Faith gives Washington State’s Bennett balance in life
Picked to finish last in the conference, the Tony Bennett’s Washington State Cougars placed second, tying a school record for wins with a 26-8 record, their best season in 66 years. They beat five ranked teams and made the NCAA Tournament for only the fifth time in their 106-year program history. A double-overtime loss to Vanderbilt in the tournament’s second round did little to lessen the shock. The Cougars finished ranked in the top 20 in both polls.
Bennett, who accepted Christ in eighth grade during an FCA Camp in Colorado, and his team are throwing college basketball convention on its ear—and not just during games. After a particularly poor Saturday practice earlier in the preseason, Bennett’s players arrived at the gym the next day, fully expecting to be chewed out and run mercilessly. Instead, Bennett gathered his team and said, “I don’t want to practice today. We showed a lot of weaknesses yesterday; but I want to honor the Sabbath as much as I can this year. Today, I want you to spend time with family and honor the Sabbath.” His players were stunned.
Bennett then organized a 20-minute chapel. Virtually the entire team showed up.
“Me and [senior forward] Rob Cowgill were looking at each other going, ‘Coach is the man!’” said junior forward Daven Harmeling, a Christian. “How many other coaches do that?”
As a result of Bennett’s godly example, remarkable things are happening on campus. Rochestie, another believer, is giving up his scholarship next year to an incoming freshman to keep the program rolling. Senior forward Robbie Cowgill moved back into a campus dorm from an off-campus apartment to be a positive role model for freshmen. And last season, two players, two team managers and an assistant coach all accepted Christ.
“It all starts at the top,” Harmeling said. “When you have a guy with that much faith and character, it rubs off on you.”
Bennett has taken the windfall from last year in stride. Bennett’s prayers, Alsager said, focus not on his success but on the well-being of his wife, his two young children and his players.
“When you have a relationship with Lord,” Bennett said, “there’s a peace and perspective you have. The world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away. Your relationship with the Lord and with your friends, that’s what matters.”
Sequels that equal or exceed the original are always difficult. Such is the challenge this winter for Washington State, which entered the season with a No. 10 preseason ranking. The PAC-10 is loaded with Oregon, Gonzaga, Arizona, Southern California and Stanford also starting the season in the top 25.
So, Bennett’s Cougars—a group of gritty players that none of college basketball’s aristocracy wanted—will once again take their slingshots into battle, trying to prove that giants can still be slain in Pullman. It’s so perfect, if you think about it: Where else but this quaint locale for a model of humility to work his underdog magic again?
“It gives you a chance to have a balanced life as a father, a husband and a coach,” Bennett said. “Any coach will tell you it’s tough to have that balance, because this profession can overwhelm you. It’s tough. But you need to be what God wants you to be and be successful in His eyes.