JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — An NCAA staffer pulled the nameplates for LSU players Tremont Waters and Skylar Mays off the news conference podium Wednesday and replaced it with a single one:
Tony Benford LSU
Interim Head Coach
In these settings, Benford has played up fellow assistant coaches Greg Heiar and Bill Armstrong, saying they have helped him run the team since the university suspended Will Wade on March 8. (In case you hadn't heard, the second-year coach declined to answer the university's questions about reported FBI wiretaps, which include the coach discussing a recruiting offer.)
Benford has also acknowledged that he has stayed in contact with Wade since the latter’s suspension (take that for what you Will — pun intended).
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But it is Benford who will walk to midcourt here Thursday to shake hands with Yale coach James Jones before tipoff of their first-round NCAA tournament game.
It is Benford who will have the most interaction with officials, for better or worse. He chastised himself for a technical foul in LSU’s SEC tournament loss to Florida, complaining bitterly over a botched foul call on Naz Reid coupled with a Gators’ 3-pointer.
And it is Benford who must answer questions Wade is not here to face, having turned the catchphrase for this successful-yet-stormy LSU season from “boot up” to “lawyer up.”
With Wade expected to remain persona non grata as long as LSU is in the NCAA tournament, there is one more question for Benford: Can he be a latter-day Steve Fisher and lead a talented LSU team to an NCAA title?
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The odds are long. They were long for Fisher in 1989, too. Then-Michigan football coach and athletic director Bo Schembechler gruffly told the world he wanted “a Michigan man” coaching Michigan (a No. 3 seed like LSU) in the NCAA tournament after then-coach Bill Frieder said he would leave for Arizona State at season’s end.
Benford is trying gamely to stay in the moment. But how do you do that in the land of FBI wiretaps and rampant uncertainty?
“We talk about narrowing our focus,” Benford said. “We can’t control the outside noise. All we can control is our locker room and our huddle. They’ve taken ownership of the locker room.”
Like Wade, Benford’s story has a complicated arc.
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A native of Hobbs, New Mexico, Benford went about 100 miles northeast to college, playing guard for Texas Tech from 1982-86.
ESPN ranked all 68 NCAA tournament coaches as players. Benford, a 6-foot-4 guard, was eighth. He earned All-Southwest Conference honors in 1985-86, leading the Red Raiders with 14.4 points per game, once drilling three straight game-winning shots in an eight-day span against Houston, Arkansas and Rice. Benford was named the SWC tournament MVP as a senior and led the Red Raiders into the NCAA tournament.
“That,” Benford said with a chuckle, “was about 100 pounds ago.”
“I think the way you’d characterize Tony was he had a lot of intangibles,” said Don Williams, longtime sports writer for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “He was a guy who rose up at the big moments. He was a guy you were confident in when he had the ball in his hands late.”
Williams recalled something former Texas Tech coach Gerald Myers said about Benford after his playing days.
“He said, ‘Tony would fight,’ ” Williams recalled. “What he meant was, if he saw his own teammates weren’t giving an effort in practice he felt they should be giving, Tony would take it upon himself to get them in line and get their effort level up.”
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Like this season with the shooting death of LSU basketball player Wayde Sims, Benford knew tragedy on that 1985-86 Texas Tech team. Edward Robinson, a 19-year-old player, died in September 1985 in a pickup game. Benford said he has carried Robinson’s memory ever since, and that it helped him relate to what his players have gone through with Sims’ death.
“I still stay in contact with those guys,” Benford said. “That brought us closer together. That’s what I see with these guys.”
The only Wade assistant with Division I head coaching experience, Benford was the natural choice as interim coach. In 2012, he left Marquette for North Texas, replacing Johnny Jones, who returned to LSU.
Benford's tenure at North Texas was, in a nutshell, rocky.
Though Jones left a talented team with five returning starters, North Texas went 12-20. The Mean Green topped out at 16-16 the following season and went 62-95 in Benford’s five seasons overall.
There were off-the-court issues, too. In 2017, a North Texas student alleged she was raped by three members of the basketball team and was later asked by one of them to join an escort service. One player and a team manager were arrested for promoting prostitution, while another player was arrested for drug possession.
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After Benford’s firing in 2017, North Texas hired a consulting firm to produce an external review of the men’s basketball program. The report concluded the coaching staff was not aware of the alleged criminal activity, but that there was an overall lack of discipline and accountability within the program.
The report went on to say that Benford “cared deeply for his players and always delivered the proper message(s), but that he had a hard time being a strong disciplinarian when swift, significant discipline may have been appropriate.”
An investigation last year by Dallas TV station WFAA alleged that the university’s investigation was improperly handled. Benford’s name was not mentioned in the report.
When LSU’s practice wrapped up here Wednesday, the Tigers gathered at midcourt. Huddled together in the vast empty arena, the scene had a lonely quality to it.
Benford, their leader for now, can relate.