I was listening to Ian Furness on 950 KJR yesterday, and he took umbrage with the universal assertion that the WSU basketball is in a much better place than it was six years ago when the Bennetts arrived on campus. His contention? That's only the case if the new coach can keep the big three (Klay, Casto and Capers) and get all four recruits to come to campus.
Even if there was no talent left on the roster whatsoever, the program is still in better shape than six years ago. Consider the following indesputable facts:
Coaches will now actually consider taking this job. Six years ago, nobody would touch this job with a 10-foot pole. Truly, WSU was becoming known as a coach killer. When Kelvin Sampson left, this was a reasonably attractive job -- the cupboard was stocked with lots of talent. But while Kevin Eastman was able to have some early success, poor recruiting led the program to take some big steps backwards in his tenure. He hasn't been in college coaching since. Paul Graham was a hard-working assistant under Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State who had been passed over a few times and finally got his shot. He took the program to depths unseen at a time when the Pac-10 was relatively weak, and left behind a roster more or less devoid of any Pac-10 talent.
In comes Dick Bennett, an outside-the-box hire. Everyone wondered at the time -- why would he come to Pullman? There was a lot of speculation about Tony, but three years later, we found out for sure. As Dick said, "I didn't do anything that any other father wouldn't do for his son." In other words, the only reason he took a job at Washington State was to get his son his first head coaching job.
Now? Ken Bone, one of the up-and-comers in the coaching profession -- a proven winner -- is interested in the job. A former NBA coach, Terry Porter, has reportedly thrown his name into the mix. We don't know for sure who else is being looked at, but those two names alone tell you this program is in much, much better shape than it was six years ago.
WSU can now at least somewhat compete financially with other schools. Granted, we'll still aren't able able to pay the $2 million a year that seems to be the going rate for upper level coaches, but thanks to the Basketball Excellence Fund, the financial infrastructure is now in place to at least be competitive. Gone are the days of offering a desperate up-and-coming assistant desperate for a Pac-10 job a pitifully small salary. After showing we can pay a successful coach a seven-figure salary, we're at least in the neighborhood now, and that's huge.
The amenities are far better than when the Bennetts arrived. No, we don't have the facilities of some other schools. Beasley Coliseum is an aging, multipurpose arena that will never be confused with Hec-Ed, the Galen Center or the McKale Center. But Beasley presents a much more fan-friendly experience than it ever did in my years at WSU. And the other stuff is still solid. The weight room and training facilities are competitive, and beyond that, Sterk has disputed the notion that the program is cutting planned charter flights to some games. Pullman is always going to be tough to travel from, but it's indisputably better than it was.
The fanbase is energized, and fully ready to embrace the next coach. I know Facebook wasn't really around six years ago, but even if it had been, there is not a chance in hell that fans would have started a group designed to show the players how much they appreciate them and want them to stay. There was no Zzu Cru. And while it's always going to be a challenge to fill Beasley, Coug fans now have a bonafide love affair with their team. They care. And that's something you couldn't say six years ago.
Regardless of how we feel about the way Tony Bennett left, we do owe him and his father a huge amount of gratitude that we're in the position to hire whoever it is we're about to hire. I'm not saying this job won't be far better if all of the players stay/come, but even if some guys leave the program, it's going to take more than a year to undo the progress that was made over the past six years. And that alone should make you feel great about where we're headed.