April 16, 2008
Pittsburgh, PA (UWIRE) -- It wasn't long after former Univeristy of Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads' unit held a potent West Virginia offense to just 183 total yards and one touchdown in a historic victory last season that Rhoads left for a similar position at Auburn.
Turns out, that game helped Pitt land his successor.
Former Southern Methodist head coach Phil Bennett, a longtime friend of Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, was won over the same way some of this year's recruiting class was - watching the upset of the Mountaineers.
"I watched the game, and I said, 'Wow, they play defense how it's supposed to be played,'" Bennett said. "I was just real impressed by the game."
After SMU let Bennett go after this past season and the Pitt defensive coordinator job opened, he and Wannstedt reunited.
"I've known Dave, and I've seen how he's been recruiting over the years," Bennett said. "I called him personally after the season, and he asked me if I was ready to get back to being an assistant, and I was."
That didn't necessarily mean at Pitt, at first. Bennett was in the running for several other coaching jobs both at the collegiate and professional levels.
"I had other opportunities," Bennett said. "There was an ACC coordinator job, an SEC school called, Marshall called, and I even had a chance to go to the NFL, but my heart kept coming back to Pitt."
Bennett is a 28-year veteran of college coaching and a former national "Coordinator of the Year" honoree.
Bennett was head coach at SMU from 2002-07. Before being let go after a 1-11 season last year, he improved the Mustangs' win total for three consecutive seasons, including a 2006 campaign where they reached bowl eligibility and achieved their highest victory total in a decade.
Prior to SMU, Bennett was the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Kansas State from 1999-2001. The Wildcats finished in the nation's top five in total defense each season, including second in 1999 (allowing 235 yards per game), fourth in 2000 (270.54) and third in 2001 (262.36).
His secondary units finished in the top 10 in the nation in pass-efficiency defense each year, and the 1999 Wildcats secondary led the country in the same category with a remarkable 65.7 rating. Two of his cornerstones in the secondary, Dyshod Carter and Jerametrius Butler, went on to play in the NFL.
Bennett was also the defensive coordinator at his alma mater Texas A&M from 1995-96, when American Football Quarterly named him its 1995 "Defensive Coordinator of the Year." That year the Aggies ranked in the nation's top 10 in every major defensive category, including total defense (third), scoring defense (third) and pass efficiency defense (second).
From 1991-94, Bennett was a member of LSU's staff. In 1994 he was the Tigers' defensive coordinator. That season, LSU led the SEC in every major defensive category and finished eighth nationally in total defense. Bennett also held defensive coordinator positions with Purdue (1987-90) and Iowa State (1983-86).
When asked about what his plans are for this season's Pitt defense, Bennett is eager to offer his focal points.
"I always tell my guys that knowledge is power," Bennett said. "I want our kids to understand our whole package and why we do things. If you have knowledge of what we're doing, then you play at a higher level."
Along with heads-up play, Bennett said he wants to improve a defense that was ranked sixth in the eight-team Big East in scoring defense and next-to-last in turnovers.
"When your turnover ratio is plus-10 or plus-15, and when you're in the teens on scoring defense, you win championships, and that is what I want to do," Bennett said.
When asked what changes Bennett will make to the defense, Wannstedt said the core of last year's defense will stay the same, but that Bennett brings several improvements in other areas.
"We're keeping the core of what we did together, but some of the pressure stuff and some of the technique things and situation things that Phil [Bennett] has had success with will definitely help us," Wannstedt said.
Bennett knows the expectations are high for his squad. The Pitt defense boasted a top-five national ranking last year, trailing only Ohio State, USC, LSU and Virginia Tech. It also returns all but two of last year's starters.
Outside linebacker Shane Murray is one of them. He concurs that a large part of Bennett's system is based on eliminating mental mistakes.
"He says if one player messes up, then that creates a crease, and that's a touchdown," Murray said. "He says, 'We can't make mistakes. Mental mistakes are not acceptable in this game.' And he's really hard on the little things, like getting a jam on a receiver and getting where you're supposed to be."
At practice, Bennett balances his shouts of "No, no, no!" and "Where are you supposed to be?" with "Thatta' boy!" and "Great job. That's what we want."
"He's a fiery guy and he likes when guys are where they should be," Murray said. "He wants us to work hard, and he wants to be in the practice and to make sure things are right."
Fans of the Panthers can look at Bennett's experience and see promise, as some experts already have. Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel listed Bennett in the nation's top 10 "impact assistants" for the upcoming season.
"When you've been a head coach, you realize what they go through," Bennett said. "I always thought I was a good assistant coach, and now, being in that chair [as a head coach], I'll be a better one."
(C) 2008 The Pitt News via UWIRE