by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & year ago, Washington State emerged from the depths of basketball hell to shock the nation. After 10 straight losing seasons -- and after being picked to finish last in the Pac-10 for the second straight year -- the Cougars won 26 games and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. Tony Bennett, who had never been a college head coach before, was named national coach of the year.
"Where do I go from here?" Bennett asked.
How about Charlotte, N.C., where the 21st-ranked Cougars (26-8) tackle top-ranked North Carolina (34-2) Thursday in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament, with national television coverage scheduled to begin at 4:27 pm PDT. (KREM 2, KXLY AM-920).
The Cougars are 0-25 all-time against top-ranked teams, but the current crew might be the best team in WSU history. Win or lose tonight, Bennett -- who assisted his father, Dick, for three years at WSU before the elder Bennett retired prior to last season -- says he has thoroughly enjoyed the ride from the bottom of the Pac-10 to the elite level of college hoops.
"It's a great story, because it's with the right kind of kids -- character," Bennett says. "There's no shortcut to doing it the right way. We got the right kind of kids. You can see that when you talk to them.
"They bought into a vision. They haven't wavered. You know, you can lose with them. That's what my dad said: 'You've got to recruit kids you can lose with before we win.'"
Dick Bennett looked on proudly last week in Denver when the Cougars held Winthrop and Notre Dame to a total of 81 points in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
"I can't tell you the character in our locker room," Tony Bennett says. "They're a joy to coach. Sometimes we drive each other nuts, but you can always look at each other and know that it's about the right stuff.
"That's what Washington State's about. Pullman. It's a fighter, underdog, fighter mentality. The people embrace that there."
When the Bennetts decided to come to Washington State, people told them the Cougars' head coaching job was the "toughest job in the country" in NCAA Division I men's basketball. The Bennetts listened, nodded, turned away ... and smiled.
"There's nothing better than going to a place where people don't think it can be done, but the [school] administration and community believes in you," Tony Bennett says. "They embrace it when you're competitive to start.
"That's what drew my dad out of retirement. He said, 'I want to go to a place where they don't think it can be done.' He'd never experienced something like that. People were so thankful [the Cougars] fought hard.
"Even though we finished in last place, they believed, were encouraged. For those people who suffered a long time, this is a great reward for them. It's a special place to be."
Doesn't sound a guy getting ready to leave town, does it? Bennett's name continues to surface whenever top coaching jobs become available (Indiana, LSU), but Bennett says he won't make any comments on jobs until after the season.
Bennett, who has built a home in Pullman and frequently mentions how much he and his family enjoy the small-town atmosphere, may be doing nothing more than posturing to boost his bargaining power for a raise or increased financing for the basketball program in general. The Cougars are trying to raise funds for charter flights that would ease the travel burden from Pullman for road games and recruiting.
Last year, Bennett's name circulated at several schools before he signed the biggest coaching contract in WSU history -- $800,000 a year, basically, for seven years. He's already tacked on $75,000 in bonuses ($25,000 for playing in the NCAA tournament and $50,000 for reaching the Sweet 16).
If the Cougars knock off North Carolina tonight and No. 5 Tennessee or No. 13 Louisville on Saturday, WSU heads to the Final Four next week in San Antonio, and Bennett earns another $100,000. And if the Cougars win their first NCAA title, that's worth another 100 grand.
The money is nice, of course, but Bennett never mentions finances when he talks about his pride in watching the Cougars rise from mediocrity. For Bennett and his seniors, the scars are still fresh from a humiliating 81-29 loss just four years ago at Oklahoma State.
"That was about as bad as it gets," Bennett says. "At that time, if you'd [told] me, 'Hey, I'll tell you what, you're going to be in the Sweet 16 four years from now,' I would have looked at you like you're crazy."