Created:Tuesday, May 18, 2010 10:11 p.m.CDT
Updated:Tuesday, May 18, 2010 10:13 p.m.CDT
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Huskies 'fired up' about Bennett hire

By JOHN SAHLY - jsahly@daily-chronicle.com
New Northern Illinois women's basketball coach Kathi Bennett (left) talks with NIU guard Courtney Shelton and Terriel Cannon on Tuesday at the NIU Convocation Center. (Beck Diefenbach – bdiefenbach@daily-chronicle.com)

Click here for video from Kathi Bennett's first news conference as the head coach of the Northern Illinois women's basketball team.

DeKALB – One of Kathi Bennett's first actions as the new coach of the Northern Illinois women's basketball team took place before the announcement of her hire Tuesday afternoon at the NIU Convocation Center.

It was a meeting with a small group of what are now her players. Bennett had a little story planned about change, something her and her players knew a lot about in the past 20 days since former coach Carol Owens resigned. But as uneasy as her players might have been, Bennett felt the same, if not more.

"I was anxious because they mean a lot to me," Bennett said. "They're my family now. They're my people. They're what we've got to build around. It's us now. So yeah, there was a part of me that really wanted to get it right."

Consider that first mission a success for Bennett.

"She had me so fired up in our meeting this morning I was ready to play now," NIU guard Marke Freeman said.

Bennett, who spent the past two seasons at Wisconsin as an assistant coach, was officially announced as the ninth head coach in NIU women's basketball history Tuesday. She is the daughter of former Wisconsin men's coach Dick Bennett and sister of Virginia men's coach Tony Bennett and has been with the Badgers since May of 2008.

Bennett also was in a near-fatal car accident while head coaching at Indiana in 2002 that resulted in a broken neck. She was back at practice a week and a half later and the Hoosiers won the Big Ten tournament that year as a five-seed and beat two top-10 teams. Bennett resigned in 2005, saying at the time that the accident was a factor and left coaching until going to Wisconsin.

Her career coaching record is 296-177, including a 155-32 mark at Wisconsin-Oshkosh and a Division III national championship in 1995-96. She was also the head coach at Evansville, where she amassed a 51-61 record, but was 42-18 in her final two seasons.

Her contract with NIU hasn't been formalized yet but it will be a five-year deal.

NIU Director of Athletics Jeff Compher said about 40 serious candidates applied for the job, but said he felt that Bennett was the best fit.

"Her name kept coming up throughout the process," Compher said. "As I talk about our opening and I called about 50 different people at one point or another during the process and Kathi's name continued to come up. Everybody had the same things to say about her. She's just an outstanding person and outstanding coach and she's a winner."

The 20-day turnaround from Owens' resignation to Bennett's hire is relatively quick, and Compher said he set a goal of hiring a new coach by next week's Mid-American Conference meetings, although he added that it would have been OK if the hiring process took longer than that.

"One of the things we talked about most was desire to be here," Compher said. "And I figured if you wanted the job bad enough, I would know about you pretty quickly. I knew we could get it done in three weeks."

A few minutes into her remarks, Bennett already was laying out a plan for what she wants her team to look like. Expect the Huskies to rely on a "pack line" defense that clogs the middle and forces teams to shoot from the outside along with a motion offense.

"I have a plan. It's this," Bennett said. "When you come and watch us play, I want you to walk away saying, 'Man, that team can compete with anybody. They do not beat themselves. And man are they ever tough-minded. And are they talented? They showcase their individual talents. But they play team basketball. And everything they do, there's quality about what they do. And you know what? That women's basketball, do they represent Northern Illinois University in a way that makes us proud.' That's my vision."

Bennett said her next step will be to put together a staff and re-recruit the signing class that Owens netted before resigning. That includes Hinckley-Big Rock's Jenna Thorp, who said after Bennett's news conference that she would stay with the Huskies.

"She seems like a great person," Thorp said. "Right off the bat she seems very enthusiastic. I like that. I like the defensive focus, too."

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