Wednesday, October 15, 2003
New WSU basketball coach: 'You have to win'
PULLMAN, Wash. -- Shortly into a get-acquainted chat with
reporters, new Washington State basketball coach Dick Bennett
hustled over to a dry-erase board and began diagramming a play.
It was a sure sign that Bennett's celebrated case of coaching
burnout was over.
The former Wisconsin coach is taking over a downtrodden Cougar
program that has suffered seven consecutive losing seasons and
dwindling fan support.
Bennett's solution? Schedule tougher opponents, focus on
defense, and visit a few dormitories to drum up interest. But two
decades of college coaching have taught him the true path to
"You have to win," said Bennett, 59. "That's very, very, very
The Cougars hold their first practice of the season at a Midnite
Madness kickoff this Friday night at Bohler Gymnasium.
Bennett led Wisconsin to the Final Four in the 1999-2000 season,
then abruptly retired three games into the next season, saying he
was burned out.
In March, Washington State shocked Cougar Nation by announcing
that Bennett would replace the fired Paul Graham. Bennett said he
returned to coaching because he missed the game and the interaction
"I was starting to worry because I was beginning to enjoy golf
on television," said Bennett, who brings a 453-258 career record
to the Palouse.
Moving from the Midwest to Pullman, an isolated town of 25,000
about 75 miles south of Spokane, Wash., hasn't been a great culture
shock for a guy who spent 25 years coaching in Wisconsin.
What is new is the lack of interest in a basketball team that
has won just nine Pac-10 games the past four seasons, and drew
2,300 fans per game to 12,000-seat Beasley Coliseum last year.
That's a far cry from the packed houses for Wisconsin games.
"I'm used to being asked lots of questions," Bennett said.
"There is no grass roots basketball population here."
That makes him worry that his disciplined, deliberate style of
play will bore fans even if the Cougars are winning.
Bennett used to visit dormitories at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and
Wisconsin-Green Bay to drum up interest when he coached at those
schools, and he plans to do that in Pullman.
His openness is a contrast to Graham's tense style with
reporters. Graham was 31-79 in his four seasons, and by the end
seemed convinced that winning was impossible in Pullman.
Bennett contended the recruiting and financial challenges facing
the Cougars are old news to him.
"I've never had great resources to recruit," he said. That's
why his teams emphasize defense, which he believes is "the great
equalizer" against superior athletes.
But you still have to score points to win a basketball game, and
Bennett said the Cougars will stress reducing turnovers and taking
Bennett acknowledged that will be a challenge for a team that
had a run-and-gun offense last season behind returning star Marcus
Moore. The team often took ill-advised shots and finished the
season shooting 40 percent from the field.
"Guys want to use their own style and moves, and be more
spontaneous than they should be," Bennett said.
He's watched film of last year's 7-20 team.
"The talent is OK," Bennett said of that team, "better than
anything I've inherited before."
Bennett is unhappy with WSU's schedule, which features
non-conference games against the likes of Southern Utah,
Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne, Idaho and Montana.
"I want to beef it up a notch, and create some real interest,"
Bennett said, envisioning games against Big 10 and ACC teams.
"If I can get Knight to come out here, people will turn out,"
Bennett said, referring to Texas Tech coach Bob Knight.
Graham tried to kick regional powerhouse Gonzaga off his
schedule, not wanting to lose to a recruiting rival.
"I would be nuts to not play them," Bennett said, not the
least because the Bulldogs drew the biggest crowd at Beasley last
To establish better ties with potential recruits, Bennett
traveled the state this summer to hold clinics and meet with high
He hoped his hiring would produce a little more excitement among
top Washington high school players about joining the Cougars. It
did not, and the Cougars lost some recruits, Bennett said.
Bennett said one piece of advice Graham gave him was to push
hard for a permanent practice gym. The Cougars play home games at
Beasley, but that arena is booked for all kinds of events so they
don't practice there much.
Bohler Gym, the old arena, is dedicated to volleyball. That
leaves both the men's and women's basketball teams traveling among
different gyms on campus to practice.
"We need a place that's just basketball," Bennett said.
Bennett's career is notable for quick turnarounds of three
Wisconsin teams. At 59, he'll need the same magic at WSU.
"I don't have that much time," Bennett said.