By JANIE McCAULEY
MORAGA, Calif. (AP) -- Randy Bennett has been rewarded for successfully transforming the men's basketball program at tiny Saint Mary's College over nearly two decades, receiving a new 10-year contract through the 2026-27 season.
Beginning his 17th season at the picturesque school in the suburbs outside San Francisco, Bennett has built mid-major Saint Mary's into a West Coast Conference power and a regular player on the national stage -- and the Gaels have won a school-record 29 games in each of the past two seasons. The experienced, veteran team is predicted to win the WCC this season.
"I'm appreciative and thankful to President Donahue, Mike Matoso and the Saint Mary's administration for their support. It's an honor to have this opportunity to work at such a great institution," Bennett said. "We've had great student-athletes and assistant coaches who have put a lot of hard work and effort into building the program to this level. My family and I truly enjoy being in such a supportive community and raising our family around this environment. We are excited to continue what we have started here 17 years ago."
Bennett has had chances to leave for more high-profile jobs but instead stayed put to build something special over the long haul. Along the way, many of his top assistants have gone on to become head coaches -- Eran Ganot at Hawaii, Kyle Smith at San Francisco, Lamont Smith at San Diego.
"I've said this for some time but I think Coach Bennett is the best coach in the country. I really do," Ganot said. "To do what he has done at SMC for that long and with continued success to come in the future is amazing if you take a hard look at it. People will point to that level of success and talk a lot about how it's been done with limited resources. That's a bit of a disservice. Take that out of the equation. This is one of the best stories in college basketball. ... Coach is about development. Always has and always will and that it's bigger than just the games. He's about developing future leaders, outstanding husbands and fathers. He cares deeply about the people in his program. It's those reasons why he is so good for the game and world. We need more like him."
President James Donahue and new athletic director Michael Matoso made the contract announcement Friday, a day ahead of the 22nd-ranked Gaels' season opener against Saint Francis at McKeon Pavilion. Bennett has developed a recruiting pipeline to Australia and has two senior Aussies and captains in the starting lineup this season -- center Jock Landale and guard Emmett Naar. Chants of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi" regularly ring from the student section and throughout the 3,500-seat arena that makes for quite a home-court advantage.
Bennett has turned this program around since arriving in 2001 and taking over a team that went 2-27 the previous season. The Gaels quickly improved with him in charge, going from nine wins to 15 to 19, and then to 25 to reach the 2005 NCAA Tournament for the school's first NCAA berth since 1997.
They haven't slowed down since then. Bennett's teams have reached the NCAA Tournament six times and the postseason on 11 occasions. Saint Mary's lost to Arizona in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in March. Bennett has a 362-156 overall record at Saint Mary's.
"Randy embodies the core values of the college and we are very fortunate to have him," said Matoso, in his first year as AD in place of Mark Orr. "He has built this program from the ground up and we envision great things for the program in the future under his leadership. His teams have performed extremely well on the court and have matched that success both in the classroom and in the community."