So what does a basketball coach owe you, exactly?
Does he owe it to you to stay three years? Five years? Ten?
Does he owe you unvarnished honesty? For example, do you really want to hear from his mouth that where he coaches is strictly a business decision – knowing that your school can’t do business the way others do? Or do you want to hear that your place is special, that it has some indefinable something to make him resist the blandishments of others?
Or does he simply owe you his best effort for the going wage – for whatever period of time he sees fit to give it, since there is never a guarantee the school will fulfill its pledge?
Is he obliged to stay longer because you took a chance on him – even if success was delivered more quickly than you could have dreamed, and beyond predictable horizons?
Would you really be more understanding if he left for one job but not another, last year instead of this year?
Tony Bennett’s abrupt – and, yes, cold – departure from Washington State on Monday to become the next basketball coach at the University of Virginia might be a good time for Cougs everywhere to adjust their “kick-me” signs and re-evaluate the realities of Big Boy Basketball. Just as it might be a good time for Bennett himself to re-evaluate how much he wants to plaster “sacrifice” and “servanthood” on his program’s billboards when he won’t be around to see the first recruits on his watch – his watch, not his dad’s – graduate.
That’s a style point, but not an irrelevant one.
The hurt was in high gear in Pullman and beyond as Bennett hopped on a plane bound for Charlottesville and a press conference, which at the least is a testament to how much he made people care about Cougars basketball again.
The Cougars players were understandably crestfallen, some wondering if their shortcomings might have had something to do with his decision – an unnecessary doubt but a sign of real virtue. Maybe even more stung were Bennett’s assistants, who were as blindsided by this move as anybody – and who have not been invited to accompany him in their current positions.
Did we mention cold?
The man has his reasons. He didn’t feel obliged to share them on any aspect of his jump before takeoff, which leaves the field open.
We can assume, until the actual figures are announced, that Virginia’s package is as much as a 100 percent upgrade from the $1 million he was getting at Wazzu. And yet on Saturday when he spoke to WSU president Elson Floyd and athletic director Jim Sterk – and was leaning toward staying – Bennett offered to refund $100,000 of his salary to invest into the program. So the money is significant, if not necessarily conclusive.
What Virginia does have is membership in college basketball’s most renowned conference, a new arena, a fan base that sees a turnout of 10,000 at a game worthy of a shrug and not delirium and a welcome proximity to the East’s urban basketball talent beds. Wazzu has none of those, and yet the scads of Cougs outraged at Bennett’s escape can’t seem to grasp that it’s not a lateral move.
Yes, Bennett will encounter the same uphill climb in the ACC that he had at Wazzu. On the other hand, the Cavaliers have won four conference championships – the most recent in 2007 – and been to 16 NCAA tournaments. If someone wants to tote up WSU’s achievements in those areas and get back to us, feel free.
Bennett sniffed at other jobs last year, of course, but Indiana was an uncertain mess and LSU wanted someone else. Nonetheless, Sterk for some reason “felt more of a threat this year than last,” even with the Cougars’ backslide into the NIT.
Perhaps he knew that Bennett’s stomach for rebuilding didn’t quite match that of his father?
The risk all along in Sterk’s well-played outside-the-box family package hire was that Dick Bennett wouldn’t have enough mileage in him – and that Tony would have too much. And even with both worries becoming at least partially true, the Cougars got six years out of the two of them – and basketball achievements that were unimaginable during the two coaching death marches that preceded their arrival.
“A lot of people wouldn’t take a look at this job,” recalled Sterk. “They knew they would have to take some losses on their resume for a few years. We’re in a heck of a lot better situation than we were six years ago.”
That actually remains to be seen, until Bennett’s successor can re-recruit both the young holdovers on the roster and the incoming signees. Coaching changes inevitably suggest to players how easy it is to move on, and with enough churn in the roster and coaching staff Sterk could very well find himself starting over.
If Bennett was not completely invested in statements like “I’m where I’m supposed to be,” the Cougar constituency had to know he would leave sometime. Their disappointment should be mostly that he didn’t see through the pending down cycle – but again, maybe that wasn’t him.
Tony Bennett – with a huge assist from his father – changed the won-lost record at Washington State, but he wasn’t going to change the Cougars’ place on college basketball’s food chain.
He’s owed thanks for the former, and owes thanks for the opportunity – and then everyone is even.
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