Sunday, September 17, 2006
Collaborating with the enemy
Marquette men's soccer coach Louis Bennett has gotten used to some heckling the past couple of months.
That's to be expected when you take a job with your crosstown rival -- which is what Bennett did this past December when he left the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to coach the Golden Eagles.
He'd get the occasional "How can you leave? Why do you want to go there?" shouted at him from some fans in the crowd at Panthers basketball games. There were the berating e-mails and letters from time to time. "I was called a turncoat, which is a very old thing I hadn't heard for a very long time," Bennett recalled.
Still, the roar of 3,000-plus against him at Engelmann Field was something new. That's what met Bennett and his Marquette team when they traveled across town to play UW-Milwaukee on Wednesday, the first true meeting between the programs since his departure. "The fans are almost touchable around the fence [at Engelmann]," Bennett said earlier in the week. "It looks crowded if there's 500 people. They can't fit any more than about 2,000, and they're looking to get about 2,500 people in there. I don't know where they're going to be. They may be hanging out in the trees or something." Bennett expected the Panthers would set a new attendance record, but they destroyed it, drawing a record 3,256 spectators, a thousand more than the old mark of 2,250 set in 1990.
The game had "that extra special tingling in the air" usually reserved for NCAA Tournament games. It was the first night game held at UW-Milwaukee. For 10 years, Bennett had worked to get lights up at the field. He always imagined being there when the bulbs lit up, but those visions never involved sitting on the opposing bench.
Bennett described preparing for the game as getting ready to "box your brother." Every punch would hurt a little more. After the 3-2 loss to the Panthers, the reality of the situation hit him.
"When we shook hands, I looked and I'd recruited more people from the opposition than I had from my own team," Bennett said.
Of course, Bennett knows he's not the first in the history of soccer to change affiliations.
"I'm sure there are people, not that it's to that extent, but people that leave one club to go to another, like someone from Celtic going to play for Rangers in Glasgow, they would have hate mail until they die basically," Bennett said.
Although he has received some negative feedback -- albeit amid a great deal of encouraging and congratulatory responses -- Bennett sees the backlash in a positive way.
"That's just fans feeling passionate about what they want and what they believe in," he said. "I don't think it's been anywhere like leaving one of those great teams ... like Arsenal to go to Chelsea, or Real Madrid to Barcelona ... but we've had a watered-down version of that. "I told my wife it's kind of nice that people care enough about soccer to do that. If they didn't care, no one would say anything. But people care, and it's a testament to where soccer is going and where soccer is right now, especially college soccer in this town."
Having spent a decade turning the UW-Milwaukee program into a perennially ranked team, Bennett knows a lot about college soccer in Milwaukee. That's why Marquette wanted him.
Marquette athletic director Bill Cord wants to make clear the hiring was all done by the book. There was not -- unfortunately for those who enjoy the soap-opera angle of all this -- any backroom wheeling and dealing. It was, however, the first time, at least in the 20 years since Cord came to Marquette, that a new coach came from an institution so nearby, making it a delicate situation.
When Cord took over the program, outgoing athletic director and coaching great Al McGuire offered him some pearls of wisdom: "Always remember one thing when you're looking for a new coach, head coaches always have a job."
Persuading them to leave that job often takes, well, some persuasion. Cord saw the way Bennett took an average UW-Milwaukee team and turned it into a program expected to make the NCAA Tournament every year. Cord wanted the same thing for Marquette.
"Of course, he was in mind," Cord said of Bennett. "But you don't know because he was the head coach at a school that's only about three miles away."
Initially, the two needed to make sure they were on the same page.
"You get into a situation where you're not sure," Cord said. "You're not sure what their feelings are, and they're not really sure what your feelings are."
In addition to the intricacies of hiring a new coach, the matter became more complex as a result of the proximity of the two schools.
"It is [a] sensitive [issue], but if you handle it professionally, it's not sensitive," Cord said. "It's just how you do things."
For a man who coaches a sport where pouring all energy and emotion onto the field can be essential, Bennett looked at the Marquette job in just one light -- the professional opportunity it presented.
"Did I look at the emotional ramifications? No," Bennett said so quickly he laughed, noticing how he was still programmed to put the emotion aside.
"If I did, it would have been a lot more difficult," he added. "That whole thing, when you start with somebody and you think you've contributed to their success and you've brought something along, it's difficult emotionally to say goodbye to that.
"Then having to see it every day," he trailed off.
Bennett wasn't exaggerating. The distance from UW-Milwaukee to Marquette is approximately five miles. The Bennetts live in the same house. His commute from work has gone from five minutes to 15. According to published reports, his salary has increased quite a bit -- possibly as much as 30 percent more than the $64,000 he was making as the Panthers' coach. Other than that, not much has changed away from the field. On the field, it's a different matter. "A lot of people think I'm crazy leaving a top-25 program for a bottom of the Big East program," Bennett said.
But he was up to the challenge -- one he calls a "huge, huge task."
"It's far bigger than when I took over at UWM," Bennett said. "Our job [there] was to take a good team and try to make it great. Here, we're starting from zero."
The Golden Eagles need to learn a new system and style of play en route to developing a new identity under their new coach that ultimately will lead to success.
"When you take over a program that doesn't have a winning tradition, you can't microwave it and make it hot and all of a sudden it has one," Bennett said.
Rebuilding Marquette soccer will take time, but if the coach can get the kind of system and tradition in place in the Big East, the way he managed to with his old squad, the benefits will be greater. While in the Horizon League at UW-Milwaukee, Bennett's team was fighting to get into the tournament. Fewer than 15 wins and the Panthers could start making whatever social plans they wanted for November.
"There was one season that we won 19 games and it was said we were on the bubble to get into the tournament," Bennett said. "You're in a different situation [in the Big East]."
Then again, so is the competition. Like all the other things Bennett plans to install, playing up to that level will take time.
"To be honest with you, I would love to think that it was about what the Milwaukee Panthers are going to do or what they'll do when we go to Louisville or Cincinnati," Bennett said. "But it really isn't about the other teams and what they're doing right now. It's about what we're doing right now."
He has all but done away with his pregame preparation from the past, calling the in-depth scouting reports he once put together futile at this point.
"Because it really isn't, for the majority of our game, about the opposition," he explained. "It's about us. What we do, how we play.
"It sounds kind of selfish, doesn't it?" Bennett asked rhetorically, laughing. "There will be two teams playing, but we're going to focus on us right now and make sure we get our things right."
Marquette scored the first two goals, both off corner kicks, in Wednesday's game, but the opposition answered. The Panthers scored two goals within two and half minutes to tie the game. Then, with 10 minutes to play, Andre Francois headed in the winner off an assist from Craig Mallace.
The box score, however, told a more interesting story than the scoreboard. The Golden Eagles were outshot 25-7 for the game, with four corner kicks to their opponents' 13.
"Well, we don't take any points or the cup, that's for sure," he said, referring to the Milwaukee Cup, a trophy awarded to the winner of the game. "But the positive we can take from it is, despite not having a lot of a lot of play, we still got ourselves in a situation where we were up 2-0. The misconception is you have to dominate the game before you can actually win it, but you don't." That's part of the challenge Bennett faces at Marquette -- to overcome misconceptions, those of his team and those surrounding the program. To do that, he needs to instill the type of attitude he brought with him when he took over the job. Against Bennett, hecklers never stood a chance. He hopes the same soon will be said when it comes to Marquette soccer and its opponents. Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet and is a writer and columnist for The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, IN). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org