by Michael Vernetti
“Expectations” was the buzzword at Saturday night’s Tip-Off Dinner in the Soda Center on the Saint Mary’s campus.
As in, “What are your expectations for this year’s team?” asked by seemingly every other attendee.
Or, “Do you think this team can live up to expectations?” asked by the rest.
So it was that managing expectations was high on host Matt Maiocco’s line of inquiry when he brought Gael Coach Randy Bennett to the dais for a live interview before the assembled dinner guests. Maiocco, an East Bay guy who cut his teeth covering sports for both the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune (both recently renamed the East Bay Times) before joining Comcast Sports Net as the 49ers beat reporter, is one of a few sports reporters whom Bennett suffers gladly.
He has grown comfortable lightly grilling Bennett at the annual Tip-Off Dinner, and felt especially upbeat following last year’s 29-6 season and a summer and fall replete with glossy predictions for the success of the 2016-17 Gaels. He was glad to ask Bennett to comment on the recent 19th place national ranking of the Gaels in a USA Today/ESPN coaches’ poll, the first Top 20 pre-season ranking in Gaels’ history.
Bennett was certainly expecting the question, yet he didn’t answer glibly. Speaking calmly, he said living up to the hype was not going to be easy.
“People think it will be easy — we have the same players and coaches back, plus some good newcomers — but it’s not easy,” Bennett said. “You can’t just assume everyone is going to perform at the same level as last year, that the coaches will be just as good, that we’ll escape injury as we did last year. We have to start all over again and prove ourselves in every game.”
But, he added, the commitment to continued improvement evidenced by the current team gives him confidence that the Gaels’ hopes can be realized.
“Expectations absolutely won’t be an albatross for this team,” Bennett insisted. “These guys get it…they’re the real deal.” He added that the returning players have improved their physical conditioning and their skills, and “the team has improved over last year.”
Expectations affecting everything
Bennett acknowledged that high expectations have increased media scrutiny. “We’ve had more (media) people at practice than ever before — all nosing around,” he said with a resigned shrug that belied his preference for keeping his team under wraps. But, as revealed in a question from Maiocco, it could have been exponentially worse (or better, for those who think publicity is a good thing).
Bennett acknowledged that prickly NBA commentator Charles Barkley approached him earlier this year about including the Gaels in a proposed TV documentary called “Chase for the Final Four.” The other featured teams were to be Syracuse, Connecticut and Kansas. Shuddering over the exposure such a program would give the program, Bennett nevertheless conceded, “We probably would have done it” had not scheduling and other production problems sidetracked the idea.
Bennett’s effort to lower expectations couldn’t dim the giddy atmosphere of the dinner, however. For the first time in my memory, various college officials spoke enthusiastically about fund-raising efforts and physical improvements for Gael athletics. Athletic Director Mark Orr said season ticket sales were the highest in history, and predicted a sellout for the Gaels’ opening game Nov. 11 against Nevada.
College President James Donahue joked that the real reason he accepted the Saint Mary’s job two years ago was because of Bennett’s basketball program, recalling his childhood in basketball-crazy Philadelphia and his tenure as NCAA liaison at Georgetown University in the heyday of John Thompson’s Hoyas. Donahue predicted the long-awaited expansion and enhancement of McKeon Pavilion — including additional seating and much-needed weight-training facilities — would proceed as planned immediately after the 2016-17 season concludes next March.
Toward that end, Bennett noted a recent fund-raising event in San Francisco to bridge the approximately $4 million gap needed to complete the McKeon expansion, labeled the Student-Athlete Performance Center (SAPC). Bennett called the meeting very successful, and other sources stated that some $440,000 was raised for SAPC on that evening.
Madigan resumes primacy
Bennett also indicated the college has basically ceded control of downtrodden Madigan Gym to his team. Refurbished with a new floor, new basketball standards and a repainted roof, along with treadmills and other equipment, Madigan eliminates Bennett’s need to schedule practices in McKeon around the requirements of women’s basketball and volleyball teams. No more 6:30-9 p.m. practice sessions, followed by weight training the following morning, Bennett said, which will improve not only his players’ physical fitness but their study patterns as well.
It seems even the ghost of Slip Madigan is looking over the Gaels as they enter the most auspicious season in college history.
Next: Players and coaches chime in on prospects for 2016-17.
The Two Jocks — Landale and Perry — are front and center as the Gaels pose in their new uniforms at the kickoff to the 2016-17 season. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.