Bill Bender was minding his business, enjoying retired life in Sandpoint from 41 years in education and coaching when his wife brought home an application for a coaching position two years ago.
“She said I was spending too much time at home,” said Bender, whose wife owns an office supply business in Sandpoint.
One of her clients is the Lake Pend Oreille School District. She heard about the coaching position when she made an office call.
She didn’t know specifically what coaching position was open. So Bender got on the Internet and discovered that Sandpoint had a girls basketball head coaching position open.
“So I applied to appease my wife,” Bender chuckled. “I thought I’d see what kind of erosion there’d been in my interview skills.”
Apparently not much.
“The committee was impressed with his demeanor in the interview,” Sandpoint athletic director Kris Knowles said. “The depth of his answers stood out. We knew we had a quality applicant.”
A check of Bender’s resume also revealed he knew a little bit about coaching. At his last head coaching stop, St. George’s, he guided the girls team to State 2B championships in 2002 and 2004 and a runner-up finish in 2003.
“I’d given away all kinds of my coaching books and video tapes,” Bender said. “I really told myself that when I moved to Sandpoint I had retired. I wanted to be a bum and do some cross-country cycling trips. I had gotten into cycling.”
By now you know Bender, who turns 66 in July, was hired.
He knew his wife didn’t know what kind of commitment the coaching position would demand.
“We talked about it and I asked her if she was sure she wanted me to do this,” Bender said. “It’s been an eye opener for her. I think she thought there would be money coming in.”
She found out quickly that coaching stipends by and large average out to pennies on the dollar.
“Coaches generally end up putting the money back into their programs,” he said.
Bender took over a program that was made up largely of athletes who played when they had nothing else to do. The girls’ athletic culture in Sandpoint revolves around volleyball and soccer. Bender discovered that basketball was not only third in the pecking order but a distant third.
“I had no illusions,” Bender said. “I had to find a way to make it interesting, to show success was possible. I tried to sell them on the fact that by playing basketball they would improve their volleyball and soccer skills. Our approach has been reasonably positive. We challenge. We don’t accept anything but their best efforts. We don’t look at basketball as a second-class sport.”
Sandpoint had immediate success. The Bulldogs finished 14-10 overall last year, and they shared the 4A Inland Empire League title with Moscow before falling in a competitive district final.
This season, the Bulldogs are 11-7 overall and 3-0 in league. They can grab the outright league title when they play host to Moscow on Friday in a regular-season finale. Four of their losses were competitive setbacks to the 5A IEL teams including Coeur d’Alene.
Sandpoint is looking for its first trip to state since 2004.
The Bulldogs have had to overcome numerous injuries including two season-ending knee injuries this season.
“Our depth has been tested,” Bender said. “It’s a tribute to the seniors who haven’t had a chance to play much.”
He’s been impressed with his team’s resolve.
“The girls are beginning to understand what they’re capable of,” Bender said. “We’ve made huge strides. The girls have figured out how to play defense and serve each other. That’s made us as good as we can be because of that service to each other.
“Are we polished? No. Can we beat you one on one? No. They’re playing the epitome of team basketball. They’re hungry to work to change the culture.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.