Flames crackled in a small fireplace in the Florida room at the
back of Dick Bennett's house, near the northeast shore of Lake
Mendota in Madison, Wis. Outside, a fresh dusting of snow covered
the 11th fairway of the Cherokee Country Club, and powder swirled
in small funnels under a brilliant, low sun. Bennett sat in a
soft chair and watched the fire, occasionally shifting his weight
to accommodate two artificial hips. It was a Friday in early
December, yet the 57-year-old Bennett, a basketball coach since
graduating from college in 1965, was at home with his wife, Anne,
living the slow life of a retiree. "I was just thinking," he
said. "This is the first time I haven't been part of a team since
I was in fourth grade."
Until the night of Nov. 29, Bennett had been the coach at
Wisconsin, riding a wave of late-career acclaim that crested
last April, when he took a team of selfless role players with 13
losses to the Final Four. The achievement seemed to validate not
only Bennett's 35-year coaching career but also the
unfashionable, team-first work ethic that he'd always preached.
This year's Badgers were ranked No. 12 in the preseason by SI,
and most prognosticators thought they could again win ugly deep
On that last Wednesday in November, Wisconsin beat 13th-ranked
Maryland 78-75 in an emotional overtime game at the Bradley
Center in Milwaukee. In the locker room afterward Bennett quieted
his players and then stunned them by saying, "This was my last
game." He went on to explain that he was tired, that he could no
longer give the unfailing effort that he required of them and
that they would be a better team without him. One at a time the
Badgers embraced Bennett. Senior point guard Mike Kelley
whispered "Thank you" in Bennett's ear, because he didn't know
what else to say. In the end the players put their hands together
the way they always did whenever they huddled, and shouted
Bennett's mantra: "One, two, three, play hard!"
It has been a bloody autumn for the coaching profession as the
life span of the successful older coach suddenly has been
truncated. On Nov. 6, the morning following a loss to the Miami
Dolphins, Detroit Lions coach Bobby Ross, 63, resigned. He was in
his fourth season with a team that had twice made the playoffs
under him and could well qualify again this year. Ross's resume
also included a national championship at Georgia Tech in 1990 and
an unlikely trip to Super Bowl XXIX in 1995 with the San Diego
December 18, 2000
On Nov. 24 Arizona football coach Dick Tomey, 62, resigned
following a 30-17 loss to rival Arizona State that ended a 5-6
season for the Wildcats. Tomey had been at Arizona for 14 years
and was the most successful football coach in Wildcats history.
(Two years ago Arizona won a school-record 12 games.) Like
Bennett, Tomey told his players that he was leaving for the good
of the program.
All but gone are the days when even very good older coaches can,
as former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith says,
"retire on your own terms." In fact, adds Smith--who quit in
October 1997, after 36 seasons in Chapel Hill, saying he wanted
to spend more time with his family--"It seems like it's gotten
even harder." It has, for several reasons:
Money. Coaches' salaries have soared in recent years. The best in
pro and college basketball and football are paid well into six
figures and often more than $1 million per year. The money brings
comfort and financial security, but it also brings expectations.
"If you're a college [football] coach, you'd better get to a bowl
game quickly, and if you're in the NFL, you better get to the
playoffs," says new Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, who worked
under Ross at Maryland, Georgia Tech and San Diego. There's no
cushion for short-term failure.
Of course the big money often makes coaches so comfortable
financially that they can quit. "I've never noticed burnout being
a problem in a coach unless he has financial security," says
Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. "Some older guys have been in
the league a while and have saved some money, and they can burn
out. Younger guys, who need to work, you don't find too many of
them burning out." It's also money that enables colleges and pro
franchises to hire younger replacements who will bring the
requisite enthusiasm and sense of rebirth to their programs.
Scrutiny. Tomey would like to have stayed at Arizona, but he left
because of what he called "a vicious public debate every time we
lost a game by two points." Before the 2000 season the Wildcats
were picked to contend for a major bowl, but they struggled after
three offensive linemen were felled by injuries, losing three
games in the closing minutes. Though he was long accustomed to
reading criticism in newspapers and magazines and hearing it on
radio and television, Tomey was dumbstruck by the level of
vitriol on the Internet. "Players read that stuff," he says. "It
just didn't seem fair that they had to be subjected to a weekly
debate about the competence of their coach." The last straw came
when Tomey was told about a website called firedicktomey.com.
"The physical job of coaching, the amount of hours you spend and
what you do haven't changed," says Baltimore Ravens coach Brian
Billick. "The scrutiny has clearly changed with the heightened
money. From the standpoint of the number of media outlets that
are second-guessing you, the job has gotten tougher."
Outside obligations. Coaches have become celebrities whose
expertise on everything from the vertical passing game to
personal fulfillment is a commodity. The more successful the
coach, the more in demand he is. "If all I had to do was coach
basketball, I would have kept doing it for a number of years
more," says Bill Guthridge, who at 59 succeeded Smith at North
Carolina and coached only three seasons--twice reaching the Final
Four--before abruptly quitting in June. "It was all the other
After attending last year's Final Four in Indianapolis, Guthridge
returned to Chapel Hill and found that he had 12 speeches to
give, two clinics to conduct and ACC meetings to attend. All
that, plus recruiting, before mid-May. Says Guthridge, "Even
after I retired, I would go home and wonder, Who do I have to
call tonight? Where do I have to be tomorrow?"
The coaching species most endangered in this lucrative,
high-pressure environment is the couch-sleeping, tape-devouring,
consumed-by-every-loss workaholic. Bennett and Ross are classic
type A's for whom an empty tank was a matter of when, not if.
Bennett arrived in Madison in 1995 after a remarkable career that
included 11 seasons at five Wisconsin high schools and a combined
19 years at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin-Green Bay. He
won a total of 360 games at Stevens Point and Green Bay, and was
revered by his peers for getting players to believe in the
glamourless concepts of screening and defense. "I've always
admired Dick for getting his teams to play his way," says Smith.
Bennett demanded hard work from himself as well as from his
players. This was a wearisome way to earn a living, exacerbated
by the fact that Bennett was never anything but a head coach.
When he got his dream job at Wisconsin, he could already feel his
energy ebbing. He no longer visited players in their dorm rooms
and apartments, as he had done for years, no longer invited them
to his house for Anne's brownies. He turned scheduling and
scouting duties over to assistants and focused on practices and
His 1998-99 team won 22 games and a spot in the NCAA tournament,
losing 43-32 to Southwest Missouri State in an atrocious display
of grind-it-out basketball. Criticism of the Badgers' unartistic
style grew strident and, for the first time, bothered Bennett.
"It got to me," he says. "I started thinking, Maybe the game has
passed me by."
Last season, however, Wisconsin won four of its last five Big Ten
games and two of three in the conference tournament to reach the
NCAA tournament once again. The Badgers' run to the Final Four
was the most unexpected story of the season. "I was prepared to
quit after last season," Bennett says, "but the way it turned out
buoyed me. I decided to ride that euphoria a little longer."
A very little longer, as it turned out. This fall Bennett's
game-day anxiety, always substantial, became painful for him. "It
was almost like a cloud would roll in and stay with me the night
before and the entire day of a game," he says. He would skip
pregame team meals, so as not to expose players to his nerves.
Two days after a sloppy 68-64 win over Northern Illinois at home
on Nov. 25, Bennett unloaded on his players after practice. He
was loud and personal and vulgar, as he had been many times
before. "I viewed it as part of the job," Bennett says.
His assistants felt his outburst was exactly what the sluggish
Badgers needed (and, in retrospect, what might have nudged them
past Maryland two nights later), but this time Bennett was just
as angry at himself. "I was berating young men for not being all
they could be, when I wasn't being all that I could be," he says.
He decided that night that the Maryland game would be his last.
Bennett once told a clinic of young coaches to protect their
passion. "Your passion is a furnace," he told them, "and every
time you open the furnace door, a little of the fire escapes."
Now he says he would tell them something else, too: Be kind to
yourself. In the days following his resignation he often thought
about his first job, as ninth-grade coach at West Bend High,
outside Milwaukee. His team went 9-3 that season, 1965-66, and
Bennett treasured every moment. "All there was to the job was a
love of the game and a love of the kids," he says. "What I would
give to have that feeling again."
Ross is much the same as Bennett. "He is the most driven,
competitive person I've ever known," says Friedgen. In 1982, when
Ross was a first-year head coach at Maryland, his assistants were
shocked to find him vacuuming the football offices before
recruits visited. His micromanagement never waned. Last May a
group of Detroit players were grinding through a voluntary
conditioning workout at the Lions' practice facility when Ross
came down from his office and simply watched, as if the players
were children. This fall he stopped assistant John Misciagna in a
hallway of the practice facility and complained that the pictures
on the walls hadn't been updated. "You're dealing with a unique
person," says Misciagna, who also worked with Ross at Maryland
and with the Chargers. "We tried to get him to delegate more, but
he had to keep himself involved in every phase of the program."
Ross coached this season with two blood clots in his right leg,
which forced him to wear heavy support hose. He has suffered from
back trouble for several years. People close to him thought the
end might be near, and when consecutive losses to the
Indianapolis Colts and the Dolphins dampened a 5-2 start, Ross
was gone. He embarked almost immediately on a cross-country trip
to visit his five children and 13 grandchildren, during which he
has remained virtually incommunicado.
There are coaches who endure, however, often by embracing the
credo Less is more. The Florida State football team of Bobby
Bowden, 71, will play for its third national championship in
eight years on Jan. 3. "I don't really coach much anymore,"
Bowden says, meaning that he delegates heavily to a talented
staff. Bowden deflects praise and criticism with dadgummits and
the like. Dick Vermeil flamed out two seasons after taking the
Philadelphia Eagles to Super Bowl XV in 1981, but he returned in
'97 with a Bowden-esque philosophy and last season, at age 63,
guided the St. Louis Rams to the NFL title. "First time around I
was 85 percent hands-on and 15 percent leader," says Vermeil, who
retired again after last January's Super Bowl. "Second time I was
85 percent leader and 15 percent hands-on."
Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum, 64, has been in his
position for 30 years and has no plans to retire. While Bennett
would sit in hotel rooms on game days, his stomach in knots, Crum
has been known to go fishing. It's his recipe for survival.
It's not likely that ambitious coaches will learn from Bennett
and Ross. Less than a month after Ross's meltdown, his good
friend Friedgen was driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, searching
for players to help revive Maryland's moribund program. Friedgen
hadn't slept much or eaten well since taking the Terps' job a few
days earlier. "I'll make every mistake that Coach Ross made," he
barked into his cell phone in rush-hour traffic. "It's the only
way I know."
The furnace door is open.
Tomey left because of what he called "a vicious public debate
every time we lost by two points."
Bennett once told young coaches to protect their passion. Today
he would also say, Be kind to yourself.