PULLMAN – There was an explanation needed.
Four days after leaving Washington State University for the Atlantic Coast Conference’s University of Virginia, Tony Bennett felt he could finally offer one.
He picked up his cell phone and called Pullman.
“I hope you understand why I couldn’t talk Monday,” Bennett said. “What do you need?”
And with that a 20-minute exclusive interview with The Spokesman-Review began.
Bennett had spent the last six years of his life building goodwill in the Palouse. He built it as his dad Dick’s lead recruiter as they pulled WSU’s program from the ashes. He built it as head coach, leading the Cougars to the NCAA’s promised land twice and the NIT his final year. He built it with a freshman class that had two members honored by the Pac-10 for the first time.
But in less than six days a lot of that goodwill was gone.
Instead of remaining at WSU, the school that gave him a chance to be a major college basketball coach, he resigned Monday and took a plane East, where he became only the 11th men’s basketball coach in Virginia’s history.
He knows people in Washington are struggling to understand. Even before Thursday morning’s call had really begun, he said he would have liked to talked earlier, but his new employers were adamant his first comments had to come in Charlottesville. He respected those wishes.
“I’m sure there are a lot of hurt feelings and misunderstandings,” Bennett said. “I hope this is a situation over time that, instead of the hurt and maybe the anger in what happened, they’ll look back and say there were some real good things that happened.
“And this program is in a different place and we enjoyed a heck of a run and a heck of a ride with coach Dick Bennett and Tony.”
But he understands the response, and he believes he knows a part of the reason why.
“I think because it was so (quick), people didn’t have a chance to process (it),” Bennett said, mentioning how last year offers were bubbling up in a more public manner. “But this one was such a surprise and it didn’t really get out because it happened fairly quick and it was kept under wraps. I think that was the hardest thing.
“Like I said, the players, when I talked to them, had no idea, nor do I think did anybody, really until the story broke. And that was probably the shock factor that people are struggling with. I think that probably inflamed the situation more.”
So why did he leave? Bennett said he wanted to emphasize the positives he saw at Virginia, because the only negative about Washington State would be leaving it.
“What Laurel and I talked a lot about, (and) the hardest thing was, thinking about how hard it would be if we left,” he said, explaining the discussions he and his wife had last weekend. “How hard it would be to, basically feel like you let a lot of people down that had been so good to you. In terms of the team and the administration and the fans.”
But the Virginia position offered so much, it was hard to turn down, Bennett said. The basketball facility, the 15,219-seat John Paul Jones Arena, which opened in 2006, is among the best in the nation, a basketball center with everything from a dining hall to practice courts to offices in one location. The school’s academics are among the best in the nation. The location is, if not urban, at least close enough to some of the best players in the nation to make recruiting easier. And he and his wife are closer to their families.
Contemplating the move, the Bennetts kept coming back to the opportunities in Virginia.
“There were a lot of positives about it that really seemed right when we just thought about that side of it,” Bennett said. “Though, you know, a great challenge, there’s a lot of things in place … Laurel and I both felt kind of a strange peace towards it, and then wrestled with it, weighed it.
“Really, what it ultimately came down to is we just tried to make a decision and not think of hurting people, because I think, in time – maybe not, maybe I’m wrong – but in time the kids will recover and, I think, having been there six years, I really feel like the program is left in a better place. That was important to me.”
That’s not to say last season, the first one in Bennett’s short WSU tenure that the Cougars missed the NCAA tournament, wasn’t a stressful one.
“Certainly it was a tough year, but it had a strong ending, getting into the postseason, not the NCAA tournament but (the NIT),” he said.
The future, according to Bennett, is bright.
“That was a hard thing to think about, because I like the future and I was kind of looking forward to that part of it,” he said. “That made me feel a little more freedom to go.
“I know I was asked at my press conference if I thought it was going downhill and that’s why I got out of there. Not at all. That’s part of rebuilding and that’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
Bennett also reiterated his appreciation for the WSU administration, from president Elson S. Floyd to athletic director Jim Sterk to senior associate athletic director Anne McCoy.
“When I talked to Jim and President Floyd about leaving, it was amazing how gracious they were,” Bennett said. “They also said … we understand why this is very appealing to you, to kind of who you are and the opportunities it presents and in a way, the fit.
“Now they weren’t saying we know, go, how could you stay, how could you not go, it wasn’t like that, but they kind of held it with open hands. That kind of blew me away.”
Though Bennett is making considerable more at Virginia (His preliminary contract calls for $1.7 million per year for five years, and a total package of $9.5 million. He was making a little more than $1 million a year in Pullman), he stressed that was not a part of his thought process.
“This has nothing, and, again, I don’t expect people to understand this, this had nothing to do with money,” he said. “Never has, never will. But I don’t expect people to understand it. That’s not the issue.
“Washington State did more than enough for me in my time there and were more than generous. That issue, in my opinion, is not real at all.”
Though, the day he left, sources in the basketball office said possible budgetary changes had bothered Bennett for a while. They cited his offer a month ago to contribute part of his salary back to the program, helping to ensure recent budget advances wouldn’t be threatened.
But Bennett said his proposal, though appreciated, wasn’t needed.
“It was just that, with the budget cuts, we were looking at doing things, you never want to be a burden,” he said. “Because (Sterk and McCoy) do such a great job with that athletic department in terms of making everything work out, but there was no problem.
“They were more than gracious. They wouldn’t let me do that, which tells you what type of people they were. … I just said, ‘Is there something we can do?’ ” But they weren’t going to cut those things out, they really weren’t.
“They were honoring every commitment they made.”
So who should replace him at WSU?
Bennett would like to see assistant coach Ben Johnson given an opportunity, but he thinks whoever Sterk picks will be a good choice.
“I don’t know if Ben is an option,” said Bennett of his childhood friend. “I hope he gets consideration for the Washington State job. I think he would be terrific and he is. You talk about a guy who is loyal and is rock-solid as possible and stands for the right things. I think he would be a great choice.”