WACO, Texas -- While the nation fawns over another deadly Art Briles offense, Baylor's defense remains underestimated as usual.
The Bears' College Football Playoff hopes hinge on the experience of a fiery defensive coordinator whose 35th season of coaching begins tonight. But Phil Bennett isn't worried about pressure.
He's been fired eight times. He's failed as a head coach and resigned at his alma mater. The defensive coordinator of 19 years says this job is his best and hardest. Considering all he's been through, that's hard to believe.
Fifteen years after a lightning strike on a Kansas road took his wife, Bennett sat in the dark in his office last week and reflected on the winding, heartbreaking path that brought him to Waco.
It's the perspective and persistence Briles wanted when he sought Bennett to complete his mission of shaping Baylor into a powerhouse.
"They've evolved into the defense that gives us the opportunity to win the Big 12 year in and year out," Briles said. "That's what I like. There's one thing money can't buy, and that's experience. Phil's got great experience."
Bennett was 24 when he met Nancy Harris on a blind date, just a part-time coach at Texas A&M making $14,000 a year. After growing up in Marshall, Texas, and playing defensive line at A&M from 1974-77, he'd spent a year working on oil pipelines in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. This was his father's line of work. Bennett was ready to quit every week, he said, "until I got my paycheck and stayed another week." R.C. Slocum broke that stubborn spell with a job offer.
He fell hard for the work and harder for Nancy, an A&M grad attending UT-Arlington nursing school. They married in 1984, the same year they went north for a coaching job at Iowa State. When now-Broncos coach John Fox left ISU after '84, the 29-year-old Bennett landed his first coordinator gig.
An NCAA investigation would cost ISU coach Jim Criner and his staff their jobs. The Bennetts moved on to Purdue. Each time they moved, the coach's wife found work in another emergency room and adapted.
"For them, it was always like a new adventure," Phil's brother Jerry Bennett said.
Nancy even put up with her husband's job when, in 1988, her water broke while he was stuck recruiting in a Chicago snowstorm. He made to the hospital in time, and after her 19 hours of labor, he got back to work on a running back.
"My wife just about killed me, because I brought Livetius Johnson, his mother, his sister, his dad and uncle all to the hospital to see my son Sam," Bennett recalled. "He signed with Michigan. Heck of a player."
Fred Akers was fired in 1990. Bennett took a job at LSU. More of the same: four years, couldn't turn it around. When Curley Hallman was fired in 1994, Slocum called Bennett and, with no interview, said, "You're coming home."
Bennett feared A&M was a bad fit. He was right. But he earned national honors for the top-10 defense he coached up in 1995, and he developed a legendary Aggie, Dat Nguyen, who became practically a second son.