Baylor's Bennett knows no pressure

He got up at 4 a.m every day. He stopped home at night to cook dinner. When the homework was done and the kids were tucked in, he snuck back to the football office until 1 a.m. He needed the distraction.

"There wasn't any doubt he was in dire pain," Snyder said, "but he had a way of being able to manage it. When he was with his players, he was all-in. With his children, he was all-in."

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Back in 1999, on the flight home from Nancy's funeral in Alvarado, Texas, the plane carrying the grieving Bennett family soared over SMU's Gerald J. Ford Stadium. Phil noticed. He took it as a sign.

Three years later, Bennett accepted the SMU head coaching job. He was ready to be a head coach, and better yet, relocating to Texas gave his kids a chance to spend time with their grandparents. He even got to coach Sam, a long snapper for the Mustangs in 2006 and 2007.

Bennett harbors few regrets about his six years at SMU. Peers told him not to take the job. Despite the 18-52 record, he's glad he did.

"I thought I could flip it," he said. "We came damn close."

How close? SMU went 6-6 in 2006 but was passed up for its first bowl game since the NCAA's infamous Death Penalty. They were on the cusp. The rebuild fell apart in 2007. Three overtime losses, two more on last-second scores. Bennett was fired eight games into a 1-11 season.

"I put my heart and soul into it," he said. "But that's part of it. You don't cry about it. You move on."

He wanted to get as far from Dallas as possible, so he took over Pittsburgh's defense under Dave Wannstedt. The staff was fired three years later, despite a winning record.

Once news of Wannstedt's ouster spread, Bennett's next boss moved quickly. Briles had faced Bennett three times while head coach at Houston and knew his résumé well. Before Bennett's last game, as Pitt's interim coach for a Compass Bowl victory over Kentucky, Briles flew to Birmingham, Alabama, to meet and seal the deal.

When he introduced Bennett that January, Briles told reporters, "Everybody who knows football knows Phil Bennett." Too few knew what these two were capable of back then.

• • •

"I think Art Briles might be the best thing that happened to Phil Bennett," Dat Nguyen said. His mentor agrees.

Practicing against Briles' offense on a daily basis and assembling enough talent to slow them provided Bennett one of his biggest coaching challenges. If you don't innovate, you get exposed.

"This guy is unbelievable," Bennett said, "and he lets me coach."

Briles helped transform the 58-year-old coach's beliefs about successful defense. The new philosophy: get three-and-outs, get turnovers, get the ball back to the offense. The offensive wizard required what he now proudly calls "a defense that's playing 2013 football."

Their vision was executed to near-perfection last season. Baylor wouldn't have won the Big 12, Briles said, without a title-caliber defense. They've needed each other to get this far.

"Art has been good for me," Bennett said. "He's so low-key and so truthful. He relaxes me. You are what you are. I'm piss and vinegar, high-strung, gung-ho. But he knows I'm gonna get it done."

After so many close calls, so many jobs cut short, Bennett finally got it turned. Through it all, his brand of coaching never changed. The Baylor defense that faces SMU tonight is fueled with his ferocity.

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