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Originally published Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 10:02 PM

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Hard lessons: Tony Bennett's old staff at Washington State now scattered

The former basketball staff of Tony Bennett's at Washington State has moved on with their careers and lives.

Seattle Times staff reporter

It all happened so suddenly. Tony Bennett took a hush-hush visit east late in March 2009 and, stunningly, the Washington State basketball coach was hired at Virginia.

Now it's a different WSU staff — with one holdover — that will be here Sunday night to play Washington. Bennett's old staff is scattered far and wide, and its fate raised a few eyebrows, some from the assistants themselves.

"You wish you could take 'em all with you," Bennett said last week from his office at Virginia. "Those are the hard decisions you face."

As Bennett explains it, he felt he needed assistants with experience on the Atlantic seaboard. Bennett took only New York-educated Ron Sanchez with him, and hired Ritchie McKay, Seattle Pacific grad and five-time college head coach, plus two others with state-of-Virginia ties, one a longtime associate of McKay.

"I had a relationship with Ritchie McKay, and he was just an hour down the road," Bennett says of McKay, who was head coach at Liberty. "I felt I had to establish some ties with the state of Virginia. When you move that far away, you have to fill that void."

WSU faithful who luxuriated in Bennett's success — 52 wins in his first two seasons — learned that nothing is forever.

Bennett's assistants, too.

Ben Johnson

Johnson's relationship with the Bennett family was inextricable. He was a boyhood friend of Tony in Stevens Point, Wis., when Dick Bennett coached there. He and Tony went on to play for Dick at Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Johnson was an assistant to both Dick and Tony Bennett at WSU, and as Tony's success snowballed as a head coach, Johnson was mentioned as a possible successor.

Bennett says he offered Johnson a position as basketball-operations manager at Virginia, "to hopefully evolve into something further." But that would have removed Johnson from most on-floor coaching functions.

Johnson hooked on with Ken Bone's new staff, and he's diplomatic today about Bennett's decision.

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"That was a professional decision Tony had to make at that point in time," Johnson says. "We were just really thankful we could join the staff here. I was so excited about that."

Matt Woodley

Woodley's history with Bennett came and went quickly. He was hired in 2006 — as Bennett's nominal replacement when he took over for his father — and the relationship ended when Tony Bennett departed.

"I'm not going to lie," says Woodley. "Nobody wants to be told they're not good at something. There were a few words exchanged, nothing really heated. It was really hard for him to tell me what he had to tell me.

"Assistant coaches have a lot to do with the morale of the team, with preparation, the scouting. I can only speak for myself, but I was really hurt. Obviously, I'm over it now."

Bennett had plucked Woodley from the staff at Middle Tennessee three years earlier. He was considered something of a rising young star under Bennett.

Now he's got a ranked team at Waukee High School outside Des Moines, Iowa, close to his roots. He is candid about the parting with Bennett.

"Everybody wants to know why Tony didn't take me to Virginia," Woodley said. "He's going to make (what he believes to be) the best decision, but it really hurt myself ... it's been really hard for me. I've not been able to get back into the (college) profession."

Woodley believes the notion of a new coach needing immediate ties to a region is overrated.

"Recruiting is recruiting," Woodley says. "You get kids to buy into the head coach. We as a staff tried to preach that every day with Tony. We got the kids to believe in what we were doing. I think we worked very well together. We sure got along very well."

Today, Woodley is torn between trying to maximize his high-school team's potential and hoping to return to the college game.

"Usually," he says, "it's guys that get the head coach fired that can't find a job somewhere."

Mike Heideman

Heideman was the old warhorse, a decade-long aide to Dick Bennett at Wisconsin-Green Bay, when Tony was a player there. Dick brought Heideman west when he took the WSU job in 2003, and Tony retained him as operations chief at WSU, but didn't invite him to Virginia.

Heideman has come full-circle. He's athletic director at St. Mary's Central High, a few miles from where he grew up in Appleton, Wis.

With perspective of a long career, Heideman, 62, is philosophical.

"Tony made some decisions, and Tony certainly had that right," he says. "Coaches make decisions, what they think they need in a new program, and everybody has to understand and go forward with your life. That's just part of college basketball."

Not an easy part, as Bennett and his old staff have learned.

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