Over the past two years, I told anyone who would listen that Tony Bennett was different.
That he meant it when he said Pullman was a wonderful place for him and his family.
That he was being truthful when he said was grateful to AD Jim Sterk for the opportunity and wanted to repay that the faith by sticking around.
That, because of his faith, he just operated with a different set of values than all those other upwardly mobile coaches.
And every time I did, I got that look. You know, the one that says, "You can't possibly actually believe that, can you? You're so naive." That, of course, was followed by the inevitable condescending conversation that always began something like, "Every coach is looking for the next big job, and Tony Bennett is no different -- you'll see," and usually ended with, "C'mon, you're Wazzu. Nobody stays there by choice."
And that right there is what makes this feel like a swift kick in the nuts. We have to admit that everyone else was right -- on both counts.
Tony Bennett is just like every other coach.
And Washington State always will be a place where successful coaches come to build a resume and move on.
There's really no other way to explain what happened today. We gave Tony everything he asked for -- and even some things he didn't -- and it still wasn't enough to keep a guy we wanted to keep, a guy who professed wanting to be here. We thought we could escape our history, convincing ourselves this was a different era in Cougar athletics as we bought Tony's schtick hook, line and sinker.
Yes, he lied to us, but it's our fault for believing him. You might find that language harsh or too strong, but he's the one who said all those things about Pullman, about Sterk, about the program ... and then bolted today with only a short players' meeting. Those were his words, not ours.
However, we are the ones who were delusional enough to believe all of it. We are the ones who fooled ourselves into thinking if we just did enough -- gave enough of ourselves and our resources -- that an outsider, a non-Coug, could come to Pullman, fall in love with it the way we all have, and actually want to stick around long enough to truly build something special.
I guess that's the lesson here. As a relatively recent WSU grad (1999), I've had the pleasure of seeing some awfully good times in my years as a Coug, watching the team I love go to two Rose Bowls and two NCAA Tournaments. Because of that, I honestly never fully understood the angst of those Cougs who graduated long before I did, as they always waited for the other shoe to drop no matter how good times got.
Today, I think I get it.
Today, I think I finally fully understand what it means to be a Coug.
It means that things can never get too good. It means that you better live in the moment, because something terrible is right around the corner. And it means that we better cling to each other, because each other is all we've got. When Jim Moore, one of those angst-ridden old Cougs, talks about how Pullman and Washington State are with him everyday, it reminds me that we truly are the only people who understand what it means to be Cougs, and to expect anyone else to get it is just ignorant.
I feel like I've passed some kind of initiation. So, if I happen to say "Go Cougs!" with a little more gusto than before, well, now you know why. It will be my mantra, because I know that you all are the only ones I can truly count on.
Look, none of us realistically thought Tony was really in this for the long haul. But we thought he was here for at least another year, and probably two or more simply because of the things he said. He could have just said he'd take it year to year, but he didn't; nobody forced him to say the things he said. Maybe someday, there will be a coach who truly is as good as his word. But I doubt it, since he'd be the first.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
I will never be fooled again.