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Originally published March 30, 2009 at 9:56 PM | Page modified March 30, 2009 at 11:10 PM

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Bud Withers

Tony Bennett surprises players, Washington State fans by taking Virginia job

One thing about Tony Bennett, they were never going to pigeonhole him. He was certain to be gone from Washington State last year, when Indiana...

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Who could be next?

POSSIBLE CANDIDATES FOR WSU MEN'S COACH:

Ken Bone, Portland State: Success with Vikings, Seattle Pacific.

Bill Grier, San Diego: WSU athletic director says he will talk to longtime Zags assistant.

Ray Giacoletti, Gonzaga assistant: Took Eastern Washington, Utah to NCAAs.

Dan Monson, Long Beach State: Ex-Gonzaga and Minnesota coach may be worth a look.

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One thing about Tony Bennett, they were never going to pigeonhole him.

He was certain to be gone from Washington State last year, when Indiana wanted him badly, and when Marquette sniffed around, and when Louisiana State talked to him. And he was losing the guts of his men's basketball team, so it made perfect sense to bolt Pullman.

He stayed. And Indiana hired Tom Crean — eight years, $18 million.

This year, as the Cougars lurched and labored through the season, unable to score, he said wryly to somebody that they wouldn't have to worry about him being on the job market this offseason.

He'd be around for the long haul, maybe. Anybody who turns down Indiana for WSU earns the benefit of that doubt.

Wrong again. He's off to Virginia, in a move that shocked his players, unsuspecting media and WSU fans.

And, oh, yes, his dad. Dick Bennett was out playing golf Monday on a cold day in central Wisconsin, and per custom, he didn't take his cellphone, even as he knew Tony might be updating him on Virginia. He was in a clubhouse when the news came over the crawl on ESPN, and he let out a surprised whoop.

So why not those jobs a year ago, and why this? If you know Tony Bennett, it adds up. He doesn't like the glare of the brightest spotlight, doesn't covet Kentucky or North Carolina. He likes to embrace the underdog role, and Virginia will always be an underdog to North Carolina and Duke.

But he goes to a place with high academic standards, and he's a couple of hours' drive from Washington, D.C. The campus in Charlottesville, Va., is isolated, but there's Pullman isolation and everybody else's kind.

"It's like Stanford in its academic demands," said Dick Bennett. "And he felt he would have a bigger recruiting base.

"I think the travel [at WSU] was hard, too. There's so much travel."

When Washington State reworked Bennett's contract the past two years, he wasn't so much concerned that he become rich as he was that the Cougars work out a way to arrange some team charter flights from Pullman, so they didn't have to bus to Spokane or Lewiston.

"How'd they keep it so quiet?" wondered Mychal Thompson, the longtime NBA center whose son Klay is the brightest young prospect on the WSU team.

Maybe because once the tornado blew through a year ago, nobody was thinking about a windstorm on its heels.

Washington State's players took the news hard. It figured. More than most coaches, Bennett built a tight circle around him, people who could get along and play together.

"I can't really be mad at him," said guard Marcus Capers. "Without him and the coaching staff, I ain't in college. I hope he does well at Virginia. But I'm still hurt."

Klay Thompson was speaking similarly with his dad. Then Mychal Thompson, whom Bennett had called with the news, brought him back to reality.

"Klay's fine. He's calmed down after the initial shock," Thompson said. "I told him, you're not going to go anywhere. Why would you go and sit out a year [in transferring]? You've got a nice nucleus with Marcus Capers and DeAngelo Casto.

"I said, 'Do you like Pullman?' He likes it. 'Do you like your teammates?' He loves his teammates.

"Anybody who criticizes [Bennett] is a hypocrite. When you get involved in sports, this is what we do. This is no different from Blake Griffin leaving Oklahoma and James Harden leaving Arizona State, moving on to better situations."

Where do the Cougars, hoping to have a replacement in a week, turn now? Surprisingly, athletic director Jim Sterk said Monday night he was ruling out Bennett's assistants.

Ken Bone of Portland State will get a long look. He and Sterk worked together briefly at NCAA Division II Seattle Pacific, and Bone has taken the Vikings to two straight NCAA tournaments.

The search could have all sorts of Gonzaga fingerprints on it. Sterk acknowledged he will talk to San Diego coach Bill Grier, the longtime Zags assistant coach.

Sterk logically will sound out Gonzaga aide Ray Giacoletti, who has taken Eastern Washington and Utah to NCAA tournaments, and he might also take the temperature of Dan Monson, the former Gonzaga and Minnesota coach now at Long Beach State.

All the Cougars have to do is find a guy who can coach, melt people in living rooms, dominate the Pac-10 Conference all-academic team and go 69-33 in three years, like Bennett did.

Good luck.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

WSU all-time coaching records
Coach Years W-L Pct.
John B. Evans 1902-03 2-4 .333
James N. Ashmore 1904-05 5-3 .625
Everett M. Sweeley 1906-07 10-9 .526
John R. Bender 1908 12-3 .800
J. Fred Bohler 1909-26 226-177 .561
Karl Schlademan 1927-28 18-27 .400
Jack Friel 1929-58 495-377 .568
Marv Harshman 1959-71 155-181 .461
Bob Greenwood 1972 11-15 .423
George Raveling 1973-83 167-136 .551
Len Stevens 1984-87 48-67 .417
Kelvin Sampson 1988-94 103-103 .500
Kevin Eastman 1995-99 69-78 .469
Paul Graham 2000-03 31-79 .282
Dick Bennett 2004-06 36-49 .424
Tony Bennett 2007-09 69-33 .676

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Bud Withers

Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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