After Baylor escaped Kansas State this season, Bears defensive coordinator Phil Bennett caught up with Wildcats coach Bill Snyder to deliver a message.
“I told him, ‘You schooled (us),’” Bennett said. “He did. They changed up some things — we knew they would — and they took it to us.”
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K-State took the best shot to date against undefeated Baylor, leading in the fourth quarter before falling by 10, and Bennett left that day with warm feelings that had nothing to do with the victory.
“I can’t go back there without choking up,” Bennett said. “That’s what he means to me, and what the people in Manhattan mean to me.”
Before he hopped on a bus to the airport after Baylor’s 59-14 victory at Kansas on Saturday, Bennett took a few moments to share the story of his tenure at Kansas State that almost never saw a season.
Before he coached a game, Bennett’s wife, Nancy, was into her daily 4-mile jog when a raging storm blew into Manhattan. People remember seeing a solitary bolt of lightning followed by loud clap of thunder. Nancy had been struck and was found unconscious.
Eighteen days after lightning had entered Nancy Bennett at the base of her skull and left through her feet, she died. Phil told their children Sam, 11, and Maddie, 8, it was just them now.
He had lived the wayfaring life of a football assistant, starting on the staff of his alma mater at Texas A&M and working at TCU, Iowa State, Purdue, LSU and Oklahoma before landing at K-State to replace Mike Stoops, who had joined his brother Bob at Oklahoma. Now, at age 43, Bennett had decided to leave the profession, return to extended family in Texas and raise his kids.
Snyder offered another suggestion. Stay, be a parent and a coach, and allow the community to help.
Bennett accepted. He would put in predawn hours at the office, return home to get the kids ready for school and repeat the practice at dinner.
Not long after her mother’s funeral, Maddie had a birthday. Snyder arranged for a party and about 400 attended. He set up a desk in the K-State football office for Sam and organized meals for the family.
“It was the hardest time in my life, and when I look back on it, and think about how good the people were to me and my family ... well, we’re endeared to Kansas State and Manhattan,” Bennett said. “And I wouldn’t be a coach today if it wasn’t for Bill Snyder. He saved my life.”
K-State went to bowl games in all three of Bennett’s years, winning the Holiday and Cotton bowls before he became the head coach at SMU. The Mustangs ascended in victory totals until a 1-11 final season cost him the job. He then spent three seasons on Pittsburgh’s staff before joining Baylor for the 2011 season.
Those Bears were half a team, a Robert Griffin III-led offense that had to race opponents to the finish, best exemplified by their 67-56 victory over Washington in the Alamo Bowl that season.
“There was a reason why I was hired,” Bennett said.
The woes continued in early 2012 — who can forget West Virginia 70, Baylor 63? — but by the season’s second half, Bennett’s lessons had taken root. The Bears shut down Kansas State’s perfect season and in a Holiday Bowl victory over UCLA defended the Bruins about as well as Stanford in the Pac-12 title game.
This season, the Baylor defense has been ferocious, surrendering a Big 12-low 15.9 points per game. The Bears have some of the league’s top performers, too, guys like linebacker Bryce Hager, safety Ahmad Dixon and defensive end Shawn Oakman, a Penn State transfer.
After he passed for 430 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas, Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty couldn’t have been more complimentary — about the Bears’ defense.
“I keep saying it,” Petty said. “The difference between this year and last year is the defense.”
Simply, Bennett wanted what every coordinator seeks: more speed. Baylor found it by moving some linebackers to the ends and making sure players fully grasp the system.
“Knowledge is power,” Bennett said. “We’re pretty much doing what we’ve done; we’re just doing it better because we have a better grasp of what we’re doing. That means you can play faster.”
It also means there was no panic in the Bears after their offense experienced a rare three-and-out to open Saturday’s game, and followed it with another punt. The door was open for Kansas to at least set the game’s tone with a few clock-draining first downs, and maybe a score to disrupt Baylor’s rhythm.
But the Bears’ defense wouldn’t allow it. The Jayhawks went three-and-out the first four times they had the ball and punted away 10 of their first 11 possessions, a streak interrupted only by a Bears fourth-down stuff.
By the time Kansas scored, Baylor led 45-0. Bears assistant coaches in the press box headed down to the field early in the fourth quarter.
All that was left were the handshakes — and for Bennett, memories of the worst and some of the best times of his life when he returns to Kansas.