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Dan Thompson: Washington State fans find way to forgive Tony Bennett, cheer his success

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, in the middle of Dick Bennett’s first season as Washington State’s men’s basketball coach, a band of loyal students was calling for more Randy Green.

Green, an exciting sophomore holdover from the Paul Graham era who never fully meshed with the new regime, had a fervent, unique following at the time.

After the game, Dick Bennett crossed the court and looked up at the outspoken front row.

“Look, you’re either a fan or you’re not,” Bennett said to them. “We’re doing the best we can.”

It was a burst of emotion that Bennett, ever classy, apologized for after the 65-58 loss to Oregon State, which was then as lowly a program as Washington State was in the 2003-04 season.

It was a moment that came to mind watching the now 75-year-old father of Tony Bennett cheer wildly behind the Virginia bench last week, as his son guided the Cavaliers to the national championship that had eluded their family tree for 35 years.

It’s an odd thing, really, the way Cougs faithful feel about Tony Bennett. Sentiments about Dick are more straightforward: He was the man who revitalized a derelict program, then stepped aside so his son could see it through.

Only Tony didn’t.

That’s what makes the Tony cheers from the Palouse a bit odd.

Didn’t he abandon the Cougs? He had just concluded a third winning season. He had a seven-year contract. He had Klay Thompson, with more promising recruits on the way.

A great coach could win anywhere, even in Pullman, right?

Well, just as Indiana had in 2008, Virginia came calling in the spring of 2009. Bennett was ready to turn it down. But as the story goes, as he gave it more thought, his mind changed. He was headed to Charlottesville.

It was just a lot easier to coach at Virginia: a new arena, more money, better travel.

More than that, Virginia plays in the ACC, a conference that is never forgotten or irrelevant the way the Pac-12 can be. Bennett pitched Pullman well, but Charlottesville is an easier sell.

Without something to counterbalance those professional upgrades, who wouldn’t take that offer?

The NCAA’s 68-team bracket compels teams to control the variables they can and navigate the madness by mitigating risk.

For all its benefits as an underdog strategy, Bennett Ball is inherently risky for a favorite. It is vulnerable against a hot-shooting team – something of which the NCAA Tournament has no shortage – and until this year, Bennett teams usually left the Dance early.

In six appearances with Wisconsin and UW-Green Bay, only twice did Dick Bennett take a team past the second round.

As a No. 1 or No. 2 seed four other times this decade, Tony’s Cavaliers fell short of the Final Four each time.

Even this run was only possible because of a miracle finish against Purdue and a missed traveling call against Auburn in the semifinals.

But that’s the tournament. The more often a team can put itself in position to win, the better its odds of eventually winning.

That’s what Mark Few has done at Gonzaga. It’s what Tony Bennett has done at Virginia, and it’s what no coach has done at Washington State.

Not George Raveling, who bolted for Iowa. Not Kelvin Sampson, who left for Oklahoma.

Cougs understand the limitations of Bennett Ball, and they love that it made Pullman relevant enough for a few Andy Katz visits.

When faced with the options of loving Bennett, hating him, or – hardest of all – admitting Pullman isn’t the most amazing place on Earth, well, there’s really only one choice for Cougs fans.

By choosing to love him, they can claim some part of Virginia’s title, because Wazzu gave Tony his first crack at coaching.

Simply put, the respect for Tony outweighs the sadness of his departure.

Still, it’s hard not to wonder what Bennett could have done in 2010 or 2011 with this core:

Marcus Capers, DeAngelo Casto and Brock Motum, capable starters in the Pac-10.

Xavier Thames, the point guard who transferred to San Diego State and became the Mountain West Player of the Year.

Thompson, soon to be WSU’s permanent No. 1.

And Joe Harris, the commit from Chelan, Washington, who followed Bennett east and is now five years into an NBA career.

That’s a group with as good of a chance as any to make a run in the tournament.

Recruiting that sort of talent regularly is something few programs can do. It takes an elite coach with his own talent and a resume to match – something Tony Bennett now has.

Dick Bennett was right: He and Tony did the best they could in Pullman. Which makes it easy for the Cougar faithful to choose to still be a fan.

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