Colleges contacting Pitt's Bennett
If anyone at Pitt is looking forward to playing in the 75th Brut Sun Bowl, it should be defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.
The Marshall, Texas, native has fond memories of El Paso after ending his playing career there with a Texas A&M victory over Florida in the 1977 Sun Bowl.
It could be a happy homecoming or a last hurrah - if not both.
After one season with the Panthers, Bennett acknowledged this week that he has been "getting calls" about other coaching opportunities. His name has been mentioned as a potential candidate at Louisiana State, where Bennett spent four seasons in the early 1990s. LSU co-defensive coordinators Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Pereto are reportedly interviewing for other jobs.
"There's some things I might be interested in, and some that some people would consider better jobs than this that I'm not interested in," said Bennett, 53, who already turned down an opportunity to rejoin Bill Snyder at Kansas State. "I'm comfortable here. I like the fact that I think it's going to get better here. I'm not out looking. I have plans to be here. As I told one of the players, 'Listen, until I tell you different, we have unfinished business.'"
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said nothing to dismiss the possibility of Bennett leaving, knowing when he hired Bennett last February that it could be a short-term solution. Bennett came to Pitt after being fired following six seasons as head coach at Southern Methodist, leaving behind his family in Texas to resurrect his career. Bennett's daughter, Maddie, is a high school senior and lives in College Station with his second wife, Julie.
"When you hire somebody, you like to think that they're going to enjoy the university, and we're going to have some success, and it will be a good working environment with him," said Wannstedt, who replaced five assistants in the offseason. "But I understand this is a business. I think we're to the point in this program that we're going to lose a guy or two every year. If that happens, you've got to adjust."
Before SMU, Bennett was considered one of the nation's top defensive coordinators while at Kansas State, which boasted three consecutive top-five defenses under his direction from 1999-2001. Wannstedt was hoping for similar results when he hired Bennett to replace Paul Rhoads, who went to Auburn and left behind a defense that ranked fifth in the NCAA in 2007.
The Panthers were expected to be even better this fall before losing three defensive starters in end Doug Fulmer and outside linebackers Shane Murray and Adam Gunn to season-ending injuries. Instead, Pitt ranked in the middle of the Big East in most major statistical defensive categories.
"Phil's got the toughest job on the team," Wannstedt said. "The toughest scenario is to be a coordinator coaching the same position the head coach coached. We didn't want to change much, but we wanted to tweak some things and get better. There was that balancing act, and I thought he did a very good job with that. Our communication came along and got better as time went on. I would expect it to be better as time goes on."
While Bennett is looking forward to playing in the Sun Bowl, he is still stinging from the 54-34 loss to Rutgers on Oct. 25 at Heinz Field, when Mike Teel passed for 371 yards and six touchdowns. The defeat cost Pitt a shot at the Big East title, and it's one that Bennett takes personally.
"If you took the Rutgers game out of our statistics, we would be ..." Bennett says, never finishing the thought. "But, unfortunately, we can't. That's history, and there were some lessons learned that day."
What Bennett is proud of is how the Panthers responded. They won four of their final five, including a pair of road games. That is why Bennett says he looks forward to returning and competing for a Big East title, which could serve as a springboard for another head-coaching job.
Bennett hopes to make an impact, for however long he's here.
"I thought I could be a positive for the program," Bennett said. "I wanted to help get Pitt back to where everyone wants it. We're not where we want to be, but I am proud of the fact that everything we dealt with, our kids never wavered. That's a tribute to Dave, to his belief and letting us coach."