TEMPE, Ariz. — I have no idea if new ASU defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will turn around a Sun Devils defense that has struggled the past two seasons. We’ll have that answer later this season, but Bennett sure is a joy to interview.
All a veteran reporter hopes for when conducting an interview is a compelling story, a few good quotes, some good analysis and an engaging personality.
Bennett checks all of those boxes.
“He’s a good dude,” Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said, smiling. “He was a mentor to me when I was a young coach and he’s a guy that loves the players enough to be honest with them.”
Get this: Bennett seems to like talking to reporters, too.
When asked two weeks ago if the Devils would blitz as aggressively as past units, Bennett offered this nugget: “When you blitz, somebody’s band is going to play. You want to make damn sure it’s yours.”
When asked if he keeps in touch with former players, he said: “I have guys from 1978 still call me and say, ‘You were the worst scout team coach in the world, but we sure had fun.'”
And when asked to assess his life skills, Bennett insured himself of a warm reception at the end of the work day.
“I haven’t been great at many things I’ve done, but one thing I’ve been great at is marrying wives,” he said. “I’ve married two wonderful women and that’s a skill.”
Bennett lost his first wife, Nancy, on Aug. 28, 1999, 17 days after she was struck in the back of the head by lightning while jogging near their home in Manhattan, Kan., while Bennett was the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator.
Bennett admits the loss nearly broke him.
“Heartache is telling your young children that your mother won’t be coming home,” Bennett said of his son, Sam, and daughter, Maddie, who were 11 and 8 at the time. “When I lost my wife at Kansas State, [coach] Bill Snyder and the people of Manhattan, Kansas were so good to me. They saved my life.”
Bennett’s life was clearly altered and reshaped by that event, but his desire to engage people has much deeper roots.
“When you grow up in a big family and you’re the baby, you don’t get to say much,” he said. “I had to work my way in so yeah, I guess I’m just making up for lost time.
“I like people. Everything in life is about relationships. I’m not one of those sticks in the mud. I’ve been lucky. I’ve never worked for a bad guy, I love the kids and I love football.”
Graham describes Bennett’s approach with players as “a tough love kind of deal,” and in that respect, Bennett says he is a lot like Cardinals coach and friend Bruce Arians, whom he met while he was the defensive coordinator at Pitt (2008-2010) and Arians was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator (2007-2011).
“I’m brutally honest with my players,” Bennett said. “I let them know, ‘I’m going to coach your ass off but I’m going to love ya’ twice as hard. You need me at 3 in the morning, I’ll be there.'”
Graham knew he had to make changes on defense this season, so he turned to a guy in whom he has complete faith.
“Probably the most important thing I do is hire people, and who I surround myself with,” Graham said. “I like how he teaches. He doesn’t just teach our players, he’s teaching our coaches and he’s got such a wealth of experience and knowledge. He has a confidence about himself, too, and I think that’s going to be really good for our program.”
Bennett, 61, didn’t need to coach anymore. He could have lived a happy retirement with his wife of 12 years, Julie White Bennett. He could have walked away from the business after a sexual assault scandal rocked Baylor while he was the defensive coordinator there, tainting the entire football program even though Bennett was never named in any lawsuits, nor the report from Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton, which was hired to assess the school’s handling of sexual violence complaints.
“I could have quit but God just directed me here,” he said. “I don’t know why. I can’t tell you yet but I’m seizing the moment right now. My total focus is helping Todd win the Pac-12 and getting these kids better.
When asked how long he planned to stay after assuming his 17th coaching title in January, Bennett offered one more quip.
“My kids tell me they’ll carry me off in a box.”
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