I haven't watched a basketball game for 15 years, but I clearly remember the 1999-2000 college basketball season. If you loved man-to-man defense, you had Tom Izzo, Rick Majerus, Bob Huggins, Larry Eustachy, and Dick Bennett all at the top of their game. Wisconsin's March Madness run in 2000 was Dick Bennett’s finest moment as a coach. At the Final Four, they held Michigan State without a field goal for the final 11 minutes and 37 seconds of the half. The score at halftime was Michigan State 19, Wisconsin 17. Some called it the ugliest half of basketball ever played. But for five games in the NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin put on a clinic on how to play team defense. They were the definition of a team who was hard to play against.
Wisconsin was an unlikely Final Four team that year. They were a team without a single all-conference selection- not even an honorable mention pick. They knocked off a number one seed and shutdown future NBA players on their road to the Final Four. Wisconsin entered March as a team on the bubble. They ended their run in Indianapolis at the Final Four. A five game stretch that perfectly summarized the legendary coaching career of Dick Beneett. The story of that 1999-2000 Wisconsin team is Dick Bennett’s story. It’s the story of an underdog. It’s the story of a fighter.
Over thirty years ago, Dick Bennett first wrote down his “Five Non-Negotiables.” He talked to his players about humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. The five non-negotiables are only part of the Dick Bennett story. He will mainly be remembered as one of the best defensive minds in the history of basketball. But as you study the man, you see an example of humility and passion. Though he was overlooked when he applied for coaching jobs, Bennett won at every level. He simply taught his system and built winners from the high school level to the Big Ten Conference.
Dick Bennett applied for the Wisconsin job in 1976. He applied for it in 1982. He applied for it again in 1992. He was passed over all three times. He would wait 31 years before finally getting his dream job. Back in 1995 the Chicago Tribune wrote, “He was renowned nationally, idolized in his state, highly lauded for the work he had done at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin-Green Bay. Yet the one job he had coveted, the job at Wisconsin in Madison, had escaped him.” But Dick Bennett did not quit. He believed in his system, he built winners at every level, and he simply outlasted the competition. If you have ever been passed over for a job, Dick Bennett’s story is for you. If you have ever been overlooked, this story is for you.
In the spring of 1995, in a survey among the 113 college basketball coaches who attended the Final Four, Dick Bennett ranked second nationally as the coach “who does the best job in a difficult situation.” Another survey question asked the coaches, "If you could only go to one coaching clinic, whose would it be?" The top four answers: Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Majerus, Dick Bennett and Bob Knight – in that order. This was prior to Bennett’s days at Wisconsin. He had coached at an NAIA school and a middle of the road Division I school. Yet, those in the coaching profession revered Bennett- and specifically his defensive system. And it all started with the simple task of coaching high school basketball.
Dick Bennett never played Division I basketball. He played at a small college in Wisconsin. After graduating, he didn’t jump straight to coaching at the college level. In fact, his career started by coaching the freshman basketball team in West Bend, Wisconsin. He spent the next two seasons at Mineral Point, where he got his first taste of coaching varsity basketball. The Bennett’s then spent two years in Marion, Wisconsin and three seasons at New London. Finally, he spent four seasons at Eau Claire Memorial High School. Bennett said he “took very bad basketball programs and tried to build them into a level of respectability.”
In his first year at Eau Claire Memorial, Bennett cut several seniors in favor of younger players. Someone threw a brick through the window of his home. Even at the University of Wisconsin, he faced criticism. They played too slow. They won ugly. Some said he was out of touch with the modern game. When he first started coaching, he didn’t have a polished coaching philosophy. But from the beginning he did hold three things in high regard: team defense, taking care of the ball, and shot selection. In his last season at Eau Claire Memorial, they won 22 of 25 games and finished second in the state. From there, Bennett made the jump to the college game. In eleven seasons as a high school coach Dick Bennett had a record of 160 wins and 68 losses. Through those years, he taught grades 7-12 health and P.E. and wore many hats along the way- such as varsity tennis coach, varsity baseball coach, assistant football coach, and athletic director.
In 1976, he went to Wisconsin-Stevens Point where he went on to win 173 games in 9 seasons. It was during this time, that Bennett would become known around the country as one of the best defensive coaches in the game. But the early years were a struggle. Bennett had to overcome the stigma of being a high school coach moving into the college game. He inherited an untalented and non-responsive group. They would finish the year 9-17. “That year was a nightmare,” Bennett recalled. He reflected on that season with author Eric Ferriss in a book called "A Season With Coach Dick Bennett." Bennett told Ferriss “I made very little money, $15,000, and we had nothing as a family. I didn’t have my masters degree, so I had to go to school year round. I took seven credits per semester. Twelve was a full load. I was Sports Information Director for the entire athletic department, and I was the head basketball coach. I kept wondering to myself, ‘What am I doing?’”
Despite the the slow start, in Bennett's final three seasons at Stevens Point, they were 79-13. He earned NAIA Coach of the Year. The 1983-1984 squad was 28-4 and finished as National Runner-up. At Stevens Points, Bennett had a backcourt of Terry Porter and Brad Soderberg. The 6’3” Porter would go on to a long career in the NBA and Soderberg would later coach with Dick Bennett and Dick’s son, Tony. During the Stevens Points days, through his camps, coaching videos, and clinics, Dick Bennett became well known in the coaching profession. I owned the VHS copy of his 1986 video “Pressure Defense: A System.” It was a best-seller. At an NAIA school in the middle of Wisconsin, Dick Bennett became known as one of the best defensive coaches in all of basketball.
In 1986, Dick Bennett moved to the Division I level. He was hired to be the head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he inherited a squad that finished 4-24 the previous year. Bennett’s first year they were 5-23. Looking back on the Green Bay days Bennett said, “I demanded players accept my defensive philosophy, the type of discipline I wanted offensively, and play with the type of team attitude I wanted. If the players didn’t measure up, if they were selfish or wouldn't do things the way we wanted, I just eliminated them from the program. I lost some very good players by being so demanding, but I did it the only way I knew.”
He built the program by finding players that fit his style- intelligent, hard working, and selfless. Author Eric Ferris wrote, “He built his teams around mostly local Wisconsin players who were high on enthusiasm, desire, and work ethic, but often lacking in size and innate basketball ability.” The program had won nine games in two years. It would take time for Bennett to install his system and recruit his players. Day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, he drilled them on the basics of his system: half-court containment defense, patient screening offense, and selfless team play.
He often told other other coaches, “It’s not what you teach; it’s what you emphasize.” And Dick Bennett always emphasized three things: team defense, shot selection, and taking care of the ball. He carried those priorities with him to every stop on his coaching journey. At a coaches clinic, he once said that every team must have one thing that it tried to be great at. And that one thing for him would always be man-to-man defense. No switching. No trapping. Just relentless, aggressive defense. Eric Ferris spent a year with Bennett in Madison. He wrote, “Defense is emphasized in every imaginable phase of the program.” Year after year, regardless of the level of competition, Bennett’s teams were consistently among the best units in the country in points allowed per game and opponent field-goal percentage. Though his teams were rarely the most talented, Dick Bennett succeeded in getting the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts.
While at Green Bay his thinking on defense changed. Instead of the pressure defense of the Stevens Point days, Bennett was developing what would later be known as his Pack Line Defense. The philosophy changed out of necessity. He found that his Phoenix teams consistently faced teams with superior athletic ability and quickness. Those teams exploited the aggressiveness of his slower players, by penetrating the overextended defenders with the dribble. At Green Bay, the pressure defense system morphed into the Pack Line defense. It changed to a man-to-man defense with zone principles. A style later to be seen in Bennett’s Wisconsin teams and Tony’s Virginia teams.
Though the first year in Green Bay was a struggle, Bennett produced a .500 team in year two. He would eventually win conference coach of the year honors. Twice his team participated in the NIT, and three times they played in the Big Dance. With his son, Tony Bennett, at the point guard, Dick Bennett built a mid-major power long before the word mid-major existed. Even after Tony went to the NBA, Dick Bennett had a UW-Green Bay team that no one wanted to face in March.
THEY HAD A HAND UP ON EVERY SHOT
Jason Kidd is a hall of fame basketball player and a 10-time NBA All-Star. His sophomore year at Cal, he earned All-American honors and set the school’s single-season assist record. With Kidd at point guard, some considered Cal a sleeper pick for the 1994 NCAA title as a number five seed. On March 17, 1994, Jason Kidd met a Dick Bennett coached Wisconsin-Green Bay team built on defense- defense unlike anything Cal had experienced in the Pac 10.
Cal had two top-10 NBA draft picks on that team. Lamond Murray would be taken seventh overall a few months later and played 11 seasons in the NBA. Jason Kidd would be the second player taken overall. Against Bennett’s team, Kidd and Murray combined to finish 10 for 38 and Green Bay pulled off the First Round upset 61-57. How does a college team with two first round draft picks lose to a team from the Mid-Continent Conference?
He always talked about basketball being the one sport where you can always generate a bigger whole than the sum of the parts. Years later, Bennett said, “Our approach in Green Bay was very, very cerebral. We just outlasted people. We were so mentally tough and each player knew his role in what we were trying to do as a team.” It was the perfect combination of one of the best defensive coaches in the game and a unified group of players. After the loss, Lamond Murray was shell-shocked. He shot 6 for 21 during the game. Afterwards he said, “It’s a feeling that you can’t believe you lost the game. They had a hand up on every shot.”
I JUST ASSUMED I WOULD NEVER GET THE JOB
In 1995, the Wisconsin Badgers had yet another vacancy. This time, Dick Bennett had no interest. “I sorta gave up on it,” he said. “I just assumed I would never get the job.” A Chicago Tribune article reported it this way: “He had applied for it back in 1976, at the end of his successful stay at Eau Claire Memorial High. It went to Bill Cofield. He had applied for it in 1982 after he had established Stevens Point as an NAIA power. It went to Steve Yoder. He had applied for it in 1992 after he had transformed Green Bay into an annual postseason tourney participant. It went to Stu Jackson.” Now, Dick Bennett had no interest in the job. He had been overlooked too many times. They built their dream house in Green Bay. The plan was to to coach for another year or two and then take another job at the university.
Dick Bennett had spent his whole life as an underdog. Despite his success at every level, Wisconsin had overlooked him. Bennett wasn’t the sexy hire like Stu Jackson. Dick's wife said it hurt him. Of course it did. But they were at peace. They figured they would finish their career in Green Bay. Prior to Dick Bennett coming to Wisconsin, the Badgers had qualified for the NCAA Tournament only three times in 97 years. Finally, Wisconsin Athletic Director Pat Richter was interested in Bennett- who had been in their backyard the entire time. Bennett said, “Pat, I don’t think I am going to take it.” Richter said he wasn't going to take no for an answer.
Before taking the job at Wisconsin, Dick Bennett asked his Green Bay players for their blessing. Bennett’s fondness for his Green Bay players was a big reason for rejecting Richter’s initial offer. He wasn't going to accept the job. But his players insisted that he follow his long time dream to coach the Badgers. They told him, “Coach, we know this has always been important to you. Follow your dream. We’ll be happy for you.” Dick’s wife said, “I give them a lot of credit for giving him the freedom to pursue his dream. He had to get their permission to be at peace with himself.” Dick Bennett simply said, “They released me.”
The Lesson of Green Bay
Fast forward to year number two in Madison and Bennett was still struggling to get the players to buy into his style of play. Even in Madison, he knew he couldn't recruit the same level of players as Kentucky. But that was the same scenario he had experienced in Green Bay. “If I can’t recruit those type of players," he said, "then I have to find another way to compete against them. So the only way I am going to compete is to get an athlete who is different from that… My way to beat the best is to find players who believe in what we are doing, who buy into it whole-heartedly. That is what Green Bay taught me that no other place could. Those kids were so tough mentally, so skilled, and so smart, they parlayed their lack of athleticism into a strength.”
It would take time to replicate what he built in Green Bay. In his second season he said, “I don’t think many of our kids right now understand what I think good basketball is.” They were not his recruits, and Bennett was disappointed in their lack of mental toughness. But he had to mold this group of players into his type of team. Ferris asked him, “How do you do that?” Bennett responded, “Through repetition. I’m going to take a very simple approach to offense and defense. Try to place an emphasis on execution and minimize the decisions they have to make, enabling them to make good ones. I’ll emphasize taking care of the ball, taking good shots, hitting the glass hard, and being very sound as a team defensively. That is all I can do. I have no other recourse.”
On the first day of practice, in year two, Bennett took his players through drills as 500 coaches watched from the stands. As fatigue set in, the players started to lapse into bad habits. Bennett stepped on the floor and told the players they must outlast the offense on every possession! He wanted them to take pride in their defense, their effort, and a commitment to outlasting the opponent. "Gentlemen," he said, "we must outlast the offense on every possession. That must be our foundation.”
Dick Bennett had been an underdog his whole life. A 2-5 stretch, which included a bad loss to Iowa, brought out the best in the coach. He made changes on the court because he was still dealing with a selfish team. Almost every kid thought of himself first. Bennett said all you had to do is watch the game tape. They were just so into themselves.
Bennett also challenged his coaches. In a two hour coaches meeting he criticized himself, his team, and his staff. Then, he spent time coaching the coaches. He talked about his staff at Green Bay. They worked much harder on the court than we do, he said. From the moment the assistants at Green Bay hit the floor, they were coaching. They didn’t wait to be told. They just did it. They worked with the players individually, every single day. He thought his assistants at Wisconsin acted too much like head coaches. They talked too much before practice. They didn't work with the kids enough.
Dick Bennett was still establishing the foundation, and he was clarifying the expectations for the staff. That 2-5 stretch over three weeks in year two brought out the best in Dick Bennett. Brad Soderberg was on that staff. He grew up in Stevens Point, Wisconsin and attended Bennett’s basketball camps. He played at Stevens Point for Bennett, and he coached with him at Wisconsin. Brad Soderberg knew the Bennett system of basketball. It involved soundness in all areas. No fluff. You take care of the basketball. You defend at a high level. You force the opponent to beat you as opposed to you beating yourself. Though it would take time, by Dick Bennett's fifth year at Wisconsin, the Badgers had become a team that played a style of basketball that was uncomfortable to play against.
Bennett knew it would take four to five years to build a program based on great defense. That's what it took at Stevens Point and at Green Bay. The 1999-2000 season was Dick Bennett’s fifth year at Wisconsin.
FROM BUBBLE TEAM TO FINAL FOUR
The Badgers were a team on the bubble in March of 2000. They were 8-8 in the Big Ten Conference. They finished sixth in the league. They had one player who averaged double figures; their leading scorer averaged merely 11.2 ppg. Twenty years later, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote, “They played airtight defense, and a senior guard caught fire, but how did a team with a .500 league record and NO STARS reach college basketball’s promised land?”
The run actually started prior to the Big Ten Tournament with Wisconsin winning their final home game of the season against Bob Knight’s #12 ranked Indiana Hoosiers. Wisconsin knew they had to win a couple games in the Big Ten tournament to get off the bubble. They did just that, beating Northwestern and then Purdue, before losing to Michigan State in the conference semifinals. They would meet the Spartans again in three weeks. Wisconsin headed to the NCAA Tournament as the #8 seed.
It was a classic #8 vs. #9 match-up in the opening round. Fresno State was coached by Jerry Tarkanian and his team had four players on the roster who would eventually play in the NBA. The Bulldogs were led by Courtney Alexander who led the nation in scoring with 24.8 points per game. The Badgers trailed at halftime but went on a 23-2 run in the second half to win the game. Badger Guard Jon Bryant connected on a school record-tying seven three-point field goals. National scoring leader Courtney Alexander was held to just 11 points on 5-for-19 field goal shooting. It was the start of a five game stretch of some of the best team defense college basketball has ever seen.
I HAD TO WORK SO HARD JUST TO GET THE BALL
Top-seeded Arizona was next, with a roster loaded with future NBA talent. They finished the season ranked number four in the country. They had a 26-6 record and were Pac 10 Conference Champs. Some experts suggest that the 66-59 win over top-seeded Arizona was Wisconsin’s signature win on their road to the Final Four. Arizona’s 59 points was their lowest point total of the season. Wisconsin forced 17 turnovers. At one point, they led 50-33. Arizona was young but supremely talented, with future NBA stars liked Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, and Luke Walton. "They made us play out of our game and do things we aren't used to," Arizona's Richard Jefferson said. Sophomore center Michael Wright was the team’s leading scorer. He was held to just four field goal attempts and two points in 37 minutes. "They came out and played real physical and wouldn't allow me to establish myself down low," Wright said. "I had to work so hard just to get the ball." Afterwards, Arizona Head Coach Lute Olson complimented Wisconsin's maturity and toughness. Olson said it was a difficult lesson to learn for his freshmen and sophomores. Arizona led just once the entire night, at 2-0.
“I DON’T THINK YOU CAN COMPARE THEM TO ANY TEAM I’VE SEEN”
They beat the Pac 10 Champs and now they faced the SEC Champs- LSU and Stromile Swift. Swift would go on to play nine seasons in the NBA. With Swift and fellow big man Jabari Smith, the Tigers were a trendy pick to win it all, even as a No. 4 seed. LSU averaged 76 points a game and had been ranked 10th in the nation.
The only thing more stunning about Wisconsin’s win was the convincing way the Badgers did it, with a 61-48 dismantling of LSU. LSU scored just 14 points in the first half. For the third game in a row, Wisconsin’s defense had shut down future NBA players. The Badgers plan was simle. Don't let Stromile Swift get the ball. If they did get the ball to Swift, the Badgers doubled-down on the post, forcing him to kick it back out. They did the same with Jabari Smith. Stromile Swift played 37 minutes and attempted only five field goals. He finished with 12 points. After the game, Swift said, “I don’t think you can compare them to any team I’ve seen.”
BIG TEN BATTLE IN THE REGIONAL FINAL
Wisconsin now faced Purdue in the Elite Eight. Badger guard Mike Kelley called it "the worst possible match-up." He described Fresno State as soft, Arizona as soft, and LSU as tissue-paper soft. But in Purdue, now they faced a team every bit as tough as they were.
It was a classic Big Ten battle. They swapped leads eight times, before the Badgers finally won 64-60. Wisconsin beat Purdue for the third time in four meetings that season. Their entire tournament run proved to be a masterpiece of team defense. They held Purdue without a field goal for two long stretches. Purdue shot under 40% for the game and did not make a field goal for seven minutes in the first half and almost six minutes in the second half.
With the win, the Wisconsin Badgers became the lowest seed to reach the Final Four since 1986. Dick Bennett had led his team to the Final Four but still managed to keep things in perspective. Of course he was excited, but he talked at the post-season press conference about faith, family, and grandkids. Even in his finest hour, Bennett maintained perspective and talked of things that truly mattered.
It was the same thing author Eric Ferris noticed. For Dick Bennett basketball was his vocation, not his obsession. There were other aspects of his life that were at least as important as the game of basketball. His wife said being a coach is third on his list. The Lord is first, his family is second, and then it would be his job.
JUST A WAR: THE MICHIGAN STATE GAME
Wisconsin and Michigan State had already met three times that season. Michigan State had won all three.
Michigan State had the stars. The national title game versus Billy Donavan’s Florida Gators was a blow out. The Spartans led by 20 with five minutes left in the game. In the national title game, Michigan State looked like they were on cruise control, but their Final Four game versus Wisconsin was a war.
I remember the 1999-2000 college basketball season. Bob Huggins and the Cincinnati Bearcats dominated college basketball. They finished with a record of 29-4, they spent several weeks ranked number one, and Kenyon Martin won every player of the year award at the end of the season. Once Martin went down in their conference tournament with a season-ending injury, the Bearcats were doomed. The tournament committee did not award them a number one seed. They ended up losing in the second round. When Kenyon Martin broke his leg, Michigan State became the new pick to win the national championship.
Bennett knew Michigan State was a tough match-up. He said, "Once the game starts, I think we have the toughest opponent in America. We still have not been able to solve all of the problems they present."
Though the Spartans never embarrassed Wisconsin, each of the three wins had been convincing. Mike Kelley said the Spartans didn't get enough credit for their defense. It's very difficult to run an offense against them. It wears you down and takes away from your own defense. Wisconsin shot just 34 percent in its three losses to Michigan State. Bennett called his own team bulldogs, guys who won't admit defeat and won't feel second-rate.
IT WAS JUST SO HARD TO GET LOOKS
The Final Four crowd booed at the end of the half. People didn’t appreciate what they were witnessing. Some called it the ugliest game in decades. The half time score read Michigan State 17, Wisconsin 17. Michigan State went on a 13-2 run in the second half and never looked back. The deficit was too great. Michigan State was just so good. Ironically, Tom Izzo taught essentially what Dick Bennett did – play great man defense, rebound with intensity, take good shots and grind opponents to death. Izzo just had better players.
Tony Bennett was a volunteer assistant for his dad during that season. He called that Final Four game a war. "It was great to play in the Final Four,he said. "But it was hard to come by buckets in that game. I can remember a lot of people thought it wasn’t the prettiest game and maybe there’s some truth to that. But it was just so hard to get looks.”
For decades, a large bronze plaque hung in the locker room of a Dick Bennett coached team. The plaque detailed the five intangible concepts of the program- the non-negotiables. The plaque read:
Humility………...know who we are
Passion………...do not be lukewarm
Unity…………….do not divide our house
Servanthood…...make teammates better
Thankfulness…..learn from each circumstance
When asked for his fondest memory as a coach, Bennett did not talk about NCAA Tournament wins or the Final Four run. He talked about the relationships that still exist with the players. He still loves to hear from them. It still makes him feel good when they call.
He was demanding. But once the foundation was built, the team represented the head coach. Relentless. Selfless. They didn't beat themselves, and they were hard to play against. They outlasted people. In looking back at that 1999-2000 season, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, “You know, until the day I die, of all the accomplishments we’ve had, I think beating Wisconsin that year four times will probably always rank as one of the top.”