It's difficult to imagine, though, how Dees, a short, plump, frosty-haired cartoonist's dream who could charm the hide off a buffalo, would not fit in. At New Orleans he recruited the daylights out of the jucos, revived a floundering program and last season coached one of only three independents given NCAA tournament bids. During the pregame introductions at the NCAA regional in Birmingham, Dees's Privateers not only boogied out with the newest rage of low fives but they did it backward. "Long as they play hard, I don't care if they crawl out there," said Dees.
Before going to New Orleans in 1985, Dees was an assistant at Alabama, where for four years he directed the defense for Wimp Sanderson. The Tide made the NCAA tournament all four years, in spite of one player of whom Dees said, "If his IQ was any lower, we'd have to water him."
Upon arriving in Wyoming, Dees took his one-liners on the road and pressed the flesh in places like Crowheart, Lonetree, Saddlestring and Ten Sleep. He visited them all—37 towns in eight weeks. "Ten Sleep is an Indian name designating how many travel nights there are between Idon'tknow and Ihavetofindout," Dees says. "One night I went to this ranch in Meeteetse and 200 people were waiting for me. I'm tellin' you, this team is the biggest celebrity in the territory. The Cowboys absolutely own this big ol' state."
Dees was hardly around Laramie long enough to meet with his players, but they were already impressed. Center Eric Leckner said Dees "will be Wyoming's best friend." And the word quickly went out among the ranchers: He's a great guy. Now if he can only coach....
While directing the Georgia Tech women's team in 1980, Dees met and competed against a West Georgia coach named Nancy Carter. Recalling the game their teams played that season. Dees says, "I kicked her ass by one." Two years later they were married. When they were at Alabama, Nancy told Benny to recruit a guy "who was even fatter than I was." says Benny. Dees declined, so Charles Barkley went to Auburn. "Now I'm the only coach in America who has to drive home listening to his wife tell him he should have taken the press off," he says.
Meanwhile, the Dees clan has settled into Laramie. While Jennifer and Johanna—Benny's teenage daughters by his first wife, Marie, who died in 1980—are teaching their new friends in Laramie to say "y'all," Benny and Nancy's three-year-old son, Josh, is already a wild westerner. "Kid'll be in prison before he's six," says Dees.
A new coach's first priority is dealing with a returning star. Though Brandenburg recruited Dembo out of his own hometown of San Antonio, the coach was not always in sync with his prized player. Dembo, a 6'5", 215-pound forward, had a mind, not to mention a mouth, all his own. But Dees has been down that road before. New Orleans's Ledell Eackles would run beside the scorer's table during games, asking, "How many 'bounds I got?"
Notwithstanding his fist-waving and jive-woofing at opponents, Dembo is an extremely smart, unselfish player whose marvelous name has finally been overshadowed by his athletic skills. The kid would be an All-America even if his name were Dennis Fembrough.
The standard story of Dembo's christening is accurate enough. His older sister Zona suggested that mama name her 10th child after the French word finis, hoping that she was indeed finished having babies. When the boy arrived with a twin sister, she became Fenise and he Fennis—and mama was indeed finis. Fans of Dembo's, however, have come up with other versions of the naming, including Biblical and animal ones; recently a Howard University coed, who had researched a term paper, called to inform Dembo that the name Fennis has an African connection.
Back at San Antonio's Fox Tech High, Dembo had been a late bloomer, but his on-court personality may have been what really turned off the big-name schools. "Wait a minute," Dembo says. "All the talking and waving I did just came natural. You got to set the tone for a game. I just pump myself up. Not to hurt nobody. For a while here, I think people misunderstood me. I probably did more cheerleading than playing. But I figured if I sit home and clap for Michael Jordan on TV, why can't I clap for myself? Making baskets is an art form. Three-pointers, drives, dunks. The crowd goes crazy. I wave my fists to acknowledge them. Hey, basketball ain't nothin' but a show anyway."