If the rest of Tony Bennett's coaching career is anything like his first year as a head coach, he's going to be a household name in a very short time.
Bennett, 37, took a Washington State team that was picked to finish last in the Pac-10 and led it to a 26-8 record and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It was a shocking turnaround from the season before in which the Cougars finished 11-17 and at the bottom of the conference with a mark of 4-14. For his efforts, Bennett is the 2007 Rivals.com National Coach of the Year.
"A lot of coaches are more deserving of this than I am," a self-effacing Bennett told Rivals.com. "It's a great honor and a true reflection on our coaching staff and our players."
Bennett was honored as the Pac-10 Coach of the Year, becoming just the fourth coach to earn the honor in his first season in the league. He's just the third Washington State coach to cop the award, joining George Raveling and Kelvin Sampson.
"I never knew what we'd do in terms of wins or place in the conference, but I felt like the previous year we were very competitive," Bennett told Rivals.com. "We had some new faces last year, and I knew they'd have the experience of being a year old and a year better.
"We had some significant wins early (WSU beat a ranked Gonzaga team in the first week of December and a ranked Arizona team in the first week of January), and those gave us confidence. In a league like ours you never take anything for granted. You have to be ready to play, be right."
The Cougars were right and ready most of the time. They finished 13-5 in the Pac-10, alone in second place behind UCLA. They swept season series with Arizona and USC. Vanderbilt eliminated WSU from the NCAA Tournament in the second round, but it took a 78-74 double-overtime classic to end the Cougars' run.
Bennett coaxed huge seasons out of juniors Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver, both of whom were named to the All-Pac-10 team. Low raised his scoring average more than five points per game.
"What was great about our team is it was always somebody different, different guys at different times stepping up," Bennett said. "Derrick Low and Kyler Weaver played good ball and were rewarded for it by the league. Ivory Clark had a huge impact on some games. Daven Harmeling had a couple of monster shooting games. Robbie Cowgill had a great year. I can name every guy for a time when had made a significant impact. They were a spirited, competitive group."
Why should they be any different than their young coach? He was every bit as spirited and competitive as a player, an undersized point guard who played for his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay. Bennett won the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award given to the nation's most outstanding senior under 6 feet tall, and he was twice the Mid-Continent Conference Player of the Year. He finished his career as the MCC's leader in scoring and assists, and he still ranks as the NCAA's all-time leader in 3-point percentage (.497).
Bennett also played three seasons in the NBA (1992-95) before a foot injury ended his career. He was an assistant to his father at WSU for the past three years before dad stepped aside and son took the reins. Tony Bennett allowed for a little more freedom on offense while still maintaining his father's premium on tough, in-your-face defense.
"I knew they weren't going to be at the bottom of the conference like they were picked by the experts," UCLA coach Ben Howland said at a news conference prior to the final meeting this season between the Bruins and the Cougars. Later during the news conference, in paying homage to their defense, Howland said: "Every time you play them, it's like a root canal."
Bennett said he owes much of his philosophy, if not his dentistry, to his father.
"He's had the biggest influence on my coaching career," Bennett said. "Whenever a team does well it's a reflection on the young guys in the program buying into the system and philosophy. I've been in it and around it for three years here, and we were close to breaking through. I have a great staff, too, a very loyal staff. We've been together for a little while and we've known each other for years.
"I relied on the staff a lot as a first-year coach. I'm very fortunate and thankful to have them."
Bennett also cited his experiences in USA Basketball as helping shape him as a coach.
"I played for (former Michigan State coach) Jud Heathcote and Gene Keady," Bennett said. "Coach Keady was our coach for the (1991) Pan-American Games. If you spend more than two hours with Coach Keady he'll have an impact on you whether you like it or not, and we were together for a month."
Despite having witnessed his father's career up close, there still were demands of a head man that snuck up on Bennett.
"I was blown away with how many interviews you have to do as a head coach," Bennett said in the midst of another one. "Maybe it goes with success, but you're being pulled all different directions with your time commitments.
"Also, when you're an assistant you make a lot of suggestions (about game strategy), but you're not the final word. Now I look at my assistants and they say, 'It's your decision.' "
Bennett said the hardest job, though, was doling out playing time.
"You've got these young men you've recruited and built relationships with, and you look in their eyes and you know they want to be out there," Bennett said. "You make hard decisions and just try to do what's best for your team."
Don't worry, coach. So far, so good.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.