In the shadow: Baylor DC Phil Bennett defends his record

Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett looks onto the Baylor vs. Lamar game on Sept. 12. Baylor defeated Lamar 66-31. Photo credit: Trey Honeycutt

By Shehan Jeyarajah, City Editor

It’s 2 p.m., and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is preparing for Wednesday practice in his office overlooking Baylor’s outdoor facility.

From the second you walk into his office, Bennett oozes intensity and fire. As we begin speaking, he opens letters and answers questions with the same voracity he exhibits on the sideline at McLane Stadium.

He knows the criticism his defense has gotten since he’s been at Baylor. He knows Baylor is perceived as an “offensive” school that can’t stop anyone. He knows head coach Art Briles is beloved while he at times is maligned. He knows the days of a No. 1 overall defense may be behind him with the way the game is shifting.

But from the moment he begins speaking, it is clear: Phil Bennett could not care less what anyone else thinks. And he’ll let you know it.

“I know what we do here and I know that it works,” Bennett said. “Anyone who wants to b—- about two Big 12 championships can go jump in a lake.”

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In many ways, Briles and Bennett are perfect complements. Both were born on the same day: Dec. 3, 1955. Briles has roots in West Texas. Briles is an offensive guru who has led seven top-10 offenses. Bennett is a defensive mastermind who has led seven top-10 defenses.

The two played against each other in 1976, with Briles’ Houston squad beating Bennett’s Texas A&M powerhouse. The two went at it again in the mid-2000s while Bennett was coaching at SMU and Briles was coaching at the University of Houston in Conference USA.

“We had some great games. Great games,” Bennett said. “I thought we played them pretty well, but I said to myself, this was the best offensive playcaller and offensive guy I have ever coached against. He didn’t care whether he ran or passed, he would find a way to take advantage. That’s the kind of guy I wanted to be around.”

Eventually, Briles took the head-coaching job at Baylor in 2008, while Bennett was let go after a disappointing 1-11 record in 2007.

After only two years at the helm, Briles led a revitalized Baylor squad to its first bowl game in 16 years. The Bears played at Reliant Stadium in the Texas Bowl.

Among those in the crowd? Phil Bennett.

Bennett’s stepdaughter, Katie White, is a Baylor alumna and former varsity soccer player. At the time, Bennett was the interim head coach at Pitt and would coach the Panthers to a BBVA Compass Bowl win less than two weeks later.

During his time off, Bennett sat in the end zone and watched the Bears give up 38 points and 533 yards of offense in a 38-14 upset loss to Illinois.

Bennett traveled back to Pittsburgh, Penn., after the game, and received a phone call when he got back. Art Briles was on the other end.

Briles told Bennett that he was thinking about making a change at defensive coordinator and Bennett was at the top of his list.

“It was like destiny,” Bennett said. “He said ‘with my offense and your defense, we’d win this thing.’ I’m sure at the time, not many people believed him, but I believed him.”

Briles did not get technical about why he decided to bring Bennett in.

“He’s a dang good defensive coordinator, one of the best in the country,” Briles said. “If Baylor’s one of the best programs in the country, why not have the best coaches?

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From top to bottom, Baylor defensive goals are perfectly set out.

Force turnovers. Limit red zone opportunities. Force three-and-outs. Don’t allow points. Limit big plays.

“You have to have a system and you can’t just change it from week to week,” Baylor linebacker coach and defensive recruiting coordinator Jim Gush said. “You can make tweaks, but you have to stick with your system. When you show players that you have a system and you want to do the same thing every week.”

These are easier said than done, especially against some of the most high-powered offenses in college football playing in the Big 12.

The first season Bennett arrived in Waco, things began to change. Robert Griffin III swooped in and won the Heisman Trophy during Bennett’s first season, and the entire tenor of the program began to change.

While the effect was there, the defense statistically was worse than it was under former defensive coordinator Brian Norwood.

“Art never lied, he never told me he was going to change his offense,” Bennett said. “Right from the very beginning, it was about finding someone who could compromise and succeed.”

Under Norwood, Baylor’s defense held opponents to 412 yards per game and 29 points per game. Bennett’s defense allowed 493.4 yards and 37.2 points per game during his first two seasons in Waco.

The struggles came to a head during the first half of the 2012 season. Coming off a 10-win season, the Bears limped out to 3-4 start, with bad losses against TCU and Iowa State.

At that point, Baylor was on pace for the worst defense in the history of college football.

“We struggled, it shakes your confidence at times,” Gush said. “But we never lost faith in what we were doing.”

The results finally began to show themselves over the next few weeks.

Baylor lost to Oklahoma in their next game, but finally showed a spark on defense. The next week against No. 1 Kansas State, Baylor dominated from the opening whistle and made a huge turn.

Over the last five games of the season, Baylor held its opponents to 462.2 yards per game, nearly 100 yards less than the previous seven games. The Bears played four ranked opponents over that stretch, going 3-1.

“I still very much believe defense wins championships,” Gush said. “And we have consistently gotten better since Coach Bennett has gotten here.”

The real difference has come since the beginning of the 2013 season. Bennett’s defenses have held opponents to 373 yards per game and 24.6 points. The Bears have outgained opponents by 250 yards per game and outscored teams by four touchdowns.

Most importantly, Baylor football has posted a 28-4 record with two Big 12 championships over that three-year stretch.

“Some people like to do what they do, they really struggle with change. Phil has embraced it,” Gush said. “I’ve only been anything but a defensive coordinator under Phil Bennett. I think he’s the best defensive coordinator in America.”

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Baylor football brought back 18 of 22 starters this season, including nine on the defensive side of the ball. The Bears came into the year ranked No. 4 in both polls.

The Bears might have the best team in college football, but expectations are as high as they have ever been in Waco.

Bennett acknowledged that at times, the start to this season has been difficult. The Bears allowed a combined 52 points to one-win SMU and FCS Lamar the first two weeks of the season.

“I mean think about it, we lose Shawn [Oakman] and Orion [Stewart] right before the first game. Then the first throw, the first play of our season, we allowed a 46-yard touchdown,” Bennett said.

Since then, the Bears have found their stride. Baylor is holding teams to only 3.1 yards per rush and helping the Bears beat teams by an average margin of 41 points per game.

Even with the success, Bennett isn’t bothered.

“I didn’t have to come to Baylor to prove myself as a defensive coordinator,” Bennett said. “A lot of people who come here forget where they’ve been. I’ve had No. 1 defenses before. With the way we play, I’ll probably never have one again.

“But here, I might get the ultimate goal, that team prize. That’s what it’s all about.”