous Death Penalty. They were on the cusp. The rebuild fell apart in 2007. Three overtime losses, two more on last-second scores. Bennett was fired eight games into a 1-11 season.

"I put my heart and soul into it," he said. "But that's part of it. You don't cry about it. You move on."

He wanted to get as far from Dallas as possible, so he took over Pittsburgh's defense under Dave Wannstedt. The staff was fired three years later, despite a winning record.

Once news of Wannstedt's ouster spread, Bennett's next boss moved quickly. Briles had faced Bennett three times while head coach at Houston and knew his résumé well. Before Bennett's last game, as Pitt's interim coach for a Compass Bowl victory over Kentucky, Briles flew to Birmingham, Alabama, to meet and seal the deal.

When he introduced Bennett that January, Briles told reporters, "Everybody who knows football knows Phil Bennett." Too few knew what these two were capable of back then.

• • •

"I think Art Briles might be the best thing that happened to Phil Bennett," Dat Nguyen said. His mentor agrees.

Practicing against Briles' offense on a daily basis and assembling enough talent to slow them provided Bennett one of his biggest coaching challenges. If you don't innovate, you get exposed.

"This guy is unbelievable," Bennett said, "and he lets me coach."

Briles helped transform the 58-year-old coach's beliefs about successful defense. The new philosophy: get three-and-outs, get turnovers, get the ball back to the offense. The offensive wizard required what he now proudly calls "a defense that's playing 2013 football."

Their vision was executed to near-perfection last season. Baylor wouldn't have won the Big 12, Briles said, without a title-caliber defense. They've needed each other to get this far.

[+] EnlargePhil Bennett
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezVeteran coaches Art Briles and Phil Bennett have forged a partnership that resulted in Baylor's first Big 12 title.
"Art has been good for me," Bennett said. "He's so low-key and so truthful. He relaxes me. You are what you are. I'm piss and vinegar, high-strung, gung-ho. But he knows I'm gonna get it done."

After so many close calls, so many jobs cut short, Bennett finally got it turned. Through it all, his brand of coaching never changed. The Baylor defense that faces SMU tonight is fueled with his ferocity.

"What you see is what you get," Briles said. "He never sugarcoats anything, but if you need a friend or a guy that'll listen to you, he's that person. That's what I respect about him."

Baylor linebackers coach Jim Gush was with Bennett at ISU, K-State and SMU and still finds the man's duality remarkable. Bennett tempers his fire with the right amount of love, striking an always-tricky balance.

"On the field, he's going to cuss you out and jump on you," Baylor linebacker Bryce Hager said. "But off the field, he's calm like nothing happened. He's hilarious. He has that switch he can turn on and off. It's unbelievable how he does it. I've never seen anything like it."

Off the field, Bennett's life couldn't get much better. Sam is an offensive grad assistant at Rice. Maddie is finishing up nursing school in Dallas. And their father unexpectedly found love again. In 2005, he married Julie White, a mother of two and a friend of Nancy who'd lived in their College Station neighborhood.

"I've done two things right," Bennett said. "I raised good kids and I knew how to marry well. Hopefully I coached a little bit along the way."

The coach who never stopped demanding perfection, no matter how imperfect his journey has been, is finally in the perfect place to chase it again.

Bennett believes they can win the big one at Baylor. For all his years in the business and all he's survived, he swears he's never had a bad job. But he's never had an opportunity this good.

Max Olson | email

Big 12 reporter

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