If you watched the college basketball championship game last Monday, you probably saw the camera focus in on Dick Bennett and wife Ann in the stands from time to time.
They, of course, are the parents of Virginia Coach Tony Bennett, who guided the Cavaliers, somehow through miracle after miracle, to the NCAA title with an 85-77 overtime win over Texas Tech in the Twin Cities.
That brought the game close to home.
Yes, this is the same Dick Bennett who came here at age 29 to take the Eau Claire Memorial job and go on to lay the foundation for his successful collegiate career.
And yes, this is the same Tony Bennett who attended grade school here.
Dick Bennett came here from New London, where he had fashioned a nice team in his first coaching assignment. For Bennett, the Old Abe job offered a challenge – to keep it at a top state level and take it to the next step.
He did that.
But it was a stepladder job. His first team in 1972-73 went 16-5 but was shocked in regional play by Chetek 55-53.
A year later, in what many consider one of the greatest teams in school history, the Abes went 20-2, but were stunned by a last second basket in the sectional at Marshfield and lost to Marshfield.
The 1975 team went 21-1 and finally made it to the state tournament, but lost its opener in disappointing fashion to Janesville Craig, coach by former city star Stan Dufrane.
And his final Abe team in 1976 went 17-1 during the regular season but wasn’t considered a title threat with its tallest regular standing 6-2.
But fate was on Bennett’s side this time. Tim Bakken’s 20-foot bank shot with five seconds to go beat Sussex Hamilton in the opener and the next night, it was Kirk Etten’s 10-footer from the baseline with four seconds left that upset towering Belloit.
The Old Abes were in the finals but looking up, they saw 6-9 Kurt Nymphius, who would go on to a long NBA career, and unbeaten South Milwaukee looking down at them.
It was the type of situation that Bennett thrived on.
To no one’s surprise, South Milwaukee built its lead to 11 in the second half. Here come the Abes. Etten’s basket with 6:55 to play actually gave them the lead at 41-40. Nymphius erased that in a matter of seconds with a 3-point play to make it 43-41.
Memorial had the answer. Bakken’s 22-foot jumper tied it at 43-43 with 5:50 to play and the Abes put the ball on ice. They had a chance several minutes later but a missed free throw boomeranged into Nymphius’ winning basket from short range with 46 seconds to play.
The Abes, who had captured the hearts of the fans with their David-vs.-Goliath effort, missed a couple shots in the fading seconds.
They lost – at least on the scoreboard. But the gutsy effort made them winners elsewhere.
Destined for bigger things, Bennett was off the next season to UW-Stevens Point to launch his collegiate career that would eventually take him to the Final Four with Wisconsin’s Badgers.
But that may not have happened if he had taken his father’s advice.
After the Abes’ crushing sectional loss to Marshfield in in 1973, the locker room was full of tears.
A distraught Bennett wiped his away and said:
“My dad was just in here with two words of advice,” he said.
After seeing the condition his son was in, Dad told Son, “Quit coaching.”
It was one of the few times he disobeyed his father. And basketball is better off for it.