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Alternate Endings: Tony Bennett, WSU men’s basketball coach

What if?

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Practice Day Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

OK everybody, grab a chair and gather around. Consider this your college basketball therapy session. Remember those books you had as a youth where you’d get to choose the ending? You’d get to the end of a page and you’d have two options on where you could take the story? And remember those DVDs that offered an alternate ending in the special features?

This is the CougCenter version of that.

Let’s pretend that Tony Bennett, current head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers, who play in the Final Four today, actually never left as head coach of the Washington State Cougars. Let’s pretend the past decade never happened, and instead, the past decade was full of postseason basketball, full crowds at Beasley Coliseum and the discontinuation of the WSU-Gonzaga rivalry because those Zags couldn’t cut it against our Cougs.

Let our minds wander......

Tony Bennett, head coach of the Washington State Cougars, spurns Virginia and its shiny new arena and top tier conference and fertile recruiting ground because he feels he has something special at WSU. He returns a young team plus the newest stud Aussie in Brock Motum, and a sophomore guard in Klay Thompson.

And just about halfway across the state sits Joe Harris of Chelan. Harris loves Bennett and commits to WSU. He’ll be in Pullman to start the 2010-2011 season.

After a second round loss in the 2010 NIT, Bennett returns perhaps his most talented team. Harris is a true freshman, Thompson is a junior and the team’s clear leader. DeAngelo Casto is entering his junior season as well.

Harris and Thompson seemingly can’t miss from three, and the ZZU CRU nicknames them the “Splash Brothers.” This nickname will cause some minor controversy in Pullman some years later after Thompson uses it to describe him and Steph Curry. But Cougar fans are OK with it after Thompson donates $5 million to the school for charter flights for game travel and recruiting, as well as some remodels behind the scenes at Beasley and PEB.

The season concludes with an Elite Eight loss to Duke.

The Cougars are an NCAA Tournament team every season during the ensuing years and advance to the Sweet 16 in all but two seasons. WSU continues to attract hard working recruits who aren’t on everybody’s radar but excel in the Bennett system.

Meanwhile, up the road at Gonzaga, the Zags are struggling to stake out a spot in the college basketball market in eastern Washington. In fact, it gets so bad that Gonzaga starts selling discounted tickets just to fill their 6,000-seat arena and can’t find any ears to listen to their whines that the ZZU CRU “stole” Zombie Nation as the team’s intro song and suddenly transplants to town have brought back the Gon-ZAW-guh pronunciation.


Anyway, there is excitement on campus in Pullman all school year long each and every year, and Cougs have an amazing contrast of successful coaches in Mike Leach and Tony Bennett. In fact, Leach can’t stop talking about that one time that Dick Bennett flipped the bird to the UW student section.

WSU has seven players in the NBA, giving recruits a reason to take a long look at what playing in Pullman has to offer. The 2019-2020 season might be Bennett’s best in Pullman, and dreams of a Final Four might be realized because WSU is ranked no. 8 in the preseason poll.

There is concern, though, that Bennett might be wanted by a blue blood. That concern is mitigated by the fact that WSU has a succession plan in place that would make one of Bennett’s assistants next in line for head coach. That assistant came to WSU a few years ago after turning us down another time. Bennett finally convinced him and his family to come home because Pullman is the friendliest place on Earth.

That assistant is named Kyle Smith. Funny how life works out.

Now wasn’t that nice? We can all dream of what might have been had WSU been able to keep Bennett. It’s been 10 years, and I’ve never blamed Bennett for leaving. I know others feel different and that’s fine. Bennett’s move has clearly worked out for him. As for WSU? We’re on head coach no. 3, but there’s a lot of optimism around Kyle Smith.

WSU, the conference and the NCAA were at a different spot back in 2009. I always wonder what Bennett’s decision might have been if today’s landscape existed back in 2009.

Kyle Smith



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