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The Bitter End
Tim Layden
December 18, 2000
Aging coaches like Dick Bennett, who recently quit while at the top of his game at Wisconsin, find it increasingly hard to put up with the pressures of their profession
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December 18, 2000

The Bitter End

Aging coaches like Dick Bennett, who recently quit while at the top of his game at Wisconsin, find it increasingly hard to put up with the pressures of their profession

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Outside obligations. Coaches have become celebrities whose expertise on everything from the vertical passing game to personal fulfillment is a commodity. The more successful the coach, the more in demand he is. "If all I had to do was coach basketball, I would have kept doing it for a number of years more," says Bill Guthridge, who at 59 succeeded Smith at North Carolina and coached only three seasons—twice reaching the Final Four—before abruptly quitting in June. "It was all the other stuff."

After attending last year's Final Four in Indianapolis, Guthridge returned to Chapel Hill and found that he had 12 speeches to give, two clinics to conduct and ACC meetings to attend. All that, plus recruiting, before mid-May. Says Guthridge, "Even after I retired, I would go home and wonder, Who do I have to call tonight? Where do I have to be tomorrow?"

The coaching species most endangered in this lucrative, high-pressure environment is the couch-sleeping, tape-devouring, consumed-by-every-loss workaholic. Bennett and Ross are classic type A's for whom an empty tank was a matter of when, not if.

Bennett arrived in Madison in 1995 after a remarkable career that included 11 seasons at five Wisconsin high schools and a combined 19 years at Wisconsin- Stevens Point and Wisconsin-Green Bay. He won a total of 360 games at Stevens Point and Green Bay, and was revered by his peers for getting players to believe in the glamourless concepts of screening and defense. "I've always admired Dick for getting his teams to play his way," says Smith.

Bennett demanded hard work from himself as well as from his players. This was a wearisome way to earn a living, exacerbated by the fact that Bennett was never anything but a head coach. When he got his dream job at Wisconsin, he could already feel his energy ebbing. He no longer visited players in their dorm rooms and apartments, as he had done for years, no longer invited them to his house for Anne's brownies. He turned scheduling and scouting duties over to assistants and focused on practices and games.

His 1998-99 team won 22 games and a spot in the NCAA tournament, losing 43-32 to Southwest Missouri State in an atrocious display of grind-it-out basketball. Criticism of the Badgers' unartistic style grew strident and, for the first time, bothered Bennett. "It got to me," he says. "I started thinking, Maybe the game has passed me by."

Last season, however, Wisconsin won four of its last five Big Ten games and two of three in the conference tournament to reach the NCAA tournament once again. The Badgers' run to the Final Four was the most unexpected story of the season. "I was prepared to quit after last season," Bennett says, "but the way it turned out buoyed me. I decided to ride that euphoria a little longer."

A very little longer, as it turned out. This fall Bennett's game-day anxiety, always substantial, became painful for him. "It was almost like a cloud would roll in and stay with me the night before and the entire day of a game," he says. He would skip pregame team meals, so as not to expose players to his nerves. Two days after a sloppy 68-64 win over Northern Illinois at home on Nov. 25, Bennett unloaded on his players after practice. He was loud and personal and vulgar, as he had been many times before. "I viewed it as part of the job," Bennett says.

His assistants felt his outburst was exactly what the sluggish Badgers needed (and, in retrospect, what might have nudged them past Maryland two nights later), but this time Bennett was just as angry at himself. "I was berating young men for not being all they could be, when I wasn't being all that I could be," he says. He decided that night that the Maryland game would be his last.

Bennett once told a clinic of young coaches to protect their passion. "Your passion is a furnace," he told them, "and every time you open the furnace door, a little of the fire escapes." Now he says he would tell them something else, too: Be kind to yourself. In the days following his resignation he often thought about his first job, as ninth-grade coach at West Bend High, outside Milwaukee. His team went 9-3 that season, 1965-66, and Bennett treasured every moment. "All there was to the job was a love of the game and a love of the kids," he says. "What I would give to have that feeling again."

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