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Iconic Tampa Bay basketball coach Jan Bennett fulfilled his final ‘game plan’

Peers and loved ones recall the 500-game winner, who died Saturday at age 84.
Former Brandon High boys basketball coach Jan Bennett (left) and then-Robinson coach Herman Valdes shake hands before a 1977 contest. Bennett, who won more than 500 games locally at the prep level, died Saturday at 84 after a brief bout with cancer.
Former Brandon High boys basketball coach Jan Bennett (left) and then-Robinson coach Herman Valdes shake hands before a 1977 contest. Bennett, who won more than 500 games locally at the prep level, died Saturday at 84 after a brief bout with cancer. [ Times files ]
Published Sep. 14, 2020
Updated Sep. 14, 2020

The local basketball scene lost one of its most outspoken — and periodically outlandish — characters Saturday when longtime coach Jan Bennett died at 84 following a brief bout with cancer.

To honor Bennett, a local 500-game winner who also served separate stints on the USF men’s and women’s staffs, we reached out to several of his loved ones, peers and counterparts for their recollections of this iconic bay area figure.

Neal Goldman, longtime Jesuit boys coach

“Despite the rough exterior we all knew and loved about Coach Bennett, I will always remember his acts of graciousness and generosity. The morning after a hard-fought, very heated win over one of his highly ranked teams, he calls me the next morning at 7 a.m. to let me know very specifically how much he thought about my coaching job in that game. First time I can ever remember an opposing coach doing something like that.”

Dr. John Cherry, who played for Bennett at Brandon

“He’s an original. And you can talk to a lot of those old-timers who have been around for a while, he was absolutely a character. He did not miss his calling; he was made to be a coach. I couldn’t see him doing anything else."

Martha Bennett, wife of 36 years

“He just really had a bad day Wednesday. He wanted to see his No. 1 (and only) grandson (Brett Metzler), who’s gonna be ordained as a Catholic priest next May. And he said once he saw his No. 1 grandson and he left, he was gone. I told him that was okay. So once his No. 1 grandson left and I told him that he had gone, I said, ‘It’s okay now. I’m gonna be okay. It’s time for you to go be with your mom and dad and coach basketball in God’s eternal kingdom. ... He followed the game plan.”

Mike DePue, Bennett’s former JV coach at Robinson

DePue recalled a legendary 1977 game between Bennett’s Brandon High team against Robinson. Prior to the game, played before a standing-room-only crowd in Brandon’s gym, Bennett had a student dress up like a witch doctor and sprinkle “magic dust” on the Knights’ chairs. Brandon won on a controversial buzzer-beater in double overtime.)

“Everything was pinpoint in terms of practice time, when buses (arrived), pregame meals. He’d collect all the laundry at the end of a game. He was like, ‘You guys don’t do the laundry, we do the laundry,’ and he’d do the laundry during his classes. ... He just was meticulous in terms of preparation. I think that was his whole philosophy of life.”

Jan Bennett, who led Seminole Presbyterian (now Cambridge Christian) to a pair of state tournaments in 1999 and 2000, talks with Matt Custer (33) and David Bresnahan (22) during a Class A semifinal loss in Lakeland.
Jan Bennett, who led Seminole Presbyterian (now Cambridge Christian) to a pair of state tournaments in 1999 and 2000, talks with Matt Custer (33) and David Bresnahan (22) during a Class A semifinal loss in Lakeland. [ GREG FIGHT | Tampa Bay Times ]

Harry Elifson, former USF women’s co-staffer

“Knowing him, up there in heaven they’re running the flex (offense), I’ll tell you that right now. ... He was perfect for the kids, how to get the most out of kids. He’s an old-school coach. ... He wore jackets at games. And nowadays, it would be different for him to coach. ... He loved to talk basketball. I used to go down there and we’d sit at the (Brandon) Beef O’Brady’s. He’d get the salt-shakers out and he was ready to rock.”

Don Dziagwa, longtime Tampa Catholic boys coach

“It is very sad to hear of his passing. He was an iconic figure in the Tampa Bay basketball community. We will all miss hearing that gravelly voice of his. There will be only one Jan Bennett. Our condolences to his wife and family.”

Tommy Tonelli, former USF player and Wharton boys coach

Tonelli recalled the Bulls landing in Tampa just before dawn following a loss to Ole Miss the previous night in the 1983 NIT. According to Tonelli, Bennett took a short nap before hitting one of his favorite burger joints in Brandon. “He goes, ‘I’ll never forget that day because I saw the most beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl that I’ve ever seen in my life...and my life was never the same.’ That was the day he met Martha.”

“He was such a mentor to so many players, so many coaches, so many young and up-and-coming coaches. He always loved talking basketball. He always loved talking philosophy of coaching, and he was always big on doing the right things as a coach and standing by your principles of what you believe in, and how the game should be played — in addition to just loving the technical aspects of X’s and O’s. ... He knew the rules of the game as well as anybody, and you can ask the referees if you don’t believe me.”

Juan Price, former Robinson basketball player (1991-93) and principal at Bothell (Wash.) High

“When he asked me what I wanted to do after high school, I said, ‘You know what, I kind of want to go into education.’ And he tried to talk me out of it. He said, ‘Hey, you know what, maybe you should think about another career, you have a lot of potential to do good things in life.’ But I said, ‘I like working with kids and I kind of want to follow in your footsteps and be an educator.’ I remember him saying, ‘You’re not gonna make millions, but as an educator, you will touch the lives of millions of kids.’ I’ve taken it to heart, and now this will be Year No. 24 for me in public education.”

Jose Fernandez, USF women’s coach

“When I got the job here at a young age (28), it was great to have someone like Jan on staff because of his years of experience and knowledge, and direction that he gave me early here at USF. ... He was an avid runner, so anywhere that we went, he would somehow break into the football stadium. That day we’d have shootarounds before the game, and he’d tell me, ‘Jose, I caught a screen pass at the 10 and I went 90 yards.’ We’d go to the next city, ‘Oh, I caught a slant at the 30 and I busted out for 65 yards.’ Everywhere he went, he met everybody and he knew everybody.”

Mike Baker, who played for Bennett at Brandon (and coached at Leto and Riverview)

“You’re a personnel coach or you’re a philosophy coach; I think Coach could’ve been a combination of both. He was maybe taking our time (at Brandon) and slowing it down, and this, that and the other. But when he got to Robinson, he took those guys and just gashed you with the (3-pointer); clear the backcourt in about three seconds, and put it up and chase it. ... He wanted to be a coach all his career after he played, so he worked his craft.”

Funeral Information

Memorial services will be held 9 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 26 at Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church, 604 N. Valrico Road in Valrico. A 6-foot rule will be enforced and masks are required. A celebration-of-life reception will follow the service (at a location to be determined). In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Stevenson Library, 401 N. Fairview Ave., Lock Haven, PA 17745; or to Moffitt Cancer Center, 12902 Magnolia Dr., Tampa, FL 33612; or to Hospice Chapter Health Foundation, 12470 Telecom Dr., Suite 300, Temple Terrace, FL 33637; all in memory of Jan Schwarz Bennett.