Sunday night, as I stood on the side of the road near the Pullman-Moscow airport, I reminisced about the last few years of Washington State basketball.
I remember sitting in the basement of our new house on the day the Cougars were set to play Vanderbilt in the NCAA tournament. We had yet to move any furniture in, but I brought along a little eight-inch television so I could watch the game.
Even after the double-overtime loss, I still felt stunned. I believed in this program now.
I remember the seven straight wins over the University of Washington.
I remember the flurry of late three-pointers against UCLA that almost moved WSU higher than No. 4 in the AP Rankings.
I remember beating a ranked Gonzaga team, and suddenly being talked about on ESPN.
I remember playing North Carolina in the Sweet 16, and skipping school to watch the game with 300 other Cougar faithful.
I remember the dead silence as Taylor Rochestie let go of the ball near half court against Arizona State, and the sheer joy that filled Beasley Coliseum as that ball slid through the nylon.
And 10 years from now, I will remember as the tires of that plane left the runway at Pullman for the last time, leaving behind a program Tony Bennett and his father had built.
"I want to build a program that lasts," Coach Bennett said today in Charlottesville.
A program that lasts until he leaves for another struggling mediocre program that has the money lined up at the right time.
That plane leaves behind some sour feelings in this rural town. Athletic Director Jim Sterk, when asked if he felt bitter or betrayed, tried to avoid those words directly.
Freshman star Klay Thompson could only say, "That's life."
Probably most hurt by Bennett's departure was freshman DeAngelo Casto. "The D-Train," as he is affectionately known by the Zzu Cru, was adopted by a family of 22 in Spokane. DeAngelo chose Washington State over Georgetown for the "family atmosphere that Tony brought."
An orphan once again, Casto is sitting in his dorm room tonight, pondering his future.
Much like Bennett, when Mike Price left Cougar football for "greener pastures" at Alabama, his career spiraled downward. Quickly.
Ryan Leaf, who led Washington State to a Rose Bowl appearance, left after three years for "greener pastures" in the NFL. For the sake of this article, I will not explain what happened to him.
So why should Tony Bennett's career fare any better? Three years, 69 victories, a Sweet 16, and a restored faith in Washington State Basketball. It could have continued: 500 wins, two national championships, three Pac-10 titles, a few NBA draft picks, and eventually, that golden head coaching job at Wisconsin that Tony Bennett has dreamed of since he was a kid.
So as that plane left the runway and headed off into the sunset, I stood there ironically clutching a Virginia Cavaliers pendant.
I watched the plane steadily rise, and I imagined what Coach Bennett could be thinking at that exact point in time.
I wondered if, against his wishes, he decided to look out the window of that plane at the slowly shrinking image of Pullman one last time. As he looked downward, he'd see a lone Cougar fan, holding a Cavaliers banner up high, waving goodbye to what could have been.
Coach Tony Bennett, the Ryan Leaf of the hardwood. The Mike Price of Washington State Basketball, may you find success somewhere else.
I'll stick with this Cougar team, even if I'm not getting paid $1.7 million.
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