If, by chance, you are ever in the Pacific Northwest and get a hankering to visit Pullman, Wash., here are a few helpful landmarks for your trip:
Traveling east from Seattle, watch for towns like Moses Lake and Ritzville. Northbound from Oregon, you’ll likely pass Walla Walla and Waitsburg. Traveling westward, keep a sharp lookout for the Nez Perce National Historical Park and Moscow… Moscow, Idaho, that is.
Suffice it to say there’s not a whole lot around Pullman. And once you get there—past all the rolling green hills and bucolic scenery—there isn’t much more. There are no shopping malls (that’s a 10-mile hike east to Moscow) or national restaurant chains like Chili’s or Outback. Did we mention the rolling green hills?
“Um, it’s a small town,” said Taylor Rochestie, a junior basketball player at Pullman’s Washington State University. The 115-year-old institution, with a student population of 18,000, pumps life into Pullman during the school year. Otherwise, the town exists in cozy obscurity.
But Pullman does have one notable thing going for it: It boasts one of the best basketball teams in the country. This, of all places, is where God is using a former NBA player and a group of plucky underdogs to accomplish the extraordinary.
Tony Bennett didn’t stand a chance. His newborn lungs had inhaled only a few moments of life before Dick Bennett presaged his son’s destiny by placing a small basketball in his hospital crib.
“I was minutes old,” Bennett said.
Dick, a high school coach in Wisconsin at the time, eventually became one of the most respected college coaches in the country. Bennett’s older sister, Kathi, followed suit and coached for 17 years at schools including Indiana University and Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where she won an NCAA Division II championship in 1996. His uncle, Jack Bennett, won back-to-back Division III championships (2004-05) at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and Jack’s son, Nick, is now an assistant coach at Division I Florida Gulf Coast.
It was basketball or bust for Tony Bennett.
“I remember shooting balls into lamp shades at home,” he said. “I cracked a few. I can still hear mom’s voice telling me to stop.”
As prophecies go, Dick Bennett’s turned out pretty well. Tony enjoyed a superb college career under his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay, setting Mid-Continent Conference records in points (2,285) and assists (601). Drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1992, he played there three years as a backup guard before injuries forced him out of the league.
Hoping to rehabilitate himself back into NBA shape, Bennett and his wife, Laurel, traveled to Australia, where he signed to play for the Sydney Kings. But Sydney cut him after two months, and he landed in Auckland, New Zealand, where he played and eventually coached for the (we’re not kidding here) Burger King Kings. It was light years away from the glamour of the NBA.
"He has a great mind for rebuilding programs.”|
- Bennett on his well-respected father, Dick Bennett (pictured above)
“We were paid in Whoppers,” Tony cracked.
In 1999, he returned stateside to become an assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin, where his father was transforming the Badgers from a Big Ten pushover into a national power. Together, the Bennetts led the team to the Final Four that season.
While Tony stayed three more seasons in Madison, Dick called it quits, only to be lured out of retirement in 2003 by another major reclamation project, Washington State. The Cougars hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1995-96. Dick advised Tony not to join him, but Tony didn’t listen. The two made steady headway, turning a laugher of a program into a respectable PAC-10 competitor. In 2006, after 27 years of college coaching, the elder Bennett and his 490-306 career record retired.
“He has a great mind for rebuilding programs,” said Tony, who took over the head-coaching reins at Washington State last season. “It was significant for me to finish his career with him.” The duo’s last team finished 11-17. No one could have expected what happened next.
Success and Its Aftermath
On the college basketball landscape—where places like Chapel Hill, Durham, Lexington and Lawrence tower as powerful epicenters—Pullman ranks right up there with Timbuktu. For years, Washington State had been a PAC-10 punching bag, absorbing blows from Arizona, UCLA, in-state rival Washington, et al.
Last season changed all that. Picked to finish last in the conference, the Cougars placed second, tying a school record for wins with a 26-8 record, their best season in 66 years. They beat five ranked teams and made the NCAA Tournament for only the fifth time in their 106-year program history. A double-overtime loss to Vanderbilt in the tournament’s second round did little to lessen the shock. The Cougars finished ranked in the top 20 in both polls.
“One of the best parts was defying expectations and raising our game to a new level each day,” Rochestie said.
Bennett, 38, earned a landslide of accolades, winning National Coach of the Year awards from nine different outlets, most notably the Associated Press. Washington State rewarded him with a restructured contract that extends through 2013-14.
“He hasn’t changed, and I know he is probably inundated with so many more calls to speak than if he had been a .500 coach last year,” said Jim Alsager, the area director of FCA’s new Inland Northwest region. “In the office, around his staff, he’s consistent. He’s truly interested in what the kids are going to become after they’re done playing basketball, not just the athletes they are now, because that’s all going to end.”
Bennett, who accepted Christ in eighth grade during an FCA Camp in Colorado, and his team are throwing college basketball convention on its ear—and not just during games. After a particularly poor Saturday practice earlier in the preseason, Bennett’s players arrived at the gym the next day, fully expecting to be chewed out and run mercilessly. Instead, Bennett gathered his team and said, “I don’t want to practice today. We showed a lot of weaknesses yesterday; but I want to honor the Sabbath as much as I can this year. Today, I want you to spend time with family and honor the Sabbath.” His players were stunned.
Bennett then organized a 20-minute chapel. Virtually the entire team showed up.
“Me and [senior forward] Rob Cowgill were looking at each other going, ‘Coach is the man!’” said junior forward Daven Harmeling, a Christian. “How many other coaches do that?”
As a result of Bennett’s godly example, remarkable things are happening on campus. Rochestie, another believer, is giving up his scholarship next year to an incoming freshman to keep the program rolling. Senior forward Robbie Cowgill moved back into a campus dorm from an off-campus apartment to be a positive role model for freshmen. And last season, two players, two team managers and an assistant coach all accepted Christ.
“When you have a relationship with Lord there’s a peace and perspective you have. The world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away.’’ - Bennett|
“It all starts at the top,” Harmeling said. “When you have a guy with that much faith and character, it rubs off on you.”
Bennett has taken the windfall from last year in stride. Bennett’s prayers, Alsager said, focus not on his success but on the well-being of his wife, his two young children and his players.
“When you have a relationship with Lord,” Bennett said, “there’s a peace and perspective you have. The world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away. Your relationship with the Lord and with your friends, that’s what matters.”
Sequels that equal or exceed the original are always difficult. Such is the challenge this winter for Washington State, which entered the season with a No. 10 preseason ranking. The PAC-10 is loaded with Oregon, Gonzaga, Arizona, Southern California and Stanford also starting the season in the top 25.
So, Bennett’s Cougars—a group of gritty players that none of college basketball’s aristocracy wanted—will once again take their slingshots into battle, trying to prove that giants can still be slain in Pullman. It’s so perfect, if you think about it: Where else but this quaint locale for a model of humility to work his underdog magic again?
“It gives you a chance to have a balanced life as a father, a husband and a coach,” Bennett said. “Any coach will tell you it’s tough to have that balance, because this profession can overwhelm you. It’s tough. But you need to be what God wants you to be and be successful in His eyes.”
*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com