Solid foundation key to building success at WSU
Up there on Sunnyside Hill, "Coaches Hill" as they call it, that's where it came together. Past the post office and the Living Faith Fellowship...
Seattle Times staff reporter
PULLMAN — Up there on Sunnyside Hill, "Coaches Hill" as they call it, that's where it came together. Past the post office and the Living Faith Fellowship church and the Dairy Queen on Grand Avenue, up the grade, that's where this Washington State basketball team was born.
Sept. 6, 2003: Most fans of WSU athletics would tell you that was a rotten day in the annals of their school, the day the football team went to Notre Dame, carved out a 19-0 lead and had the Irish on the ropes, only to wilt in the heat and humidity and lose in overtime.
But that night, three time zones away from South Bend, Ind., something good was going on in Pullman. It was a warm evening, a breeze drifted over the wheat fields and the sunset glowed on Dick Bennett's house.
Except then, it wasn't a house, just a foundation and a bit of the framing. Bennett, who hadn't coached a game yet at WSU after being coaxed out of retirement, was hosting four high-school seniors on recruiting visits — Derrick Low, Robbie Cowgill, Daven Harmeling and Chris Henry.
He told them there would be a big basement, big enough to house basketball-team activities. Then, standing there among the footings, he got to the point.
"The most important part of a good home is the foundation," Bennett said. "A solid foundation. This is why we're recruiting you. Come help finish this home, and be the foundation."
Stanford at Washington State, 7 p.m.
A few feet away, Tony Bennett, Dick Bennett's son and the man who now coaches the Cougars, got chills.
"I'm saying, 'This was sweet,' " Tony Bennett says today.
Schmaltzy? Yes. Effective. Yes. Novel? No. Dick Bennett had done precisely the same thing back in the 1990s with his first key recruiting class at Wisconsin, inside the foundation of the Kohl Center, the Badgers' new basketball building.
It worked then, and it had to work again in this massive rebuilding project. The Cougars had already gotten a verbal commitment from Low, the Hawaiian guard who pledged to them before ever seeing the Pullman campus. The others were free agents, whom WSU hoped Low could help lure.
"We had him as kind of a secret agent," Tony Bennett said whimsically of Low, adding, "and hoping to God he wouldn't pull out."
"Is that what Coach Tony said?" Low asks. "I don't want to say I'm the main reason why they came here. But hopefully I had some type of influence on them."
On a weekend when they hung out together, attended a Friel Court highlight show and bowled together, it was the Bennett gathering that they most remember.
"I think a lot of things came together at Dick's house," says Harmeling. "I wanted to put on a Washington State jersey right then."
Recalling his reaction, Cowgill says, "If you can't get excited about that, there's something wrong with you. That was awesome."
Truth be told, it wasn't as though the Bennetts had to beat Duke, Syracuse and Kansas for these guys. In fact, Tony Bennett remembers the reaction of one of the holdovers, who eyed the recruits skeptically.
"Man," the player said. "Those are some skinny guys."
But the Bennetts knew what they wanted. They sensed a whole that might be bigger than the parts. That vision is now a 14th-ranked, 19-4 team and perhaps the biggest surprise in college basketball.
Low, recruited by California and Gonzaga, had been interested all along in helping rebuild a program. And it was appealing that he would be schooled by Tony Bennett, who played point guard in the NBA.
Cowgill was a recruiting afterthought by most programs. Tony Bennett first saw him at a tournament in Las Vegas, while waiting to check out C.J. Giles of Rainier Beach in the next game. In the last 10 minutes, he saw Cowgill hit a three, block a shot, run the floor and dribble behind his back.
Bennett called his father, who was also in town. Dick Bennett went to see Cowgill's next game with assistant coach Mike Burns, now head coach at Eastern Washington.
"My dad fell in love with him," Tony Bennett said. "He battled and got rebounds. He said, 'That's the kind of kid we want in this program.' "
Another assistant, Mike Heideman, sleuthed out Harmeling at a tournament near Dallas. Otherwise, Harmeling probably was going to be a walk-on at Colorado State.
"I liked his competitiveness," Heideman said. "He was a smart kid. The more we found out about his character, he met all the criteria."
There would be other pieces added, Aron Baynes and Ivory Clark and Kyle Weaver. As a Wisconsin assistant, Tony Bennett already knew about Weaver, the multidimensional swing player from that state, when the Bennetts came to WSU.
The Badgers didn't follow through when Bennett left. They were used to the crème de la crème at that position — Devin Harris then, player-of-the-year candidate Alando Tucker now — so the Cougars' primary competition for Weaver was Bradley.
In the first two years of Dick Bennett's WSU regime, the Cougars benefited from junior-college recruit Jeff Varem. They sought out a facsimile to coincide with the development of the high-school signees, an athlete who could play big and block shots.
"I think I found our guy," Tony Bennett said in a halftime call to his father, after seeing Clark play at South Plains Junior College in West Texas.
"He's from Louisiana, where my wife's from," adds Tony Bennett, referring to Clark. "She cooked him red beans and rice on his recruiting visit, and it was a done deal."
But it all began that night up at Dick Bennett's house, where they put a twist on an old saying for WSU fans.
Indeed, some days are peanuts and some are shells. And some days are both.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.
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