Flames crackled in a small fireplace in the Florida room at the back of Dick Bennett's house, near the northeast shore of Lake Mendota in Madison, Wis. Outside, a fresh dusting of snow covered the 11th fairway of the Cherokee Country Club, and powder swirled in small funnels under a brilliant, low sun. Bennett sat in a soft chair and watched the fire, occasionally shifting his weight to accommodate two artificial hips. It was a Friday in early December, yet the 57-year-old Bennett, a basketball coach since graduating from college in 1965, was at home with his wife, Anne, living the slow life of a retiree. "I was just thinking," he said. "This is the first time I haven't been part of a team since I was in fourth grade."
Until the night of Nov. 29, Bennett had been the coach at Wisconsin, riding a wave of late-career acclaim that crested last April, when he took a team of selfless role players with 13 losses to the Final Four. The achievement seemed to validate not only Bennett's 35-year coaching career but also the unfashionable, team-first work ethic that he'd always preached. This year's Badgers were ranked No. 12 in the preseason by SI, and most prognosticators thought they could again win ugly deep into March.
On that last Wednesday in November, Wisconsin beat 13th-ranked Maryland 78-75 in an emotional overtime game at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. In the locker room afterward Bennett quieted his players and then stunned them by saying, "This was my last game." He went on to explain that he was tired, that he could no longer give the unfailing effort that he required of them and that they would be a better team without him. One at a time the Badgers embraced Bennett. Senior point guard Mike Kelley whispered "Thank you" in Bennett's ear, because he didn't know what else to say. In the end the players put their hands together the way they always did whenever they huddled, and shouted Bennett's mantra: "One, two, three, play hard!"
It has been a bloody autumn for the coaching profession as the life span of the successful older coach suddenly has been truncated. On Nov. 6, the morning following a loss to the Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions coach Bobby Ross, 63, resigned. He was in his fourth season with a team that had twice made the playoffs under him and could well qualify again this year. Ross's resume also included a national championship at Georgia Tech in 1990 and an unlikely trip to Super Bowl XXIX in 1995 with the San Diego Chargers.
On Nov. 24 Arizona football coach Dick Tomey, 62, resigned following a 30-17 loss to rival Arizona State that ended a 5-6 season for the Wildcats. Tomey had been at Arizona for 14 years and was the most successful football coach in Wildcats history. (Two years ago Arizona won a school-record 12 games.) Like Bennett, Tomey told his players that he was leaving for the good of the program.
All but gone are the days when even very good older coaches can, as former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith says, "retire on your own terms." In fact, adds Smith—who quit in October 1997, after 36 seasons in Chapel Hill, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family—"It seems like it's gotten even harder." It has, for several reasons:
Money. Coaches' salaries have soared in recent years. The best in pro and college basketball and football are paid well into six figures and often more than $1 million per year. The money brings comfort and financial security, but it also brings expectations. "If you're a college [football] coach, you'd better get to a bowl game quickly, and if you're in the NFL, you better get to the playoffs," says new Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, who worked under Ross at Maryland, Georgia Tech and San Diego. There's no cushion for short-term failure.
Of course the big money often makes coaches so comfortable financially that they can quit. "I've never noticed burnout being a problem in a coach unless he has financial security," says Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. "Some older guys have been in the league a while and have saved some money, and they can burn out. Younger guys, who need to work, you don't find too many of them burning out." It's also money that enables colleges and pro franchises to hire younger replacements who will bring the requisite enthusiasm and sense of rebirth to their programs.
Scrutiny. Tomey would like to have stayed at Arizona, but he left because of what he called "a vicious public debate every time we lost a game by two points." Before the 2000 season the Wildcats were picked to contend for a major bowl, but they struggled after three offensive linemen were felled by injuries, losing three games in the closing minutes. Though he was long accustomed to reading criticism in newspapers and magazines and hearing it on radio and television, Tomey was dumbstruck by the level of vitriol on the Internet. "Players read that stuff," he says. "It just didn't seem fair that they had to be subjected to a weekly debate about the competence of their coach." The last straw came when Tomey was told about a website called firedicktomey.com.
"The physical job of coaching, the amount of hours you spend and what you do haven't changed," says Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick. "The scrutiny has clearly changed with the heightened money. From the standpoint of the number of media outlets that are second-guessing you, the job has gotten tougher."