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Coaching a family business for NIU's Bennett

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(Beck Diefenbach – bdiefenbach@daily-chronicle.com)
New Northern Illinois women’s basketball coach Kathi Bennett (left) talks to players Courtney Shelton (center) and Terriel Cannon after Bennett’s introductory news conference Tuesday at the NIU Convocation Center in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Virginia coach Tony Bennett was Mr. Basketball in Wisconsin as a high school player.

He led the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, coached by his father Dick Bennett, to the NCAA tournament and two NIT appearances. He was the 35th pick in the 1992 NBA Draft.

And he couldn’t beat his sister, new Northern Illinois women’s basketball coach Kathi Bennett, in a game of 1-on-1 until he was 15.

“I shouldn’t be putting this out here. I don’t know why I’m doing this. It hurts my street credibility when I say this,” Tony said with a laugh. “But I was like 15, and I was pretty good.

“We had wars. We would go at it. Then I finally beat her and we never played again. That was it. For me, that was one of the biggest goals in my young playing career is beat my sister Kathi in 1-on-1.”

Without a doubt, family and basketball go together with the Bennetts. Any profile on Tony or Kathi includes the other and they all include the family patriarch and legendary University of Wisconsin coach Dick.

“Some families hand down a restaurant or a business or are a family of lawyers. I just happen to be in the family business of coaching,” Kathi said after her introductory news conference Tuesday at NIU. “I feel like I’ve learned from the best. I might be biased, but I think I have.”

And even before being introduced as NIU’s ninth women’s basketball coach, Dick was giving his daughter advice on her newest job.

“When I told my dad, it was when I was driving here,” she said. “He said to me, `Don’t do what I did when I accepted my first job, which was speed, and get a speeding ticket.’ So I was warned on that.”

Tony said Kathi’s team will make defense its staple, per her reputation as a defensive coach. But she also will allow her players to the freedom to make plays and run. He emphasized that Kathi’s coaching style will be very relational and that building a strong personal relationship with her players will be one of her top priorities.

“One of the greatest strengths of hers is her passion,” Tony said. “They’ll know she’s in the trenches with us. They’ll say ‘She cares for us, but she’ll push us. She’s going to challenge us.’ And that’s what you want.”

What NIU wants, and what they think they’ve hired, is a coach that can turn around a mediocre program that took a step back last season.

Bennett has experience in turning around programs. When she took the job at Evansville, the Purple Aces had an all-time record of 18-113. After a three-win and a six-win campaign in her first two seasons,

Evansville was in the NCAA Tournament in her third. She won 20 games in her first year at Indiana and went to the NCAA Tournament in her second season.

That track record is not unlike Dick or Tony. Wisconsin played in three NCAA tournaments in 97 seasons before Dick’s arrival. He took Wisconsin to three tournaments and a Final Four. Tony took Washington State to a sweet 16 and twice tied a school-record for wins.

“Everywhere my dad or my brother have been, they have completely turned that around and been successful and exceeded expectations beyond belief,” Kathi said.

That’s something Tony believes Kathi is capable of in her new position.

“She’s gone to low-major, mid-major, high-major programs. She’s rebuilt programs,” he said. “She’s won championships. She’s gone to NCAA tournaments. I just think you can’t substitute that experience.”

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