The nature of the news, the suddenness of it all, is what hit Cougar nation in between the eyes. After dodging the bullet last year, when Indiana, LSU and Marquette all came a courting, WSU fans were pretty sure men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett was staying in Pullman for another year, and probably two more, as he rebuilt a program once again suffering from a lack of upper-class bodies and talent. But the news came quickly just after noon Monday. Heck, athletic director Jim Sterk, who, along with school president Elson J. Floyd, met with Bennett over the weekend to discuss Virginia’s offer, thought the bullet had whizzed by once again and he was out of town with his family. Then came the early afternoon phone call, the team meeting and, before the sun set on the Palouse, Bennett was on a jet toward his future in the Atlantic Coast Conference, six years and one day after he arrived with his father Dick. Read on for thoughts and links.
• UPDATE: Virginia makes it official. You can read the release here.
UPDATE NO. 2: USD coach Bill Grier, mentioned by Sterk as someone he wants to talk with, told the San Diego Union Tribune today he wasn’t interested in the WSU position.
• How quickly did this come together? According to Sterk, Virginia called early Thursday. Less than 100 hours later it was a done deal. But the seeds of this decision had been sprouting all season, from the play on the court, to the recruiting process and through the financial woes the state – and the nation – is suffering. They may even have been planted last year, when the big name schools threw out offers and Bennett ignored them, expressing his thankfulness at being given his chance at WSU, his love of Pullman and the importance of coaching in a place where he could hone his craft and his family could be comfortable. But as this most recent season wore on and Bennett saw the magnitude of the rebuilding task ahead, he started to second-guess his decision, according to some close to him and the program. No one is going to argue that Pullman is a challenging place to win consistently. Heck, just getting out to recruit has always been a chore – it takes a day out and a day to get back, limiting time in recruits’ homes - and, with the financial screws tightening, it was getting tougher. The WSU staff even adjusted roles as the year wore on, in part, according to Bennett, to allow coaches to stay on the road for longer periods of time, saving trips back to Pullman and saving money in the process.
Such aspects of the job, and this is just one example, undercut the firmness of Bennett’s resolve to stay. But, after a 17-16 year, it didn’t seem like Bennett was, as he called it, the flavor of the month anymore. It seemingly was going to take a tough, learning season next year and a winning one the year after that to get Bennett back atop the wish list of the nation’s athletic directors. Then the Virginia position suddenly appeared. And the Bennett family is gone, leaving behind a Cougar fan base reeling with the suddenness of it all.
And forcing Sterk to scramble to fill some pretty big sneakers in a hurry. The young players were stunned, to say the least. They responded like most 19- and 20-year-olds, wondering how Bennett’s decision was going to affect them. As the vapors dissipate and decisions are made, they’ll have to speak with their families and decide their future, just as Bennett decided his. Could some of the freshmen leave, especially the ones with redshirt years left? Certainly. Will they? No one, not even the players themselves, know right now. It will depend on the hire. But, maybe more importantly for the long-term health of the program, will the four members of the recruiting class honor their commitment to a place that no longer is home to the coach they committed to? In most cases, probably not. There is no connection to WSU for the Brock Motums, for the Xavier Thames yet, no sweat left on the hill in Pullman, no bond of brothers built in Pac-10 battles. All they’ve done is sign a piece of paper. Whoever the new coach is, he’ll have to recruit the four all over again, because even the assistants who made the first contacts and nurtured the quartet through the process will more than likely be gone. A new coach will be developing new contacts. Whether those contact will result in a spark, or even if the new man wants a spark to occur, is still to be determined.
• A couple of thoughts about yesterday’s events. Reporting a story like this, in which the main source is not talking, has been compared to peeling an onion. It’s a time-consuming process to get to the true core of the matter. And in that process, the dependability of information ebbs and flows. Yesterday, as the news broke, we started pealing, trying to get to the whys behind Bennett’s decision while at the same time trying to discover the process behind the decision. More than one source told us information about Bennett’s whereabouts early last week. We passed it on in early version of the story that appeared on our website. But as we dug deeper, we discovered the information was incorrect, and it disappeared from our finished story. It’s said time allows perspective, but it also allows us to double, triple and sometimes even quadruple-check our information.
• Now on to the links. We had two stories, the one we posted and updated all day yesterday on the sudden departure and a piece on what’s ahead (it was interesting who Sterk actually commented on, Ken Bone and Bill Grier, and who he didn’t, avoiding a question about Randy Bennett). John Blanchette also weighed in with a column, offering his unique and nuanced take on the events. … The Seattle Times has Bud Withers’ news story and a column. … Freelancer Howie Stalwick has this story in the News Tribune and other papers. … It wasn’t only WSU fans who were surprised, so were the Virginia faithful, as this Richmond Times-Dispatch story shows. … The Daily Press in Newport News has this story, a column focusing on who Bennett isn’t – there’s a name mentioned here, Jon Oliver, a Virginia assistant AD with WSU ties, that might explain some of Virginia’s interest – and another column on the hiring process. The decision doesn’t seem to be igniting a lot of support on the paper’s website. … The Charlottesville Daily Press has a news story, a reaction piece from the Virginia recruits and some thoughts from its columnist and the people he talked with. … As for the next WSU coach? There’s more than one columnist on the wet side of the Cascades who thinks Portland State’s Ken Bone would be a perfect fit, including John Canzano of the Oregonian here and Greg Johns on the P-I’s website.
• That’s it for this morning. We’ll be back as events warrant and will have a football post today, covering yesterday’s first day of pads, which I didn’t get much chance to watch. Until then …