Phil Bennett is tired of sitting on his couch. He’s ready to get back on the sideline. And on Friday, North Texas gave Bennett that opportunity, hiring him as its new defensive coordinator.
Bennett, who held the same position at Kansas State from 1999 to 2001, has been out of coaching since the end of the 2017 season, when he served as Arizona State’s defensive coordinator. Herm Edwards, who took over the Sun Devils’ program following the firing of former head coach Todd Graham, offered Bennett the chance to remain the defensive coordinator. But Bennett declined.
“I could have stayed at Arizona State, but these herniated disks have got me down,” Bennett told The Mercury in a phone interview in 2018. “I’m healthy now. I will evaluate (job offers). I feel very good. I am missing it. I feel like I could be an asset to somebody. So we’ll just see.”
Now healthy, Bennett will be part of the Mean Green’s staff this fall.
“The opportunity to get Coach Bennett to lead our defense was a no-brainer for me,” North Texas head coach Seth Littrell said in a release. “He’s been a mentor to me for several years and his wealth of knowledge and experience will benefit our entire program.
“Nobody can argue his credentials. He has led top-10 defenses at the highest level of college football and has a proven track record of turning those units around. I couldn’t be more excited about getting him with our student-athletes so we can start building a Mean Green defense that everyone will be proud of.”
Bennett replaces Clint Bowen, who lasted only one season as the team’s defensive coordinator. His departure was deemed a “mutual decision” between he and Littrell. The Mean Green went 4-6 last season, and struggled immensely on defense. North Texas finished last in the 13-team Conference USA in every major defensive category: total defense (522.1 yards per game), scoring defense (42.8 points per game), rushing yards allowed (269.2 per game) and passing yards allowed (252.9 per game).
Appalachian State beat North Texas 56-28 in the Myrtle Beach Bowl in Bowen’s last game on the Mean Green’s staff.
Even before Bennett’s hire Friday, there were multiple coaching connections between K-State’s and North Texas’ programs.
Bill Snyder, who became a Hall of Fame head coach after 27 years leading the Wildcats, got his first job in Division I at North Texas, which then was called North Texas State. Hayden Fry, North Texas’ head coach at the time, hired Snyder to tutor the team’s quarterbacks and wide receivers in 1976.
Darrell Dickey, K-State’s starting quarterback from 1979 to 1982 (when his father, Jim Dickey, was head coach), directed the Mean Green’s program from 1998 to 2006, going 42-64 overall. He had a memorable four-year run from 2001 to 2004. While North Texas only went 29-21 during that stretch, it posted a sparkling 25-1 mark in Sun Belt Conference play. The Mean Green won the league outright from 2002 to 2004, and shared it with Middle Tennessee State in 2001. North Texas went to a bowl in all four of those seasons. Dickey remains the only coach in school history to win four straight conference championships (shared or otherwise) as well as the lone Mean Green coach to lead the team to a bowl four consecutive years.
Bennett has had just one head coaching stint: He led SMU from 2002 to 2007, owning an overall record of 18-52.
Prior to his one-year tenure at Arizona State, Bennett spent six seasons as Baylor’s defensive coordinator from 2011 to 2016.
Bennett has been the defensive coordinator at numerous schools other than K-State, Baylor and Arizona State. The list includes Pittsburgh (2008-10), TCU (1997), Texas A&M (1995-96), LSU (1994), Purdue (1987-90) and Iowa State (1984-86).
Before his recent hiatus, Bennett said the last time he could recall not being involved in football was sometime before 1973 — when he was 17 years old. As he was recovering from the surgeries, however, he remained upbeat.
“After the things I’ve been through in my life, first off, I’m fortunate that I’m able to do it,” he said. “I’m trying to be positive about it. I’m trying to learn. I’m reading more. I’m doing a lot of different things. ... God has sort of directed me to slow down, yet I’ve been able to do some (other) things.”
Slowing down didn’t mean coming to a complete stop, though.
“I don’t want to stay stagnant. I want to continue to grow,” he said. “I’m a believer that ‘knowledge is power’ in anything you do. I’ve read books about things that interest me. I’ve been able to spend more time with my second wife. So it’s been good to be here and trying to make things better. I just feel very blessed that I’ve been able to do it.”
He still treasures the time he spent at K-State. Bennett remains a believer, he said, in Snyder’s well-known “16 Goals for Success.” And he’ll never forget the people of Manhattan, noting the outpouring of support from the community “during the darkest time of my life.”
On Aug. 11, 1999, Bennett’s wife, Nancy, was killed by lightning while jogging near their home. She was 41.
“The people of Manhattan, my neighbors — we called them ‘The Hillview Hood,’” Bennett said. “Literally, I had a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old and (my neighbors) literally helped me raise my kids. You can be in a lot of places in your travels, but what makes a place is the people. And the K-State people are special. I don’t say that lightly. I mean it because I know it.”