It began with a 3-cent postcard. It ended with an emotional goodbye.
Forty-three years passed, and now Tom Bennett isn't a basketball coach anymore.
“It's going to be a little bit of a change in lifestyle,” he said Thursday morning. “But I'll get used to it.”
Bennett has been coaching in the East Valley just short of forever, it seems. He arrived at Westwood High School in 1964, three years after he first set foot in the Valley, an Indiana kid who was certain he'd return home until he saw the palm trees lining the entrance to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and thought, “Holy criminy, this is something.”
His father had told him: "I'll pay for the trip out there if you take the job, but if it's just a vacation, you owe me the money.”
Out there was Central High School in Phoenix, where Bennett had sent the postcard more as a lark than anything. He already had a job lined up coaching the freshman basketball team at Arlington High School, a shiny new campus in Indianapolis.
But his father and high school basketball coach had called in a few favors to get Bennett the job, so when Central High called, flew him in and then offered him a position coaching its freshman high team, Bennett thought, This is what I want.
“I'm a little bit of an independent person,” he said. “I kind of wanted to do it on my own.”
Three years later, he was at Westwood, and then Mesa Community College and then, after his first retirement, Gilbert High School.
Thirty-three years as a head coach. A record of 711-269. Nine Arizona Community College Athletic Conference championships. One 5A state title.
There aren't many East Valley institutions, but Bennett, 65, was one of them.
“He's a good guy and an excellent coach who was awfully good with kids,” said Royce Youree, Bennett's co-head coach at MCC for four seasons.
Bennett's legacy was crafted at MCC, where he coached from 1971 to 1996. He was named ACCAC coach of the year seven times, and his teams won 20 or more games 11 consecutive seasons.
Youree was Bennett's sidekick during the run, and the two coaches were almost always of one mind.
“It was like we were almost genetically attached we were so alike,” Bennett said. “The years we spent together were unbelievable.”
Bennett retired after the 1996 season. He was 57 years old and the only coaching he wanted to do was on the golf course.
Bite ball, bite. “I was having a pretty good time,” he said. “There was a group of us that played golf together. I'd go watch basketball games I wanted to watch. I didn't have to scout, I didn't have to recruit, I'd go and watch and think, ‘That was a good game, or that was awful,’ then I'd go back home and go to sleep.”
One morning, Bennett bumped into a couple of Gilbert High physical education teachers at the Golf Club at Western Skies.
A day later, he was back on the job.
Retirement was a leisurely stroll along the ninth fairway, but Bennett missed the fast lane.
“(Washington State coach) Dick Bennett was talking about the rush coaching is,” Bennett said. “It's a lot of fun to be in charge and come through. If you're in charge and you get whipped, nobody likes you and for the most part you don't like yourself. But to be able to come through in a leadership situation, there's satisfaction.”
Bennett took a Gilbert team plagued by parental interference and lukewarm administrative support and led the Tigers to a 160-50 record, seven state tournament berths and the 5A championship in 2003.
“Tom Bennett has meant more than words can describe to the Gilbert High basketball program,” said principal Charles Santa Cruz. “When we hired Tom, we were looking to take the program in a forward direction and looking to re-establish ourselves as a viable competitive school. He helped us do that.”
Bennett said goodbye to his players Thursday morning. Some coaches turn back at that moment, unwilling or unable to let go.
Bennett never wavered.
“I told some of the kids they don't have a concept of how much time it takes to get a program to a higher level, then keep it there,” Bennett said. “Some people think it's two hours in a gym, and that's that. But it consumes you.”
Now it's back to the golf course, to Canada to escape the hot summer, to pleasant nights with the grandchildren.
“To get paid for coaching, make a living and a retirement out of the job, I've been pretty blessed,” Bennett said. “It has been my life and I have loved it.”