By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Nov 11, 2006 at 5:45 AM
If you had to choose two names that could be considered synonymous with basketball, coaching and the state of Wisconsin, you couldn’t go wrong with Diener and Bennett.

The former family has produced the flashiest headlines with perennial state high school powers at Fond du Lac (Dick) and Milwaukee Vincent (Tom), while their nephew, Travis Diener, is making his mark in the NBA after a standout career at Marquette University.

But the latter family, well, flash just isn’t the way things work in the Bennett clan. The latest Bennett making the family proud is doing what his father, uncle, and aunt did best: coaching.

Tony Bennett is in his first season as head men’s coach at Washington State University. The Cougars opened their season with a 71-60 victory over Alabama-Birmingham in the John Thompson Foundation Classic Friday night at U.S. Cellular Arena. Bennett's squad will face UW-Milwaukee tonight at 7:30 p.m. and will wrap up their stay in Milwaukee with a game against Radford at 3 p.m. Sunday.

Bennett took the reigns of the program following his father’s retirement after last season. Dick Bennett came out of retirement to help get the Cougars back on track, and only agreed to the job once the school decreed that, upon his retirement, the top job would go to Tony.

The deal wasn’t just a case of nepotism; Tony Bennett knows the game of basketball. He’s had to work his way to this level. Having a successful lineage has helped, but riding on the coattails was not allowed.

A standout point guard under his father at UW-Green Bay, Bennett enjoyed brief stints in both the NBA and foreign leagues. Dick Bennett eventually brought Tony back to Madison, where he first served as an assistant manager for the Badgers, where Dick was coaching during the 1999-2000 season.

"That first year, I was a manager and we went to the Final Four," Bennett said. "I got to stay on under Brad Soderberg and the first two years with Bo Ryan and you can’t get a better learning experience than that."

Bennett was on the bench for four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, a Final Four, and a trip to the Sweet 16 before following his father to Pullman.

Upon arriving, both father and son were told that the school would take a "wait-and-see" approach in naming Dick Bennett’s eventual successor. They were impressed enough with what they saw in Tony Bennett, the assistant, that they agreed to grant his father’s retirement request.

The Cougars, whose last National Championship came in 1941, were -- and still are -- among the worst teams in the Pacific 10 Conference. Under the elder Bennett, the team finished tied for sixth, tied for seventh, and dead last.

With his team picked to finish in the cellar again, Tony Bennett knows he has his work cut out for him. Prior to Dick Bennett’s arrival, the Cougars were 64-134 since the 1996-97 season, including a 21-105 mark in Pac-10 play.

"We have to try and change that," Bennett said. "But those first two years, with those young guys, were the best two finishes the school has had. My father built the foundation, and it’s my job to finish the job."

That job includes getting back to the NCAA Tournament, a destination the Cougars haven’t visited since 1994. Step one, Bennett says is to keep being competitive. Players like Derrick Low -- who scored 28 in the season opener Friday night against UAB -- were highly recruited, and chose to come to Pullman in part because of Bennett’s recruiting efforts.

"He did a lot in getting us here," Low said. "We knew him as an assistant, and the transition has been really easy. He and his father both have a plan."

The plan worked Friday night, as Bennett made the most of his coaching debut. Low’s 28 points led the Cougars to the 11-point victory. Looking at the sideline, Bennett looked much like his father, complete with the pained facial expressions.

"I don’t have the sweater vest or the little stool," Tony Bennett said. "But blood is thicker than water; my dad is a big part of who I am and where I am."

The elder Bennett sat in the seats of the Arena looking on, pleased.

"It was special," Dick Bennett said. "I’m so happy for him. The time was right for me to step down, and I’m so pleased that everything went according to the plan."

And always the elder coach, he had some analysis.

"I was glad they jumped out to a big lead," he explained. "I was able to relax."