Viewpoint UConn’s Benedict a portrait of calm
As he sat there Wednesday in Clearwater, considering the fickle nature of Florida weather, anxious about UConn’s chances in the AAC baseball tournament, David Benedict managed to sound relaxed.
Even if he’s stressed, the UConn athletic director is a portrait of calm in public. He doesn’t do fuss.
That unruffled exterior belies some of the most stressful months of his life.
Sure, Benedict dismissed Bob Diaco as football coach in December 2016 only 10 months after arriving from Auburn. Yet he also had been immersed in a football culture from birth and Diaco had done so many bat-spit crazy things, the firing was more athletic euthanasia.
These months are different.
His dad, Allen, a man who meant so much to him and set Benedict on a lifelong journey in athletics, died Dec. 10 in Arizona at age 79.
In Asia on Nike-related business when first contacted in late January by Hearst Connecticut Media about an NCAA inquiry into UConn basketball, Benedict would spend the next two months agonizing over the future of Kevin Ollie and his replacement.
Ollie immediately challenged his March 10 firing with “just cause,” and that ball of ugliness could linger for months. There was one point, only hours before he had landed Dan Hurley a few weeks later, when Benedict said softly, “I don’t think I’ve slept in a week.” That’s about as close to ruffled as he got.
No man of substance remains the same, of course. As a son and as a man with athletic power, Benedict does not deny the impact events have had on him.
“I don’t know that I could have had as much empathy for people who lost a parent until you experience it yourself,” Benedict said in a moment of raw honesty.
Allen Benedict grew up in Harrisburg, Pa., and went to play football for Frank Kush at Arizona State in 1956. He played baseball there too, for Bobby Winkles. Allen coached football, baseball and swimming at Tempe High before moving to Mesa Community College in 1972 to coach football, baseball and golf. He would become athletic director at Mesa CC.
“My dad had a significant impact on my life,” Benedict said. “He certainly impacted the profession I chose. He impacted my work ethic and generally how I treat people.
“I see him and things he did that I observed over a long period of time showing up in how I do things. Not having him around, not being able to talk with him, or visit with him, is difficult. I don’t know if it’s ever not going to be difficult.”
Allen did not make it to Benedict’s introductory news conference in 2016. He had been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy. Getting around was difficult. He would never get the chance to visit Connecticut.
“I’m sure he was proud of me and I know he watched a lot of our games,” Benedict said. “We had a few good conversations, but the ability to communicate grew challenged. He was better at listening. He was at the stage where you knew what he wanted to say, but he couldn’t get it out. I think it frustrated him. So he didn’t try to talk a lot.”
Benedict’s mom, Cynthia, who saw Dave become a ball boy for Allen at Mesa and develop into a college football player and a college administrator, visited from Arizona recently. And that was great.
“I feel fortunate to have my dad as long as we did,” he said softly. “But it’s still a little raw for me.”
Benedict had run the day-to-day operation under athletic director Jay Jacobs at Auburn. As he settled into Storrs in 2016 he saw a program only two years away from its fourth national title. The Huskies lost to No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the second round of the NCAA. Ollie had a top-10 recruiting class. Benedict thought basketball was in good hands. That’s when two seasons of hell happened.
“Coming to a place like UConn, you don’t expect ‘hope’ to be part of what you’re dealing with when it comes to the postseason,” Benedict said. “It is an expectation that we should be going to the NCAA every year. There’s no way around that. Regardless of what people say about the (AAC) or anything else …
“That’s what we expect. That’s what we’ll get back to.”
With good news on the Academic Progress Rate front, Benedict handled housekeeping questions easily on this day. No, he can’t imagine President Susan Herbst’s departure in 2019 will have any effect on the Ollie saga. Yes, with legalized gambling on the horizon, UConn took part in a conference call last week with Major League Baseball to look at formulas in which a percentage of the amount wagered could be funneled back to the university. He said it has more to do with funding compliance staff to guard against the perils of gambling than any windfall. With Chief Operating Officer/Senior Woman Administrator Beth Goetz leaving to become athletic director at Ball State, Benedict said he will push hard to find a similar replacement.
Then David Benedict returned to talking about the weight of responsibility. The ownership, he calls it.
“I worked for a lot of good people and spent a lot of time as a No. 2,” Benedict said. “I was involved in a lot of different decisions in a lot of different places. But until you’re the one who’s making it, it has a different effect on you both personally and professionally. From that standpoint, I own what has happened (with Ollie and Dan Hurley). I don’t take it lightly. It impacts a lot of people’s lives. That’s the tough side of this business.”
Benedict downplayed the wild side of media speculation, fan interest and outmaneuvering other schools to land Hurley. He said he did not look at the basketball search at UConn as any different than a football search in the SEC.
“You know what was difficult? The waiting,” Benedict said. “While I hadn’t met him yet, I had a really strong belief in the research I had done that Dan was the right person. But it took time to even have that first sit-down.”
That’s because Rhode Island made the NCAA Tournament.
“You know the pressure you had to produce the right information on the hiring?” Benedict said. “Imagine the pressure I had to hire the right person.”
“It was a little over three days (after they met), but it was about being patient,” Benedict said. “Does your confidence wane at certain times and you worry about if this doesn’t go right, who are you are going to hire?”
He doesn’t answer his question.
“Dan and his agent were up front and honest from the beginning,” Benedict said. “I never felt we got jerked around or leveraged. You don’t hire a coach to win the press conference. But when you can build immediate momentum from your fans and get the right person for the long haul, that’s the best possible outcome.”
After several difficult months, David Benedict will take full ownership of that.