With the amount of success the Wisconsin men’s basketball team has had recently, casual fans would think that’s how it’s always been; however, that’s far from the case.
The Badgers were a fledgling program into the mid-1990’s before coach Dick Bennett took over and laid the foundation that former coach Bo Ryan and his successor Greg Gard have benefited from.
Portage locals had a chance to hear Bennett talk on his coaching history and insights on Saturday night, when the coaching legend was the keynote speaker at the Second Annual Portage Boys Hoops Club Tip-Off Gala at Portage High School.
“We reached out to coach Bennett, and he pretty much told me ‘I’d be happy to come down if I can help in any way I can,’” said Portage boys basketball coach Ron Olson. “We’re truly fortunate to have him here and add excitement to our night as we start our season.”
Bennett, who attended Clintonville High School and now resides on Lake Petenwell, said he does about one speaking engagement a year.
“The last one I did was for the WIAA and their scholar athlete thing in Wausau last year,” said Bennett, who admitted he doesn’t go out much.
Bennett, whose son Tony is the head coach at Virginia and his daughter Kathi coached at Evansville, Indiana and Northern Illinois University, ended his 39-year career with a 489-307 record.
According to Bennett, he took on an underdog mentality as a coach and chose programs at a high school and collegiate level that were down and out.
“I don’t know why I did it, but when you take over a program that has not enjoyed much success, you can do it the way you want,” said Bennett.
Bennett went on to speak in depth to share stories of his time at Wisconsin, UW-Green Bay, UW-Stevens Point and in high school, as well as his way of doing things, which included making things as simple as possible and recruiting players who understood his system.
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“I thought, we’re not going to trick anybody and we’re not ready to out-talent anybody,” said Bennett. “I can’t really out-coach many people so we’re going to have to out work them with simple concepts so that our kids will be prepared.”
“You can recruit talent, you can teach skills, but the attitude is the separator. You can recruit the three dimensions of a basketball player, but if it’s without attitude it’s nothing.”
Bennett’s player prototype resonated with Portage senior JD Andersen.
“Listening to him on how he looked at a player gives me perspective of what I need to do for college coaches to look at me and get into college,” said Andersen, who looked up to Bennett growing up, including doing projects on the Wisconsin Hall of Fame coach.
“It’s motivation. We have a big opportunity to really make a run at a conference championship and maybe even a state run this year.”
Bennett continued to give his insight into the game, and closed the night by reciting Ernest Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat” and answering some questions from the crowd.
“This one was special because these people went out of their way to make me feel really welcome,” said Bennett. “It was heartwarming, not that others haven’t, but to go into a town where everybody is interested in the same thing and seem to be appreciative of what I tried to do in the state and at Wisconsin, it made me feel so good and welcome.”
For Olson, he hopes the Portage Boys Hoops Club can continue to make the Tip-Off Gala a special event each year.
“It’s a pretty historic night for Portage to have someone of his caliber here in town to talk to us,” said Olson. “We’re fortunate to have coach Bennett and next year we’ll see who we can reach out to as well.”