One On One: Dick Bennett

When Dick Bennett took over the head coaching reins at the University of Wisconsin back in 1995, it wasn’t like he was walking into a gold mine.

The Badgers had been perennial also-rans with virtually no tradition. Prior to Bennett’s arrival at Wisconsin, the Badgers had advanced to NCAA postseason play just three times in 97 years.

Under Bennett, the Badgers not only went to the NCAA Tournament three times in five-plus seasons but they even advanced to the Final Four in 2000.

It’s been 15 years since Bennett left Wisconsin for Washington State and 10 years since he retired as a college coach. He seems to have settled in nicely during his retirement with basketball still being a big part of his life.

The 73-year-old Bennett recently took in a Milwaukee Bucks’ game at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee and chatted with me on a variety of topics. Here is that interview:

You look relaxed and content. You seem to be enjoying retirement. What have you been doing with your free time?

Dick Bennett: “Not much. I just lead a very quiet life in the middle of the state. I really don’t do much.’’

Where are living these days?

“We live technically between Nekoosa and Wisconsin Rapids on Lake Petenwell.’’

So what does your average day entail?

DB: “A lot of reading. I keep up with the grandkids and our children, try to follow Tony (his son, who coaches at Virginia). I don’t watch their games but we talk fairly often. And I try to get over to Green Bay to see our grandkids pay. One is a sophomore at Green Bay Southwest High School, so I get to see him play.’’

You said you like to read. What do you prefer reading?

DB: “I enjoy non-fiction a lot more than fiction, a lot of historical non-fiction. You name it, I’ve read it.’’

It appears retirement has been good for you, allowing you, as you mentioned, to do things you weren’t able to do in the past like reading.

DB: “Yes, it has. I’ve always loved reading but now I have a lot of time to do it. It’s wonderful.’’

You also mentioned how you stay in touch with Tony. How often do you get out to Charlottesville, Virginia to see him?

DB: “I always go out the first couple of weeks of practice and my wife gets out a little more. We’ll get there again this season, but I’m not sure when.’’

Tony has done a fabulous job at Virginia and has emerged as one of college basketball’s best coaches. How similar is Tony’s coaching style to yours?

DB: “Quite a bit. But he’s a lot better than I was. I think he’s got a knack for utilizing his personnel offensively and he teaches the defense probably at least as well as I did. But, offensively, he’s probably light years ahead of me.’’

I talked with Joe Harris of the Brooklyn Nets and Malcolm Brogdon of the Milwaukee Bucks – two NBA players who played for Tony at Virginia – and they think the world of Tony. They both noted how Tony has exceptional people skills, much like yourself.

DB: “The players do like him. He’s demanding but he’s very fair. He makes these kids play the entire game. I see it in the kids he coached who are now playing at this (NBA) level. They’re pretty complete players.’’

Can you ever see Tony coaching at the NBA level?

DB: “I would never say never. He has a feel for it, having been in the NBA (as a player for 4 seasons). I wouldn’t mind seeing him give it a whirl, if that’s what he wants.’’

Was there ever a point in your career where you contemplated leaving college coaching, either at Wisconsin or Washington State, and pursue a job in the NBA?

DB: “Yeah, three times actually. Rick Adelman asked me couple of times and then Terry Porter (who played for Bennett at UW-Stevens Point and went on to have an excellent NBA career) asked me to join him when he became the Bucks head coach (in 2003). With Rick, after we talked (in 1996), he ended up hiring the man from Princeton (Pete Carril).

“Coaching in the NBA just wasn’t in me. To tell you the truth, I consider myself more of a high school coach more than a college coach and certainly more than an NBA coach. But it was flattering.’’

But wasn’t a little tempting to see what you could have done at the NBA level?

DB: “Not really. As I said, those (offers) weren’t really tempting but flattering.’’

Have you had a chance to watch the Wisconsin Badgers this season?

DB: “Whenever I can, I do watch them. Between Virginia and Green Bay and Stevens Point and Wisconsin and the Bucks … I’ve actually watched more Bucks games this year than I have probably in the last 20. I really enjoy watching them.’’

You obviously know current Badgers coach Greg Gard. What’s your take on him?

DB: “I think he’s the real deal. He’s a player’s coach but he’s demanding and, more important to me, he’s really a solid person.’’

What’s your take on the Bucks?

DB: “I really like the job they’re doing with the Bucks; I’m very impressed. They do a lot of things really well. And their defense seems to be getting better and better.’’

Could you see yourself ever coaching again at any level?

DB: “No, I just don’t have that energy anymore. Coaches will ask me to come in, every now and then, and I do that. But my hips are kind of gone; I’ve had them both replaced twice, and there are some other little things that are starting to fall apart. So, I’m where I belong.’’

One final question: What is your fondest memory as a coach?

DB: “That is so hard to answer. I wouldf say the whole deal and especially the relationships that still exist with the players I’ve coached over those 39, 40 years, all the way back to when I started high school coaching (as a freshman coach at West Bend H.S). When I hear about them, or when they call me, it makes me feel really good.’’