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To know the Cougs, meet the assistants

SACRAMENTO – So you’ve climbed aboard this Cougar basketball bandwagon, have you?

You’ve gotten to know the players (“Isn’t that Derrick Low something?”) and you’ve fallen for Tony Bennett (“They better keep that guy!”).

You learned what charging is. You discovered Tony succeeded his father, Dick, as the Cougars’ head coach. You can even talk fairly intelligently about Kyle Weaver’s game.

But you still wonder about the guys sitting on the bench next to the players while Bennett walks around. You know, those four guys in coats – no ties – who whisper in his ear from time to time. The ones he talks with before all those timeouts.

To steal from Butch Cassidy, who are those guys?

They are the assistants, the unsung coaches who helped build the foundation of the Cougars’ success.

Still don’t get it? Think of them this way: Tony Bennett is WSU’s basketball CEO, and the assistants are vice presidents, all with specific strengths, sharing all the responsibilities of running the company.

And those get-togethers at the beginning of timeouts? Board meetings. Real public board meetings.

Now that you know what they do, it’s time to learn who they are.

Let’s meet the staff members, all of whom have a history with Bennett.

Ron Sanchez: If you know anything about Sanchez’s hometown, it might be because you’re a baseball fan. Sanchez was born in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, home to more than a dozen baseball notables from Sammy Sosa to Julio Franco.

But Sanchez grew up in New York, where the asphalt isn’t all that conducive to baseball. He gravitated to basketball and that eventually took him to one of the shrines of the sport, Indiana University, as a volunteer assistant for then-coach Mike Davis.

It was there he met his wife, Tara, now an assistant for WSU’s women’s basketball team. At the time, Tara played for IU’s former women’s coach, Kathi Bennett. Does the last name sound familiar? She’s Tony’s sister.

The IU Bennett and Sanchez became friends. When Kathi’s dad came out of retirement to take over at WSU, he tapped his daughter’s knowledge and offered Sanchez a job.

Sanchez went to Davis and asked if he should move to Pullman.

“I asked coach Davis, ‘Hey, coach Bennett offered me a job at Washington State, what do you think?’ ” Sanchez related. “He said, ‘If you have the opportunity to work for that man, just take it.’ “

Sanchez did and hasn’t regretted it.

The first three years at WSU he handled administrative matters before gaining some on-court responsibility this season. This afternoon, when WSU takes on Vanderbilt, it will be Sanchez’s scouting report the Cougars will rely upon.

Ben Johnson: A teammate of Tony Bennett’s in junior high and at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Johnson is in his third season working at WSU. But between Green Bay and Pullman, basketball took him to Australia.

“During my career, I played and coached professionally in Australia,” Johnson said. “It was a wonderful experience. I was over there, on and off, for six years.”

All part of an assistant coach’s vagabond lifestyle.

“In and out of hotels, planes, trains and automobiles,” Johnson said. “That’s a big part of our lives.”

Despite that, there is an almost familial bond with Bennett.

“My relationship with the Bennetts started when I was, I think, 11 years old,” Johnson explained, “so yeah, this means so much for me to be a part of this, to be on the coaching staff and helping them do what they came to Pullman to do.”

Matt Woodley: The newest member of the staff, Woodley comes from a coaching family; his dad and a brother are in the football end of the business and another brother is in high school basketball.

So after seeing all the ups and downs of coaching, why is he in the profession?

“That’s what my dad always says, ‘I thought I raised a smarter son than that,’ ” Woodley said, laughing. “But it’s in your blood. I mean it’s just like Tony with his father. I grew up in it, and I didn’t know any better, and I loved it.”

He also loves the relaxed atmosphere Bennett has cultivated on the WSU sideline.

“I go to Nordstrom Rack,” Woodley joked about his wardrobe. “I haven’t worn a tie this year. I’m like our head coach. He’s the best guy in the world to work for.”

Mike Heideman: Not actually an official assistant coach anymore, Heideman is the director of player development and operations. A fancy title for a basic, quiet, longtime assistant.

Heideman is a basketball lifer, with most of that life spent with the Bennett family. He assisted Dick Bennett at Wisconsin-Green Bay for nine years and succeeded him as head coach there. He came to WSU when Dick Bennett did and moved over to the new job this year, though his duties haven’t changed much.

With the younger Bennett in the CEO’s chair, Heideman has become a mentor.

“Coach Heideman has more wisdom than all of us put together,” Tony Bennett said.

So what do these guys do for the players and the head coach? Let’s have their boss’s evaluation.

“In any good year, it’s about the players and the staff,” Bennett said. “For me, as a first-year head coach, I bounce a ton of ideas off them, I really do. They are great for me because they are really supportive.

“And they all bring something different, which I really like.”