BATON ROUGE, La. — Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Buzz Williams and … Tony Benford? “Haha! Hahaha!” Benford bellows. “One guy is alone there, I’ll tell you that.” Benford is practical enough that at times like these, sitting with a reporter in an empty practice gymnasium, he can laugh at the situation in which he finds himself: the black sheep of an NCAA Sweet 16 regional in Washington D.C. that also includes college basketball’s all-time wins leader, a Hall-of-Fame tactician with seven Final Four trips and a widely respected coach who has turned an ACC bottom-dweller into a consistent tournament team. And then there’s a guy named Tony, the interim coach of an LSU team whose full-time leader is suspended and whose extraordinary season is somewhat cloaked in scandal.
You probably don’t know much about Tony, and that’s O.K., because there’s not much out there aside from the backstory that applies to so many college basketball assistants: journeyman assistant coach known to be a grinder and ace recruiter who flopped as a head coach. There is much more to Benford, even if he’s not as colorful or young as his brazen boss, Will Wade (the 55-year-old Benford has a son the same age as Will, by the way). You may only know Benford as an unassuming man who, by virtue of being the most experienced staff member, fell into this opportunity, but Benford has a story too, and the next chapter of that tale unfolds on Friday night in the nation’s capital: No. 3 seed LSU vs. No. 2 seed Michigan State; SEC upstart vs. perennial Big Ten power; Tony something vs. Tom Izzo. “He’s not going to be in awe of Izzo or Coach K,” says 72-year-old Rob Evans, Benford’s former boss and a mentor he communicates with daily. “He’ll battle them just like he’s about to play against them in a one-on-one game.”
Benford is a fighter, a man whose mental strength as a coach matches his physical strength as a player some 35 years ago. He played guard for coach Gerald Myers at Texas Tech despite a Goliath (at the time) frame of 6'4", 220 pounds, so quick for his size that defenders couldn’t regularly screen him. “He’d go right over them,” says Myers. While in Lubbock, he developed the nickname “Buzzer Beater Benford,” because he once sank three last-second game-winners in a week’s time. If that sounds fearless and aggressive, you should hear about him as a recruiter. While Evans’s assistant at Arizona State, Benford out-dueled Bill Self for what turned out to be an NBA lottery pick (Ike Diogu), prompting Self to phone Evans and concede defeat. “That was all because of Tony,” Evans recalls.
Benford has a soft side, too, of course. If you want his eyes to water, ask him about the sister he lost to cancer in June—“She was my biggest fan,” he says—three months before LSU guard Wayde Sims was fatally shot on a Baton Rouge street. “It’s been a tough year,” Benford says. To learn who crafted this man, ask about his mother Mary Mason, a nurse’s aide, or his late grandmother Eula Maye Evans, the matriarch of the family in his hometown of Hobbs, N.M. The small city on the New Mexico-Texas border prides itself in two things: oil and basketball. That’s according to Evans, who is also from Hobbs and is kin to Benford (Eula Maye was his aunt).
Benford raised a policeman and a teacher, and his oldest son, Jeremy Soria, is a head high school basketball coach in Arizona. Benford wasn’t in Soria's life until he was 10, and the two went through several emotional years working on that relationship until just before Soria graduated high school. Now, they speak multiple times a week, and father helped son get his start in coaching. “We’re tighter than we’ve ever been,” Soria says. There’s more to know about Benford, too, like the fact that he rarely sleeps at night (three to four hours max, says one of his mentors), never met a food he didn’t like (according to his son) and is now an emerging face of a team that became faceless three weeks ago, when university leaders suspended Wade after he refused to speak with them about an FBI wiretapped call on which he reportedly discusses his various offers made in the recruitment of a player.
What if you told Benford two years ago, days after his firing as head coach at North Texas, that he’d be leading the LSU basketball team into the Sweet 16? “I would say, ‘Are you sure?’” But here he is, 3–1 as an interim coach, the temporary leader of one of just 16 college basketball teams remaining. “It’s surreal,” he says. “It really is.”
How it happened is all a blur now. There was the phone call he received on March 7 to return to Baton Rouge from a recruiting trip, then another phone call on March 8 telling him he’d be the interim coach. It happened so suddenly that his son learned of the news from Twitter. Benford went from a behind-the-scenes, hard-driving recruiter to the leader of a program 24 hours away from claiming the school’s first SEC title in a decade. Of all the side effects of this promotion, the activity on his cell phone is the most significant. He’s hearing from those throughout college basketball—old coaching buddies, former players and, over the weekend, a middle school teammate from Hobbs he hasn’t spoken to in three decades. The man now lives in Shreveport. “I’ve got to call him back,” Benford says, tapping his smart phone screen. “That’s a thing I’ve learned: There’s a pride in this state that they have in LSU. That’s what’s been mind-blowing to me.”
None of it has been easy, and there has been criticism. In Benford’s last three games as coach, LSU was outscored 134–103 in the second half. Enough has been made of it that Benford’s children are somewhat on edge. “We don’t want the narrative to be he can’t coach,” Soria says. “Every team makes a run.” And then there was the late technical foul on Benford in a 76–73 loss to Florida in the Tigers’ SEC tournament opener. “I told him, ‘That’s the dumbest thing you could do,’” says Evans, now retired in an administrative role at SMU. Evans not only hired Benford at Arizona State but he coached him as an assistant at Texas Tech. If anybody shoots Benford straight, it’s Evans, but he’s not the only former boss assisting LSU’s interim coach. Benford has started keeping daily notes, a sort-of journal and something recommended to him by the man who employed him at Marquette for four years: Buzz Williams, the Virginia Tech coach who, with an upset of Duke, would play the LSU-Michigan State winner in D.C. Williams is a diligent note-taker, and he records his daily activities in a booklet, then photocopies the pages and mails them to Benford. “I’ve got notes right now in my bag he’s sent to me,” the coach says.
Wade is there for help too. Benford is allowed to communicate with the suspended 36-year-old coach, and the two talk once a day. This is a peculiar arrangement. Benford’s allegiance, in a way, is to the man who hired him in 2017. That same man is at odds with university administrators and, in one statement, chided the school for suspending him. “He told me a few weeks ago, ‘I’m not coming back right now. You got to coach them,’” Benford says. “There was a back and forth [when] the kids thought coach may be coming back and he said, ‘Hey, I’m not going back right now. Y’all got to try to lead them through the tournament.’” For Benford, the toughest part of this transition is “what coach is going through,” Benford says without hesitation. “This is his team.” Wade called him Saturday night after the team’s heart-pounding win over Maryland, when Tremont Waters scored the game-winner on a driving layup off the backboard. “He said, ‘That was a great call. Give Tremont the ball and get out of the way,’” Benford smiles.
Benford wants to be a full-time head coach again. He wants another “crack,” his son says. “Lots of coaches fail at their first stop and resurface,” Evans says. “Why not Tony Benford? I don’t know who in this country could do what he’s doing right now. It’s unbelievable.” Already, he’s in rare company. Just one other interim coach has played this deep into the NCAA tournament: Michigan's Steve Fisher led the Wolverines to the national title in 1989. Few believe Benford can do the same, mostly because of the potential men standing in his way: Izzo, Coach K, Buzz, Roy Williams, John Calipari. “I doubt people give him much of a chance,” says Myers, now 84, “but he’ll be playing that game to win. He’s not playing that game to show up because it’s Tom Izzo. I won’t be shocked if he wins, because I know who he is.” And now, so does everyone else.