While the fundamentals and athletic prowess have always been important to retired Hall of Fame basketball coach Dick Bennett, personal character on and off the court take a higher stature, he said recently.

Bennett spoke to 500 middle school-aged parochial school athletes, parents and coaches Jan. 11 at St. Dominic School gymnasium in Brookfield. Retired Hall of Fame basketball coach Dick Bennett speaks to about 500 middle school athletes, parents and coaches Jan. 11 at St. Dominic Parish, Brookfield. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

Bennett, 70, a devout Catholic and member of Sacred Heart Parish, Nekoosa in the Green Bay Diocese, has a coaching career that spans 30 years at a number of state universities. The pinnacle of his career was in the late 1990s as he played a pivotal role in rebuilding the Wisconsin Badgers’ basketball team. During his five-year tenure, the Badgers frequently advanced in a number of NCAA tournaments, including their first Final Four appearance in 2000.

During his hour-long talk, Bennett shared several of his career highlights and briefly gave hands-on lessons to 16 St. Dominic basketball players.

But Bennett spent most of his time speaking about character and the importance of teamwork – equally important fundamentals that he asserted are getting lost in some of the hype in today’s NBA environment.

“These guys do things the wrong way and make it look good,” Bennett said of today’s profesional athletes. “You need to use your feet and see with your eyes. So much of that is getting lost in today’s game. It scares me, and it bothers me.”

While his career was peppered with accomplishments, Bennett did not shy away from discussing some of his own personal struggles. Early in the Badgers’ 2000-01 season, Bennett abruptly resigned in what was to have been his sixth season with the team.

“Winning became more important than it was supposed to,” Bennett said. “It just kind of ate at me, and I had

To donate to the Guardian Angel Fund, send checks to St. Dominic Parish c/o the Guardian Angel Fund, 18255 W. Capitol Drive, Brookfield, WI, 53045. Bennett’s presentation will be available for viewing on the St. Dominic website: www.stdominic.net.

to step aside.”

On a number of occasions throughout the evening, Bennett drew attention to a teaching from St. Paul in Philippians 4:8, which reads, in part, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.”
Early on, Bennett said he wanted to make his personal beliefs and the principles of Christ’s teachings a central part of his coaching strategy. He said he shied away from stardom and did not allow for any of his players to embody such characteristics.

“If I’m going to coach, and my Savior is Jesus … then I want him to be a part of what I do, and not just on Sunday,” Bennett said. “People aren’t thinking anymore about what matters and how much of what Christ did for us.”

Throughout his talk, Bennett spoke of themes surrounding unity, servanthood and thankfulness. He implored the athletes in attendance to embody the characteristics, just as he did years ago, of his own players.

“This is what Christ taught us,” Bennett said of the themes. “He lived this way. He modeled it.”

Retired coach Dick Bennett, whose career included stops at Eau Claire Memorial High School, the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, UW-Green Bay and UW-Madison, speaks to about 500 middle school athletes, parents and coaches Jan. 11 at St. Dominic Parish, Brookfield. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)A trio of athletes, influenced by Bennett in their youth, spoke to the crowd. David Burkemper, Mike Kelley and Andy Kowske played together for the Badgers under Bennett.

Burkemper, who graduated from Marquette University High School, Milwaukee, encouraged the budding athletes to not look out for No. 1.

“Play with passion, but trust your teammate next to you,” Burkemper said. “That teammate next to you might be your friend for life. Some of the guys I played with are still my best friends.”

While honing in on the fundamentals may not be glamorous, Kelley encouraged students to play hard, play smart and listen to what the coaches say.

“Have fun. It’s important for the kids, and it’s important for the parents to remember,” said Kelley, who attended St. Mary Parish School, Menomonee Falls, and graduated from Pius XI High School. “Be sure to make memories. If you do this, I think you’re going to be successful.”

Kowske, who attended St. Agnes Parish School, Butler, and graduated from Dominican High School, said he was well served as an athlete by Catholic schools.

“There’s a sense of community,” he said. “You get to know your coaches better. You see them at church, and you pray together.”

In recent years, Bennett said he leads a quiet life in the Wisconsin Rapids area with about one speaking engagement a year.

Joe Pink, who heads athletics at St. Dominic, asked Bennett to speak, and the confirmation was made official about a month ago. Pink said the idea of having Bennett visit was sparked by the recent expansion of the school’s athletic facilities.

“It wasn’t a long, protracted negotiation process,” Pink said. “He said, ‘Just pick the date, and I’ll be there.’”
Neither Pink nor Bennett wanted to charge for admission. Instead, a free-will offering was taken to benefit Wisconsin Rapids-based Assumption Catholic Schools’ Guardian Angel Fund, a safety net for school families who unexpectedly find themselves in financial crises due to sudden loss of income.

Bennett did not directly advocate toward the fundraising, but commented on a number of families in the Wisconsin Rapids area struggling to make ends meet after a paper mill closed down.

“When he made mention of this, I looked into it further,” Pink said. “I thought it would be good to lend some support.”

According to Pink, about $2,000 was raised through the event to benefit the Guardian Angel Fund.