Jon Teitel's "Coaching Greats" Series: Saint Mary's Randy Bennett

October 16th, 2011
In the most recent installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Saint Mary's head coach Randy Bennett, who has won 208 games and led the Gaels to three NCAA appearances during his time in Moraga. Under Bennett's watch the Gaels have become a perennial contender in the West Coast Conference, with the high point being their Sweet 16 appearance in 2010.

Jon Teitel: Before becoming team captain at UCSD in the 1980s you played basketball at Mesa Community College for your father Tom (who never had a losing season in 19 years). What was it like to play for your dad, and how much of an influence was he on your own decision to go into coaching?

Randy Bennett: It was a good experience to play for my dad. He was a huge influence on me in all aspects of my life. I was the typical coach's son while growing up, just running around and being a ballboy. I was like every other player, just trying to get on the court and get some playing time. I made the leap from ninth man as a freshman to starter as a sophomore. I had to earn my stripes, so being the son of the coach was not much of a factor for me. I played at a good program and won a lot of games so it was an all-around positive experience. My dad might have gone overboard to have me consider other professions, but it was what I saw/lived and it seemed like a good way to live my life.

JT: In 2000 as an assistant at St. Louis under Lorenzo Romar you made the NCAA Tournament after winning the Conference USA Tournament with four wins in four days while holding each of your opponents under 60 points (the first team in NCAA history to accomplish this feat), including an upset of #1-ranked Cincinnati. How was your team able to stay focused for the entire stretch to win the tourney?

RB: It was a season/tournament that I will never forget. We played the Bearcats on the road earlier that season on Kenyon Martin's senior night and he was just bouncing our shots all over the gym. They beat us by 43 points. We were getting ready to face them again five days later in the tourney and I just told my guys that anything can happen, which is a lesson I still use today. We had a ton of momentum after beating Cincinnati and just went on a run. We had some guys play over their heads, which is the only way we could get it done. It was an important life experience.

JT: What are your memories of the 2000 NCAA Tournament (only three players combined scored in double figures in a three-point loss to Utah)?

RB: It was a very physical, ugly game. Guys were getting taken off the court right and left. Jeff Johnsen banked in a 35-foot shot with one minute left to take the lead.

JT: What are your memories of the 2005 NCAA Tournament as head coach at Saint Mary's (Paul Marigney had 12 points and 10 rebounds in a nine-point loss to Southern Illinois)?

RB: The Salukis had lost three straight tournament games, but their experience of having been there before gave them a big advantage. They were good defensively and very physical, which made me realize that we would have to get tougher and become better prepared. There are no slouches in the tournament, everyone can guard and take good shots.

JT: What are your memories of the 2008 NCAA Tournament (Jack McClinton scored a career-high 38 points (12-19 FG) in a Miami win)?

RB: We played well in the first half as we held McClinton to only six points, and then he just exploded in the second half. They beat us up inside so we learned that we had to do a better job in the weight room.

JT: What are your memories of the 2010 WCC Tournament final (conference tournament MVP Mickey McConnell matched a career-high with 26 points in a win over Gonzaga)?

RB: I was a little surprised that we were able to separate ourselves from them. It was great to have a Selection Sunday where we did not have to wonder if we would get selected. We beat a good team in a game that mattered, and nobody slept all night!

2010 NCAA Tournament

JT: Omar Samhan had 29 points and 11 rebounds in a nine-point win over Richmond. What did it mean to you to win a game in the tournament?

RB: I do not know if I can explain how huge it was. We were out in Providence so we only had about 300 fans at the game. We did not grasp how big a deal it was back home, but everyone was having a party or was out at a bar watching the game. We had a special team despite losing six guys from the year before (including Patty Mills), so not a lot of people thought we would be good enough to get to the tourney. During the game there is no time to reflect on the accomplishment, but it felt great afterward.

JT: Samhan scored 32 points (13-16 FG) in a seven-point upset over #2-seed Villanova. Where does Samhan rank among the best players you have ever coached?

RB: He is in the top two or three, but his senior year was the best individual season of anyone I have ever had. I do not know if we fully appreciated the win over Richmond, but we were sky-high after beating a Top 10 team like Villanova. As a coach there is nothing better than seeing your group of guys win a game that nobody thought they could win. We had some magic working for us, and you do not know if you will ever get back there again. I do not know if I have ever been more proud of a team.

JT: LaceDarius Dunn scored 23 points in 27 minutes in a Baylor win in Houston. What was the reaction like when you got back to campus?

RB: We got back around midnight and there were 500-600 fans waiting to greet us. We were laughing because we thought there would only be around 30 people who showed up. We went right from the game to the hotel to the bus to the plane, so it was not until we got home that we realized how big it was.

JT: Despite winning 25 games in 2011 your team was not given an at-large berth by the NCAA selection committee and had a one-point loss to Kent State in the NIT after Justin Greene made a go-ahead layup with three seconds left. Do you feel like you should have made the NCAA Tournament, and how devastating was the loss?

RB: I felt like we should have been in the tourney and I still feel that way, but we were able to move on because you cannot control that unless you win your conference tourney. We were excited to play in the NIT and had the game won until they took the lead at the end. We ended a very good season on a bad note, but that is just how it goes sometimes in the world of sports.

JT: In 2011 you were named WCC Coach of the Year for the second time. What did it mean to you to win such outstanding individual honors?

RB: It is nice to be recognized by your peers that way, but it is not something that I dwell on. The reason it happens is that you have good players.

JT: You are the all-time winningest coach in school history. What makes you such a great coach, and do you think anyone will ever break your record?

RB: I do not know if I am that much different than the coaches who came before me. I have a great staff and our players have poured their hearts and souls into the program, which is why we have been good. I hope that someone breaks my record someday.

Coach Bennett is also on Jon's list of best coaches in WCC history.

BYU: Stan Watts (1949-1972) 371-254, 7 NCAA tourneys, 8 conference titles, 2 NIT titles
Gonzaga: Mark Few (1999-present) 316-83, 12 NCAA tourneys, 11 conference titles, 8-time conference COY
Loyola Marymount: Paul Westhead (1985-1990) 105-48, 3 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Pepperdine: Jim Harrick (1979-1988) 167-97, 4 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 4-time conference COY
Portland: Albert Negratti (1955-1967) 163-156, 1 NCAA tourney, 1-time conference COY
Saint Mary's: Randy Bennett (2001-present) 208-112, 3 NCAA tourneys, 2-time conference COY
San Diego: Hank Egan (1984-1994) 156-126, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title, 2-time conference COY
San Francisco: Phil Woolpert (1950-1959) 153-78, 4 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 2 NCAA titles, 2-time national COY, 4-time conference COY
Santa Clara: Bob Feerick (1950-1962) 186-120, 4 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 3-time conference COY