Coaching legend Dick Bennett tells Notre Dame Academy students to ‘become like Christ’

Bennett recalls tension caused by promoting locker room prayer

GREEN BAY — Dick Bennett stood at midcourt in Notre Dame Academy’s Schneider Triton Center, but the coaching legend was not there to talk basketball. While he did weave the sport into parts of his talk, Bennett’s message at the Oct. 8 pep rally — featuring the Notre Dame band and pom pons — focused on faith and getting to know Jesus Christ.

“Do you recognize what a privilege you have going to school here?” Bennett asked the high school students. “You don’t have to hide your faith. That gets bigger as you get older. You can talk about it. You can worship. You can say a prayer; you can debate the issues. If you were somewhere else, you couldn’t do that.”

Basketball coaching legend Dick Bennett, left, gave a presentation about knowing Jesus Christ at a pep rally, Oct. 8 at Notre Dame Academy, Green Bay. Among those in attendance was Mike Heideman, right, a member of the Xavier High School (Appleton) Hall of Fame who served as Bennett’s assistant at UW-Green Bay and Washington State. (Jeff Kurowski | The Compass)

Bennett explained that, in his first season coaching at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he was almost fired for arranging for voluntary Sunday services in the locker room. He was required to attend a seminar on separation of church and state.

“If you believe in Jesus Christ, you become what St. Peter called ‘a foreigner in the land,’” said Bennett, who also coached collegiately at UW-Stevens Point, UW-Green Bay and Washington State. “Have you ever thought of yourselves in that way?”

He added that believers should follow what Christ said about being called to be in the world, but not of the world. Living in a competitive world makes this difficult, he explained.

“I coached basketball, a bottom line operation,” said Bennett. “We have scoreboards. Most of us operate in a bottom line world. You have to win. You have to get good grades; you have to get a job. You have to meet the world’s standards, so you fall into that trap to do what the world demands. You win at all cost. You step on toes to get there. Become like Christ. It’s about transformation, a lifetime event. It starts when you accept Christ. You try to be like him.”

Bennett, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Nekoosa, Wis., shared Scripture verses to highlight characteristics of Jesus, including humility, passion, the ability to unite people, servanthood and thankfulness.

“(Jesus) conducted himself humbly as a servant until death on a cross,” said Bennett. “He cared about the least of the people, not the top of the heap. He somehow fostered a brand of unity. How do you take 12 pretty average blokes and change history?”

Studying Jesus helped Bennett as a coach.

“I copied Christ in my work,” he said. “That’s the only challenge I think I ever met with a degree of perseverance. I knew programs had to be rebuilt. I always took on rebuilding programs — five high schools and four universities. Every guy I replaced was fired.

“I recruited kids who knew who they were. They didn’t say, ‘I’m an NBA prospect.’ There was a degree of humility,” he added. “I recruited kids who were passionate, who played the game the way I think the game needed to be played.”

Bennett was a three-sport athlete at Ripon College. He chose coaching basketball over football and baseball because the sum of the players working together is stronger than their individual talents. He encouraged the young people, including students from Notre Dame School in De Pere who were in attendance, to “hang with the right people” and emphasized that “if we are going to touch greatness, it has to be with others.”

The presentation closed with Bennett, a Pittsburgh native and a lifelong Pirates fan, reciting “Casey at the Bat.”

“I’m a former English teacher,” he said. “It’s all I can do. I’m a one trick pony.”

Bennett’s wife of 53 years, Anne, accompanied him at the pep rally. They are the parents of three and grandparents of six. The hall of fame coach joked that it was hard donning a Notre Dame sweatshirt because his son, Tony, the head basketball coach at the University of Virginia, is in the same conference (ACC) as the University of Notre Dame. A collection at the door and proceeds from a student fundraiser were donated to the charity of Bennett’s choice, the New Rome Church Fund for the Needy and Homeless.

“New Rome Community Church is an Aaron Rodgers’ long pass from our house and they have very few members,” said Bennett. “Anything they get, they give away. They give money to people in Haiti, provide Bibles to China, support Navajo missions. They have nothing and they keep nothing. My wife and I saw a need to help these people.”