- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Bennett sat out two seasons before the Buccaneers called. He never interviewed for a coaching position. He never sent out feelers. His record, he figured, spoke for itself, and people knew where to find him. So Bennett dabbled in a couple of real estate ventures to fill his days. He says he had a premonition that Buccaneer owner Hugh Culverhouse would call.
At Tampa Bay, Bennett recognized immediately that he had very little talent to work with. After the Bucs failed to sign Bo Jackson, their first choice in the '86 NFL draft, Bennett knew they were still years away from respectability. "You cannot make those kinds of mistakes in this league and survive," he says. His second 2-14 season sealed his fate.
Bennett returned to Atlanta after Culverhouse fired him. He bought his car dealership in 1987, and that, too, has been a struggle. "I ask myself all the time why I would want to compete in the business world when I spent 25 years coaching football," he says, smiling at the folly of the notion. "I'm competing against guys who have spent those same 25 years learning the auto business. I can't say I don't like what I'm doing, but I can say I like the football life better. It's in my blood.
"I know that the probability of me being called by a football team now is very slim. I think my forte would be in a management position, being able to look at an organization and determine who was doing his job and who wasn't. What you see in the business world that you don't see in the sports world is the attitude, 'I'm going to commit myself to this man, and we're going to get the job done.' Firing someone is a fix, like a drug addict gets a fix. It's a short-term thing. Not too many owners have the confidence to turn things over to their management and say, 'You run the club.' Their egos get in the way."
Some firings open new doors in life. Dick Vitale's dismissal by the Detroit Pistons in 1979 exposed a ladder that took him from his knees to his feet to his proper niche. It doesn't matter whether you like Vitale's broadcasting style. He is an American original, enthusiastic and unvarnished. But television would never have discovered him had he not gotten what he calls the ziggy, the old canaroo.
He was a streetwise New Jersey kid who had always hammered against the odds. Vitale, who lost the sight in his left eye as a child when he poked it with a pencil, was never a hotshot basketball player. But he played at Seton Hall-Paterson (N.J.). His first coaching job out of college was with junior high football players in Garfield, N.J. In his second year he was made head coach of Garfield's varsity basketball team. Then he coached East Rutherford High's team for seven years, winning two Jersey state titles. In 1971 he became an assistant at Rutgers. Ever the fast talker, Vitale was a dynamite recruiter, and in 1973 he was offered the head coaching job at the University of Detroit. There his teams averaged 19.5 wins a season in his first four years, and in 1978 Vitale was hired to coach the Pistons.
The big time. A three-year, $300,000 contract in the NBA. Hired to be fired? That never crossed Vitale's mind. "Everywhere I'd been, people had done everything they could to keep me," he says. "My mental game plan was to use the Pistons job as a stepping-stone to my Utopia. Five years and then I figured I'd get the call to the Garden to coach the Knicks."
Reality soon set in. After the team lost its first two games in his first season, Vitale, who had developed a bleeding ulcer while coaching high school, was hospitalized for five days with excruciating stomach pains. The team started 0-5, and even when it finally won one, a cloud hovered over the occasion. Vitale went berserk over a ref's call and was hauled off the court, screaming and flailing his arms, by a 300-pound security guard.
"My intensity, emotion and rah-rah style were not compatible with an 82-game season," says Vitale. "I thought I blew it by leaving college."
Detroit went 30-52. After the Pistons began the next season 4-8, Vitale had a long talk with owner Bill Davidson about the team's weaknesses. The next day, Nov. 8, Vitale was getting ready to go to practice when he got a call from Davidson's secretary. Davidson wanted to talk to him and was stopping by his home.