Story by Erin Hallissy
Photography by Dan Rosenstrauch

 

Randy Bennett played point guard for Westwood High in Mesa, Ariz., handling the ball, running the plays. When coaches were barred from practice during summer, he "made sure everybody was right on time and hustled and played hard," his coach, Buddy Doolen, recalls.

Bennett earned his leadership role on the court and off. For years, he never missed a practice and pushed to improve himself and the teams, leading them to regional and city championships. But basketball was more than just a sport.

"Every one of those kids was his best friend," says Doolen, who remains close to Bennett. "They hung around together, they went camping together. To this day, they are all buddies."

That wouldn't surprise anyone who knows Bennett, now in his sixth year as head coach of Saint Mary's men's basketball team. If, as Aristotle said in Ethics, we become what we repeatedly do, Bennett is a leader who works hard while demanding hard work, a man who forges deep friendships that last long after players move on.

"He's loyal as a coach, as a friend, as a player," says Dan Shell, one of four assistant coaches hired by Bennett in 2001 who remain on his staff. "Because he puts so much passion into his work, people want to run through fences for him. They see how hard he works, how much he cares about the team and the school. They don't want to let him down."

Bennett inherited a Gaels team that went 2–27 in 2000–01. His five-year record entering this season was 85–68, including two West Coast Conference Tournament title appearances in 2004 and 2005, and an NCAA tournament berth in 2005. He's recruited an impressive array of talented players from Australia, France and Morocco, and increasingly is signing Bay Area prospects who once again view Saint Mary's as an attractive place to play.

Bennett, whose contract was extended through the 2010–11 season, has also raised Saint Mary's profile — and his own — by pitting the Gaels against tough opponents that include the University of Arizona, the University of Connecticut, Seton Hall, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and the University of Southern California.

Easygoing and generous with smiles off the court, the 44-year-old is not all hard work and drive. His two rambunctious boys, 4-year-old Chase and 3-year-old Cade, enliven McKeon Pavilion during games and practices; the gym has become a second home to them and Bennett's wife, Darlene. The Bennetts regularly attend men's and women's volleyball, soccer and other games.

Bennett has also sought players who understand the opportunities afforded by a Saint Mary's degree; 15 of 18 of his seniors have graduated and the other three are still working to get their degrees. Meanwhile, Bennett has also grown, going from being media-shy to comfortable in front of the spotlight, even though he prefers to shine it elsewhere.

"Men's basketball is our most visible program, and Randy is our most visible coach," says Athletic Director Mark Orr. "I think he epitomizes what we're looking for. He handles himself in such a great way that it provides more exposure for the program."

 

Born to basketball

Tom Bennett, Randy's father, was a stellar high school and college hoopster and coach who never had a losing season in 19 years coaching at Mesa Community College in Arizona, and his son's passion for basketball was there from the start.

"Randy's first word was ball," his mother, Barbara, says. "He used to play in the backyard when he was little, when he was barely able to walk.''

Bennett remembers that backyard. "We had a hoop in the dirt. It was on a wooden pole and had a wooden basket," he says over a bacon-and-cheddar omelet and hot chocolate at Terzetto's in Moraga, one of the local restaurants he frequents. "Then we moved and the next hoop was on concrete, so that was a step up."

Bennett was constantly around his dad's college players, who occasionally stuffed the boy in lockers and roughhoused with him. Tom Bennett taught the sport to his son, who possessed a "work ethic way beyond most people's."

"He went six years straight without missing a day of practice," says Tom Bennett, who retired last year after 42 years coaching high school and college basketball. "If he hadn't gotten his practice in, he'd practice at 10 o'clock at night."

As a boy, Randy was obsessed with the Dallas Cowboys, Barbara says, and Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes. Bennett swam, rode his bike and played for hours with toy soldiers or built things on the floor.

"Everything was a game, whether it was basketball or hide-and-seek or whatever he was doing," his older sister, Cathy Mosbeck, says. "He always wanted to win."

Bennett also focused on self-improvement, much like a young Jay Gatsby.

"He was always striving to be better," Barbara says. "He did sit-ups. It was unbelievable how he'd keep increasing the number of sit-ups or push-ups."

Coach Doolen was impressed by Bennett's effort. "Maybe he wasn't the smartest kid, maybe he wasn't the most talented athletically, but he worked harder than anyone else and made it happen."

Coach Roy Youree, putting together a team for a Basketball Congress International tournament in the late 1970s, chose Bennett because of his leadership, dedication and hustle. Youree remembers a game against a Southern California team when the 5-foot-9 Bennett was guarding a 6-foot-6 opponent who ran full-tilt at the basket. "Randy Bennett took the charge. We liked the way that he was just a hard-nosed individual."

Playing for his father at Mesa Community College, Bennett helped lead the team to consecutive Arizona Junior College Championships in 1981 and 1982, then captained the basketball team at UC San Diego, where he earned a B.S. in biology.

 

From player to coach

Despite his scrappiness, Bennett wasn't made for the pros. His father discouraged him from coaching: "I told him he might be disappointed in the athletes he coached because most of them would not put in the work that he did." Bennett nevertheless volunteered as an assistant to Hank Egan at the University of San Diego, launching his coaching career.

Around that time, Bennett met Lorenzo Romar, a former NBA guard who is now the University of Washington's head basketball coach, in a pick-up game in San Diego. Romar recalls that Bennett was serious about winning, and bummed by losing, but he never let it affect his relationship with others.

"He was a super nice guy that I could trust," Romar says. "He was very friendly, had a good sense of humor, and he was easy to talk to."

A long and close friendship began. The playground competitors remained in touch while working as assistant coaches at different schools — Bennett at USD and Romar at UCLA. Bennett was developing into a talented recruiter of student-athletes, occasionally alerting Romar to players suited for UCLA. When Romar got the head coaching job at Pepperdine in 1996, he hired Bennett as his top assistant.

"I admired his work ethic and his knowledge and wisdom," Romar says. "He was really good with people. During the recruiting process, he'd gain (players') trust. They knew he cared about them, and that he'd be there for them."

That doesn't mean he was easy on players after they were signed. "He was firm. He'd hold them accountable," says Romar, who took Bennett with him to Saint Louis University in Missouri in 1999 when he got the top job there. "He earned the right to get on them and discipline them, because they knew he cared."

 

SMC comes calling

In 2000–2001, the Saint Mary's men's basketball team had a disastrous 2–27 season, and then-Athletic Director Carl Clapp decided to make a coaching change and was urged to look at Bennett.

"I heard first of all that he was a terrific person, an outstanding basketball coach, an excellent recruiter and that he had the ability to build a very strong team," says Clapp, now an associate athletic director at the University of Hawaii.

The two arranged to meet at the 2001 NCAA Final Four Tournament in Minneapolis.

"My immediate impressions were exactly what people had told me — he's really a terrific human being with a real ability to foster and build relationships with people. He sincerely cares about the opportunities and welfare of others. He knew Saint Mary's very well and he understood the job, what it takes to coach in the WCC."

Bennett was the last of five finalists to be interviewed. Never sartorially minded, he arrived at the Oakland airport in a suit jacket with the price tag dangling from the sleeve. But the clothing faux pas was fixed, and Bennett impressed the entire search committee.

"Everyone said, ‘This is the fit, this is the guy,'?" Orr recalls. "He was obviously a great basketball coach — he knows the game, the X's and O's. But he's even a better person. He's very genuine and very honest."

At the same time, Bennett and Darlene were taken by Saint Mary's. They liked the setting, the Lasallian mission and the community. It was a place they could make a home.

 

Turning things around

Bennett pledged his commitment to returning players who wanted to stay, and worked to complete the roster long after most top recruits had committed to other schools. In July, he found guard Adam Caphorn in Australia.

"He was the leader of that team, and a super person," Bennett says, adding that the signing made it possible for him to recruit other good players from Australia. "Because of him, I ended up getting Daniel Kickert (who graduated last year after setting a Gaels scoring record). "We beat some big schools on signing Daniel because Adam had such a good experience at Saint Mary's."

Bennett also took a chance that year on Anthony Woodards, a 6–1, 205-pound guard from a tough North Richmond neighborhood whom other four-year Bay Area colleges passed on.

"He was the only coach willing to offer me a full scholarship for my basketball abilities," Woodards recalls. "He saw that I was at a point in my life where I was willing to change and become a better person."

It wasn't easy. Bennett tutored him so he could complete a required business class at Skyline Junior College in San Bruno. Then he had to turn an inner-city young man who swore freely and wore a gold teeth grill into a Saint Mary's student-athlete.

Woodards faced daunting obstacles at Saint Mary's, balancing books and basketball and adjusting to a new culture. He'd call the coach at 2 or 3 a.m. to vent about school or problems. They were, he says, "always true to each other."

"I worked hard for him," says Woodards, now a Richmond firefighter. "He was able to grab a person and make you blossom, turn you in to a really better person. He took me out of a city like Richmond and put me into Saint Mary's and brought the best out of me."

In March 2003, Woodards was named the WCC's defensive player of the year, and in fall 2003 he played a season of Gaels football. Bennett cherishes their friendship just as Woodards does — the coach was a groomsman in Woodards' wedding in 2005 and attended his grandfather's funeral in North Richmond.

Bennett's close relationships with players impress his colleagues.

"Obviously he knows the game of basketball," Orr says. "But he is very good in the game of life. You're dealing with 18- to 22-year-old young men, and there are ups and downs in that age group, on the basketball court, socially, academically and when they're going out in the real world. Randy really spends a lot of time being a teacher. And to me, that reflects the College's mission and the Lasallian mission."

 

Engaging recruits

Recruiting is essential to Division I success, and can be especially tough at mid-major programs like Saint Mary's. Bennett has a wide, deep and international recruiting network; he's found quality players in Australia, France, Morocco and Brazil.

"The word on the streets is that Saint Mary's is a really good place for an international student," Bennett says. "It's small. The school adopts these kids. They can't get lost here."

Bennett had to go international when he arrived at the College because of SMC's poor record, President Brother Ronald Gallagher says, but recent successes have rekindled local interest. "We're getting good players from the area," Brother Ronald says. "This becomes a very attractive place for them."

Bennett appreciates the importance of recruiting local players who "were born and raised here, know the WCC, understand the tradition here." He ticks off names of some of his Northern California players this year: Omar Samhan (San Ramon), John Winston (Hercules), Diamon Simpson (Hayward) and Ian O'Leary (Woodland).

But Bennett doesn't base his recruiting decisions on locale or even primarily on athletic talent, he says. He says he seeks good people and ensures they want a good education and want to be good players.

"They don't all have to be great students, and they don't all have to be great players, but I want them all to be good people who care about others," Bennett says, sitting in his McKeon Pavilion office, recently remodeled to provide a more professional setting for potential recruits and their families. "Not all our guys are angels, but they all come to Saint Mary's on the same premise — that we expect them to be good people and to get a degree."

In contrast to many coaches who employ double standards or look the other way when their players fall short, Bennett is tough with anyone who doesn't meet his expectations. Bennett worked hard with former star guard Paul Marigney after taking over in 2001. Marigney, from Oakland's Castlemont High, struggled at times with schoolwork and maturity, and was academically ineligible for nine games in 2004–05. Now a professional player in Italy, Marigney continues to work on completing his degree. Bennett credits him for an attitude adjustment that turned around his senior season, which culminated in the 2005 NCAA Tournament appearance, the College's first since 1997.

Bennett's toughness isn't displayed in swearing, screaming or throwing things. He makes his points firmly, but calmly. In a practice last fall, he made the team run sprints after someone swore, and chided another player for not hustling. When that player continued slacking off, Bennett ordered him out of practice, adding in a firm but calm voice, "It's not on your terms. It's on the team's terms."

Later, Bennett reflected that "there are certain things that are absolutes. If I tell a guy to step off the court, and they don't, I'm going to deal with it. They know they need to be a team; they need to work hard and play hard. They're going to make mistakes. They're going to take some bad shots. Then you start dealing with handling success, dealing with failure, and that's coaching."

Omar Samhan, a redshirt freshman center, admires Bennett's work ethic.

"He's tough on me," Samhan says, admitting Bennett has gotten on him for not playing defense as well as he should. "When he's tough, it's mostly always fair or to prove a point. A few times he's come down on me pretty hard, and it's always true."

 

A family man

Bennett may be tough on the court, but Darlene says she's the disciplinarian at home to Chase and Cade. But she calls her husband "an awesome dad."

"He knows how to play well with them. He knows how to instill such great character and he provides them with awesome goals," Darlene says in the living room of their modest Lafayette home, which she's decorated with antiques ranging from vintage game boards to cowboy gear.

Bennett is instilling a competitive drive in the boys. He doesn't let them win, even at Candy Land, yet he's patient and encouraging with them as he teaches them how to swing a bat or throw a ball.

Darlene, who met him through a mutual friend when Bennett was at USD, says she was taken by his unpretentiousness on their first meeting.

"He had on Adidas sandals with white socks and shorts," she remembers with a laugh. "I thought anybody who has the confidence to wear that is for me. I just knew he was a down-to-earth, great guy."

Darlene, 38, didn't know a lot about basketball before she met Bennett, but she's learning, and appreciates that she and their sons are welcome at the gym — "our yard" — for games and practices.

"The players become our extended family," Darlene says. "Randy knows all the players personally, he has relationships with their parents." During the 2005 NCAA appearance, SMC staffers helped Darlene care for the boys, then 2 and 1.

The Bennetts are also close to the coaches and staff. "He has great relationships with people," Darlene says. "He puts his heart and soul and passion into his friends. He's the most selfless person I know."

While she can't help her husband with X's and O's, Darlene does pick out his game-day suits and ties. Halfway through this season he took issue with some of her choices.

"She's been picking out these new ties, and we've been losing with them, so no more new ties this year, " jokes Bennett, who admits to having game-day superstitions and routines. "Ties are big. If I lose with a tie, I say keep it away from me."

 

Raising the profile

If Bennett sets high standards — even for his ties — it may be because he's pushing the team to improve every year and to play tough competitors to raise the program's visibility. It's working: Along with inking deals to play ranked teams, the Gaels appeared this season on national and regional telecasts. In December 2007, the Gaels will compete in the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii. The pressure is high, but Bennett's teams usually respond. In 2005–06, the Gaels went 17–12 and won 11 of their last 13 games.

"As we've had some success, that breeds more success," he says.

And even failure has something to teach, says Bennett, who loves basketball for the life lessons it teaches players.

"In the process of becoming as good as you can be, you learn so much — your strengths and weaknesses, how you're going to handle adversity," he says. "You get real-life experience by being on a team."

The team this year is young and got off to a slow start after its leader Daniel Kickert, now playing in Italy, graduated. But

in January the Gaels upset Gonzaga on national TV, and beat USF to tie for first in the WCC.

Bennett's success in Moraga has sparked occasional rumors that he — like predecessors Lynn Nance, who went to Washington, and Ernie Kent, who went to Oregon — will leave Saint Mary's for a bigger school. When the Arizona State job opened up last spring, speculation had Bennett on a supposed short list of candidates.

Brother Ronald says Nance and Kent were pursuing their "dream jobs," and adds Bennett may already have found his.

"This can be a dream job, especially if we become a premier program in the Bay Area, and we're on the edge of that now," Brother Ronald says.

Bennett dismisses the talk of leaving as "part of college basketball."

"I'm happy. I believe in what this place is all about," he says. "I like the administration. I like the players. It's a great place for me to raise my kids.

"Saint Mary's gave me a chance. I appreciate that," the coach continues. "I don't think we're finished in what we can do. We can continue to raise the level of this program."

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