(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)
Arizona State’s coaching carousel took another turn on Tuesday afternoon, as defensive coordinator Phil Bennett announced he will not be returning to the program to join new head coach Herm Edwards’ staff next season.
Bennett, who was hired by recently fired head coach Todd Graham last offseason, confirmed to reporters after ASU’s practice on Tuesday that he would be stepping away from coaching for personal reasons, too “anguished” to accept an offer from Edwards to return in his current leading the defense role next season.
He will coach in ASU’s Sun Bowl game on Dec. 29 in El Paso.
Here are the some of the other key takeaways from Bennett’s statements, and what this news means for ASU moving forward.
BENNETT NOT FORCED OUT, LEAVING BY PERSONAL CHOICE
Despite reports indicating that Bennett was being forced out of ASU football’s “New Leadership Model” by Edwards and athletic director Ray Anderson, the 62-year-old defensive coordinator insisted that he is walking away from the Sun Devils on his own volition.
“I visited with Herm twice,” Bennett said. “Very gracious, really good man. I just looked at a couple thing going on right now in my life and I had to make a decision that I probably wouldn’t be able to stay here.”
He added: “Herm is putting a staff together and he needs total concentration right now. I am going to have a little down time.”
Edwards released a statement about Bennett’s decision too.
“While I would have liked for Defensive Coordinator Phil Bennett to remain on the coaching staff, I do appreciate the fact that he has chosen not to stay based upon family reasons,” it read. “Family always comes first and right now he needs to turn his attention to that.”
Under Bennett, ASU saw wide-ranging defensive improvements in 2017. The group allowed only 31.2 points this season, down from the 39.8 it surrendered on average in 2016.
The secondary was a key area for growth, as Bennett took the nation’s worst pass defense and turned it into a fairly respectable unit that finished No. 117 in the country this year by giving up 268 yards through the air on average, an 89-yard improvement over last season.
“I have adored these kids,” Bennett said. “I appreciate Todd for letting me come here. It’s a unique place, it’s a great place and I’m just very thankful.”
Individually, Bennett helped develop defensive back youngsters like Kobe Williams and Chase Lucas, the latter of whom was named to USA Today’s Freshman All-American team on Tuesday.
“He brought a lot of heart and charisma to the defense,” Lucas said. “He really taught us how to be men.”
The status of ASU’s other defensive coaches (defensive backs coach T.J. Rushing, linebacker coaches Keith Patterson and Shawn Slocum, and defensive line coach Michael Slater) are still in question.
Bennett also said his illustrious coaching career isn’t done either: “I’m not through coaching. It’s just not going to be here for the time being.”
DEPARTURE CATCHES PLAYERS OFF GUARD
Bennett said that he told his players of his decision to leave before Tuesday’s practice.
“I told them today I’ve developed a bunch of life long relationships,” Bennett said. “I feel very fortunate.”
According to Lucas, the announcement was a surprise even after the firing of Graham.
“It hurt. It hurt me a lot,” Lucas said. “He’s a good man, he’s like a father figure to me really. He believed in me when nobody else did and he gave me an opportunity to be a great player and put that thing in my mind that I can achieve greatness in this position.”
Lucas, a redshirt freshman, wasn’t recruited by Bennett coming out of Chandler High School two years ago. But he – like many of ASU’s defensive players – built a quick bond with their defensive coordinator. His departure will cause more than a few aching hearts in the Sun Devils locker room.
“I love that man to death,” Lucas added. “I want to thank him for everything he’s done for this program. Especially what he has done for me.”
WHAT ASU WILL BE LOOKING FOR IN A REPLACEMENT
With Bennett out, ASU will be in search of its third defensive coordinator in three seasons. Given the general NFL-centric direction the program is headed toward, a name with professional experience is likely.
While Edwards was a head coach in the NFL, he had the following as defensive coordinators on staff during his 8-year career in the league:
- 2001-03, New York Jets: Ted Cottrell (70-year-old who has been out of coaching since 2009)
- 2004-05, New York Jets: Donnie Henderson (60-year-old who was most recently a defensive backs coach with the Buffalo Bills from 2013-16. Before that, he was the defensive backs coach for Syracuse University in 2012)
- 2006-08, Kansas City Chiefs: Gunther Cunningham (71-year-old who was most recently a senior advisor with the Detroit Lions until earlier this year)
Henderson is a potential candidate that might get some traction, especially given his experience in both the pros and college, but at this early stage any name is pure speculation.
The biggest issue ASU might have in finding an NFL-minded defensive coordinator is that most who fit that description would be on a current NFL staff and likely unavailable until the end of the NFL season next month – well past the new early signing period from Dec. 20-22.
ASU could go outside the box (like it did with the hiring of Edwards) and bring in a coach currently out of a job, or search for a current college coach with an NFL background.
But, with Bennett leaving, it forces the Sun Devils to cement another crack by trying to find stability for a unit that has been through an overload of recent changes already.
On his way out, Bennett provided some optimism for what the future of ASU football holds.
“I will always be a Sun Devils fan,” he said. “I will pull for these kids and this program. I think it is in good hands and I’m just very appreciative to all of them.”
Edwards added that efforts to find a replacement have already begun.
“My top priorities right now going forward are to solidify our recruiting class and to assemble a defensive coaching staff,” he said via the statement. “Both objectives are moving along quite well.”