Tribune-Herald file photo
Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has held that post at eight Division I schools in his career, including Purdue, LSU, Iowa State, Texas A&M, TCU, Kansas State and Pittsburgh. Last season, Bennett led Pitt to a 27-10 win over Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl as interim head coach.
The Texas Bowl was barely in the record books and the wheels were already spinning in Baylor coach Art Briles’ head.
With their first bowl appearance in 16 years, the Bears rid themselves of some old baggage and showed the Big 12 that their doormat days were over. But while Baylor’s dynamic offense could scare anybody in the country, the defense was getting trampled.
The gap between the two units was especially evident as the season wore on. After breaking into the Top 25 for two weeks in late October, the Bears ended the season with four straight losses, including a 38-14 blowout by Illinois in the Texas Bowl.
Briles saw that highly respected defensive coordinator Phil Bennett was available.
He felt like the luckiest man in Waco when he hired Bennett in January after a three-year stint at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Phil has one thing money can’t buy, and that’s experience,” Briles said. “Phil has done it, he knows it and we’ll benefit from it. He’s going to have an answer for everything. He’s got a plan. He’s extremely accountable as a coach, as a person, and his players are going to be that way.”
With Bennett on board as defensive coordinator, Baylor’s chances of returning to a bowl game should improve dramatically. With quarterback Robert Griffin back to lead an experienced offense, the Bears hope they’ll be strong on both sides of the ball.
Since five Big 12 teams are ranked in the preseason Top 25 — including No. 1 Oklahoma — moving up in the conference standings will be tough for a Baylor team that finished 7-6 overall and 4-4 in league play last year. But the Bears are a more confident team with a winning season and a bowl berth under their belt.
“Coming into last year, we were operating on faith, hope and belief,” Briles said. “Now, we’re operating more on reality. Every time we step on the football field we should expect to win. We’ve had enough of those hang your head and hide the sports page days. We need to keep having those good days.”
While the Bears were proud of their first winning season of the Big 12 era, they weren’t satisfied with the finish. In the last four games against Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Illinois, the Bears were outscored 188-96. The only game that was even close was against the Aggies when the Bears let a 30-21 halftime lead slip away before dropping a 42-30 decision.
“We’ll use it as motivation,” Griffin said. “We have to start fast and finish strong. It’s just another step on the ladder, and we’re looking forward to establishing ourselves. I judge myself on wins and losses, and my job is to help us win a lot of games.”
With Griffin back to lead an offense that returns eight starters, Baylor should be able to match points with nearly any team in the country. Led by Kendall Wright, Baylor’s receiving corps is deep and talented. Though Baylor is still looking for someone to establish himself at running back, an experienced offensive line should open plenty of holes.
The biggest question is how Bennett can transform a defense that ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 after allowing 435.4 yards and 30.5 points per game last season. But he’s produced strong defenses everywhere he’s been.
Baylor is Bennett’s eighth stop as an NCAA Division I defensive coordinator in the last 28 years with previous stints at Iowa State, Purdue, LSU, Texas A&M, TCU, Kansas State and Pittsburgh. Bennett’s tenure at Pittsburgh ended last season after head coach Dave Wannstedt resigned.
Though Briles has known Bennett for many years, they developed a strong friendship and mutual respect when they both coached Conference USA schools. Briles was the head coach at the University of Houston from 2003-07 and Bennett was SMU’s head coach from 2002-07.
Rod Aydelotte / Waco Tribune-Herald
Phil Bennett (left) and Art Briles developed a strong friendship when both were head coaches in Conference USA.
“In this business, you see the way people work and operate,” Bennett said. “I always liked the way Art did things. I like the integrity he’s used to build this program, and I think we can take this thing to another level.”
Briles likes sharing his ideas with a coach with vast experience like Bennett, and enjoys the feedback.
“He and I coincide so much on philosophy and belief and how to treat people, how to make people accountable,” Briles said. “I have a world of respect for what Phil has done on the defensive side of the ball. I’m really thankful that he’s a Baylor Bear.”
While Bennett is optimistic that the Bears will improve defensively, he knows he’s got a major job on his hands. Baylor’s top five tacklers are gone from last season, including all-Big 12 safety Byron Landor and defensive tackle Phil Taylor, a No. 1 draft pick by the Cleveland Browns.
The Baylor players have also had to learn Bennett’s 4-2-5 defense, which should come in handy against the Big 12’s prolific passing offenses. But Bennett has seen dramatic improvement since spring drills.
“We’ve definitely made improvement,” Bennett said. “We’re not where we need to be, but we’re dang sure not where we were. We’ve made strides, but the one thing we have to fight through at a higher level is the mental toughness.”
The Baylor defenders have quickly learned that Bennett is no pushover. He’s not afraid to get in players’ faces and teach them the right way to do things on the spot.
“He’s real intense and can get on you,” Baylor defensive end Tevin Elliott said. “But you need a coach who will jump down your throat.”
What Bennett wants to see most from his players is a more aggressive attitude. He wants them to act like they own the field and treat anybody who tries to take it as a trespasser.
“It’s like the Junction Boys because it’s so hot out here and Coach Bennett is standing there drilling you and making sure you have a presence and running and hitting,” Baylor linebacker Elliot Coffey said. “It’s you against them, and you’d better win every time.”
One certainty is that Baylor’s pass defenders will play more aggressively than last season, when they often played 10 yards off receivers. The Bears will likely use more one-on-one press coverages, and Bennett will mix in blitzes and different defenses to show a lot of different looks.
The Baylor defenders know they’d better perform or face Bennett’s wrath.
“Coach Bennett knows exactly what he wants, and he’s going to get it or find someone else who is going to do it,” Coffey said. “People understand it’s going to take a lot to please this guy. He’s going to tell you if you did something wrong, but at the same time he loves you enough to let you know if you did something right.”
With Bennett in the fold, the Bears hope they won’t have to rely completely on the offense to win big games. The Bears don’t want to stop at just one bowl appearance. They want to make it a habit.
“We’ve been to a bowl and had a winning season,” Coffey said. “That’s all great and fun, but it gets us nowhere for the upcoming season. We’ve got to go out and move on and get better. We’re working on getting back to a bowl game and winning it.”