Men's basketball: Chance of a lifetime

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DRC/Al Key
New North Texas men’s basketball coach Tony Benford stands outside the Super Pit.
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Benford has made a living developing NBA-level talent

Tony Benford was sound asleep the morning after the 1986 NBA Draft when the call came.

Benford had spent the previous night out with his girlfriend, cousins and friends celebrating after being selected in the fourth round by the Boston Celtics.

Boston had taken only one player before Benford, an All-American from Maryland named Len Bias.

“I got a call at about 6 a.m.,” Benford said recently inside an office he had yet to finish decorating at North Texas. “It was a beat writer from Boston. He asked if I had heard the news. I had no idea what he was talking about because I had not turned the TV on. He said that Len Bias had died of a cocaine overdose.

“It was on every channel. It was like someone shot me.”

The experience still resonates with Benford, who took over as UNT’s head coach this spring, more than 25 years after that ill-fated morning.

Even though he had never met Bias, Benford had seen him play on television and knew what a waste the death of a player considered by many to be a sure NBA star represented. He vowed that day to continue making the most of every opportunity to come his way.

That philosophy guided Benford throughout his playing career and a successful run of nearly 20 years as an assistant coach, and it will be the basis for his efforts to capitalize on the biggest opportunity thus far in his coaching career — at UNT.

The Mean Green has all of its key players returning from a team that fell one game short of reaching the NCAA tournament last year, including Tony Mitchell, who is projected as a first-round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.

Benford has spent his career preaching about taking advantage of opportunities. His biggest opportunity — since his short stay in the NBA — is staring him in the face now.

Those who know Benford best say he is ready to take it on because of the perspective he has gained. He played four years at Texas Tech. He navigated training camps with the Celtics and Chicago Bulls and worked as an assistant coach at Marquette, Nebraska, Arizona State and New Mexico.

“Tony was ready 10 years ago,” said Rob Evans, one of Benford’s mentors who served as a head coach at Arizona State and Mississippi before joining UNT’s staff as an assistant coach this spring. “I have known him since he was born and have followed his career. He has all the qualities you need. He has unbelievable work ethic, unbelievable knowledge, has been involved in every aspect of the game and has the ability to communicate with not only assistant coaches and players, but also with fans.

“He knows that character counts.”

Just ask Mitchell.

The sophomore was a consensus top-25 recruit coming out of Dallas Pinkston and committed to Missouri, but he ended up at UNT because of NCAA eligibility issues. He has played only one semester with the Mean Green under former head coach Johnny Jones and earned Freshman of the Year honors in the Sun Belt Conference, not to mention acclaim as one of the best players in college basketball.

If there is a player at UNT who would merit special treatment, it would be Mitchell. He didn’t get it from Benford — not after missing class just after the new coach arrived.

Mitchell was on the track at Fouts Field running five miles instead of participating in practice the next day. Benford’s standard disciplinary practice is best known among his former players as the “Five at Five” — running five miles on the track at 5 a.m.

Squandering opportunities and failing to take care of responsibilities are things Benford won’t accept, even from a player like Mitchell, the star of what some expect to be the best team in UNT history next season.

“He told me that I had to make up for it,” Mitchell said of missing class. “The lessons he shares are going to help me. In the NBA it’s a lot different. You are playing with grown men who are playing for their wife and kids at home.”

*

Retired Texas Tech basketball coach and athletic director Gerald Myers remembers a characteristic moment during a game against SMU while Benford was his star player.

The Red Raiders led by one when Benford went to the line and hit the front end of a one-and-one. The 3-point shot had yet to be introduced in the college game, essentially leaving Benford one free throw away from icing a key victory for the Red Raiders.

“It was down at the end where SMU had a lot of their students,” Myers said. “The officials waved the shot off because some SMU students were shaking the goal. Tony stepped up and made two more. He could play under pressure.”

That ability is part of what made Benford one of the elite players in the Southwest Conference. He helped lead Tech to the SWC regular-season and tournament titles in the 1984-85 season and was the MVP of the conference tournament in 1986.

Myers was convinced by the end of Benford’s career that he would be a coach sooner or later, largely because of his background. Benford grew up in Hobbs, N.M., where he led the hometown team to the state title while earning All-America honors as a senior.

Ralph Tasker, who won 11 of his 12 New Mexico state titles at Hobbs and is a member of the National High School Sports Hall of Fame, was Benford’s head coach.

“All those boys from Hobbs had work ethic,” Myers said. “Tony would get upset if guys on the team didn’t work hard. We had some good players at that time. Some of those kids didn’t come to practice to get better. Tony led by example in that respect and also got on kids who didn’t work hard.”

The fact that Benford was drafted at all is a tribute to his work ethic. Myers said Benford was something of a “tweener” at 6-foot-3 — not quite tall enough to be a small forward and not quite quick enough to be a guard at the NBA level.

Being drafted by the Celtics didn’t help Benford attain his goal of playing in the NBA. Boston was coming off a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals and featured a core of legendary players like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish as well as current Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.

The somber atmosphere surrounding the Celtics camp and the talent level of the team are what Benford remembers most about his stay in Boston, which ended quickly. After being released, Benford spent a few weeks in camp with the Chicago Bulls during the early stages of the Michael Jordan era and was released again.

“All you can ask for is an opportunity,” Benford said. “I had my opportunity and didn’t make it, even though I put everything into it. It was a great experience, though.”

Benford’s players have heard plenty about his time with the Celtics and Bulls and at his various stops, where he has used them as a teaching point.

Ike Diogu played for Benford while Benford was an assistant at Arizona State before going on to play for six NBA teams in six seasons. The former Garland standout said he heard the Bias story plenty of times from Benford, who used it to illustrate his philosophy of working to take advantage of opportunities in life.

“Coach Benford is just as passionate in practice as he is in games,” Diogu said. “He cherishes the moment and talks about cherishing everything in life because it goes by fast. Cherish practice, running and playing. His passion is what I remember most.”

*

The air in the UNT volleyball gym is heavy on a summer afternoon, and Benford has sweated right through his UNT basketball T-shirt.

Practice is under way and if one didn’t know any better, it would be easy to think Benford is one of the players. He bodies up his post players, gives them a shove or two and encourages them to fight through contact.

“Coach Benford is the type of coach where you need to work or you need to get out of the gym,” UNT senior forward Roger Franklin said. “He and his staff have taken us by storm. We didn’t think we were going to work this hard when they came in. Everyone is going to have to work no matter what. Coach Benford wants you to get better.”

Doc Sadler, the former head coach at UTEP and Nebraska, has seen Benford’s drive up close. UNT’s new head coach was one of Sadler’s assistants at Nebraska for two seasons.

Sadler said Benford frequently beat him to the office in the morning and was there when he left, soaking up everything he could that might help him when he finally became a head coach.

Along the way, Benford developed a talent for getting the most out of his players and sending them to the NBA.

Diogu is only one example.

Eddie House and Tommy Smith worked with Benford at Arizona State. Charles Smith and Kenny Thomas were among Benford’s pupils at New Mexico, while Lazar Hayward and Jimmy Butler worked with Benford at Marquette.

Each went on to play in the NBA.

Former Marquette players Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom were both taken in the second round of the NBA draft this year.

“Tony’s passion is what has helped him develop players,” Sadler said. “He will work just as hard as they do. They appreciate that and understand just how hard you need to work.”

Smith has played in only 15 NBA games over three seasons, including one this year for the Golden State Warriors, and attributes that experience in part to working with Benford at Arizona State.

“Coach Benford prepares you for life,” Smith said. “He helps young guys become young men. There is a transition you go through coming from high school. You are the man in high school. When you get to college, you realize that everyone else is just like you.”

Benford has shown the ability to connect with players throughout his career. Several of them — including some of UNT’s current players — say that has helped Benford develop the players who have worked with him.

“He likes to make fun of us,” Franklin said. “He will say things like, ‘Roger, you’ve missed a couple of days of practice. You’re getting fat. You need to get back into the gym.’ He is constantly making fun of us, but it is all fun and games. He also likes to show up out of nowhere. He will come in the weight room screaming, ‘I like it. Keep working. We’re going to be good.’”

That enthusiasm helped Benford excel as an assistant coach. He was named one of the top assistants in college basketball by Basketball Times and FoxSports.com before arriving at UNT.

“Every day and every year, he talked about adding something new to your game, whether it was improving your dribbling or shooting off the dribble,” Diogu said. “You have to know talent and how to develop it. He knows how to do that.”

*

Benford laid out his plan for Mitchell shortly after he took over at UNT.

That plan is spelled out in a small, spiral-bound binder with a picture of Mitchell soaring to the basket for a dunk last season with his name across the front.

“We called it the Tony Mitchell Efficiency and Improvement Analysis,” Benford said. “It’s one thing to talk about what he needs to do. Putting it on paper is another.”

The binder talks about Mitchell finding a way to improve his post-up game and develop a move to his right to complement his ability to score over his left shoulder. Mitchell committed 2.8 turnovers a game last season, far too many for a player who rarely handles the ball in the open floor.

“I told coach that he didn’t have to make the book,” Mitchell said. “Coach Benford already has my trust and the trust of my mother. It was kind of cool that he did that for me, though.”

The plan is part of Benford’s overall scheme to take UNT, which advanced to the NCAA tournament under Jones and 2007 and 2010, and develop it into an even more prominent program nationally.

UNT received a huge boost when it was invited to join Conference USA shortly after Benford’s arrival. C-USA is a higher-profile league with the in-state rivals the Sun Belt lacks. UNT will play UTEP, Rice and Texas-San Antonio, not to mention traditional rival Tulsa, annually beginning in the 2013-14 season.

“Especially going to Conference USA, we can win conference championships,” Benford said. “With the alumni base that we have here and the support we have, there is no reason why this can’t be like a Butler or a Gonzaga. This program can do some special things, and we are committed to doing special things.”

Benford seems to have all the pieces in place to reach his goal of making UNT’s program an even bigger player on the national scene. He hired Evans away from TCU, where he was an assistant, to help him make the transition to being a head coach.

Former High Point coach Bart Lundy and longtime Nebraska assistant David Anwar also joined the staff.

All seven of UNT’s top scorers from last season return, and P.J. Hardwick, a point guard from Houston Christian Life, backed out of a commitment to Mississippi State to join a UNT recruiting class that also includes 6-9 center Keith Coleman.

The addition of Coleman will allow Mitchell to play away from the basket more and expand his game.

In the end, though, UNT’s hopes for next season come down to how Mitchell develops in what likely will be his last season with the Mean Green. A breakout campaign could help UNT return to the NCAA tournament and get Benford off to a great start in his first job as a head coach.

The situation is one Benford is particularly well prepared to face.

UNT’s new head coach saw the aftermath of a great talent going to waste after Bias’ death and helped a series of players avoid the same pitfalls on their way to the NBA.

Those around UNT’s program believe Benford has set a rare talent in Mitchell on the same path and put the Mean Green in position to continue its rise.

One of Benford’s biggest believers might be the most important person of all.

“Coach Benford is going to help me get there in all aspects,” Mitchell said. “He is going to help me take care of my business and be responsible. When you get to the NBA, it’s different from college. It’s another life.

“I am thankful for him.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is bvito@dentonrc.com.

Tony Mitchell: The next in line?

New North Texas head coach Tony Benford has a history of developing top college players on their way to the NBA and will have that opportunity with Tony Mitchell. Here is a look at players Benford has coached who were selected in the NBA draft:

North Texas

Sophomore forward Tony Mitchell is projected as a first-round pick in 2013.

Marquette

Lazar Hayward (30th overall pick, 2010, Washington), Jimmy Butler (30th overall pick, 2011, Chicago), Jae Crowder (fourth pick in second round, 2012, Cleveland), Darius Johnson-Odom (25th pick in second round, 2012, Dallas)

Arizona State

Ike Diogu (9th overall pick, 2005, Golden State), Eddie House (8th pick in second round, 2000, Miami), Tommy Smith (24th pick in second round, 2003, Chicago), Jeff Pendergraph (first pick in second round, 2009, Sacramento)

New Mexico

Charles Smith (26th overall pick, 1997, Miami), Kenny Thomas (22nd overall pick, 1999, Houston)


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