For Eastern Washington volleyball coach Wade Benson, the players come first.
That’s why he won’t be there when practice begins on Saturday; his health won’t let him.
“I want to be there, but I want to be there consistently,” said Benson, who effective today – his 51st birthday – will take an indefinite leave of absence from the program he once built into a champion.
He was set to do it again, returning last year after a seven-year absence, but nine months ago felt the first signs of throat cancer. Too late; the cancer had spread, forcing aggressive treatment and seven weeks of chemotherapy that halted the disease but left Benson 30 pounds lighter and struggling to regain his health.
He’s not there yet.
“I haven’t had enough good days in a row, and basically some real bad days – the ups and downs make it very inconsistent for me, and that’s not fair to the players,” said Benson, who will yield, for now, to assistant coach Michael King, who will be aided by former Eastern star Janelle Ruen Allen.
“It was a very tough decision,” said Benson, who said that if his health permits, he may return to the bench in midseason.
In the meantime, he’ll recuperate at the home he shares with wife Jill, 9-year-old son Brady and 7-year-old daughter Bailey.
Benson said he “has a lot of confidence” in King, who had two coaching stints at Eastern before returning to Cheney in February, soon after Benson was diagnosed with cancer.
At that point, King and Allen ran spring practices while Benson was undergoing chemotherapy. “The players have been 100 percent supportive,” said King, adding that the players were informed earlier this week of Benson’s intention to take a leave of absence.
“I have a lot of confidence in him. He has a great background, and he loves Eastern Washington,” Benson said of King, a Western Oregon graduate who spent the 2013 season as an assistant at Winthrop University.
The Eagles return five starters and eight letter winners from last year’s team that went 10-21 and finished eighth in the Big Sky with a 7-13 league mark.
Said King of Benson: “We’re on the same page the way we train and organize, and we both have a competitive fire.”
For Benson, that fire was kindled at Western Oregon, where he led the Wolves to four straight NAIA tournament appearances.
Benson arrived in Cheney in 1996 as an assistant under Pam Parks, and took over the program in 2000. He led the Eagles to their most successful run in history, including a second-round NCAA appearance in 2001 and a three-year run in 2002-04 that included a 38-4 record in the Big Sky Conference.
In four years at Auburn, he fashioned an NCAA qualifier out of a struggling program before spending three years in the private sector.