Things aren’t always what they seem to be.
I was our men’s sports information office’s contact for the men’s basketball program from late 1994 through the end of the 2000-01 season. That included Stan Van Gundy’s year as head coach, as well as all of Dick Bennett’s time here at Wisconsin.
There were highs and lows during Bennett’s tenure, but he no doubt got the program pointed in the right direction, culminating in the amazing Final Four run in March of 2000. I can remember Bennett telling a small crowd in Camp Randall Stadium that spring that he was returning to coach the following season. We had the vast majority of the Final Four team back, including Mike Kelley, Andy Kowske, Mark Vershaw, Charlie Wills, Maurice Linton, Roy Boone and others.
The 2000-01 team started the season with a loss at Tennessee, but rebounded to knock off Northern Illinois four days later. That set up a Nov. 29 meeting with 13th-ranked Maryland in an ACC-Big Ten Challenge game at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
I drove over to the game with my boss, Steve Malchow, instead of riding the bus with the team. I can remember getting to the arena and tracking down Coach Bennett to do a pre-game interview with Maryland’s radio play-by-play guy. Dick did the interview and then pulled me aside and told me this would be his last game and that he was retiring. Like most everybody, I was stunned. I snapped out of it in time to thank him for everything before he headed back to the locker room to prepare for the game. He had told a few others before-hand, as well, including (obviously) Director of Athletics Pat Richter, associate AD Cheryl Bailey (then Marra) and his coaching staff.
The Badgers ended up taking the Terrapins to overtime that night in a highly entertaining and well-played game. You can check it out tonight on the Big Ten Network at 7 p.m. CST. Kelley had a remarkable game, dishing out a career-high 12 assists, and Kirk Penney scored a game-high 18 points (five in the overtime) to help the Badgers to a 78-75 win.
I can remember standing inside the locker room after the game when Bennett told the team he was retiring. I think everyone had feelings of shock and sadness. I couldn’t imagine what Brad Soderberg was thinking. He had played for Dick at UW-Stevens Point and was his assistant at Wisconsin. Now, he was being thrust into the head coaching job. We had a news conference here in Madison the next day.
That team got back to the NCAA Tournament, but lost a heartbreaker to Georgia State in the first round. It was sort of the end of an era. Kelley, Vershaw, Kowske and Co. were gone and Soderberg wasn’t retained. That opened the door for Bo Ryan to take over as head coach the next season. The ensuing years have been awesome for Badger hoops fans, with names like Harris, Penney, Wilkinson, Tucker and Butch leading Wisconsin to three regular-season and two Big Ten Tournament titles under Ryan.
I mentioned that things aren’t always what they seem to be. Dick Bennett seemed to be at the top of his game when he announced his retirement. He said he felt like the fire had gone out. You couldn’t tell from the outside.