Now that the 2019 March Madness has ended with Virginia cutting down the nets in Minneapolis, we can look back at the excitement the tournament gave its fans. And in additon to the excitement of watching big schools getting upset and seeing future stars of the NBA in action at the collegiate level, there was one story that hit close to home for Hobbs Eagle fans.
That story belongs to former Hobbs Eagle and Texas Tech basketball player, Tony Benford. The former Eagle went into the NCAA Tournament as the interim head coach of Louisiana State University following the suspension of head coach Will Wade.
Benford graduated from Hobbs in 1982 where he won two state titles with the Eagles, and then went to Texas Tech. Benford wore the Red Raiders uniform from 1982-86 were he won the Southwest Conference and played in two NCAA Tournaments.
“I left Hobbs High and went to play for coach Gerald Myers at Texas Tech,” Benford said. “Coach Ron Evans, from Hobbs recruited all of us, in what is called the New Mexico pipeline or Hobbs pipeline.”
Steve Smith, Ken Williams, Vince Taylor (current Eagles assistant coach), and Jeff Taylor all joined him at Texas Tech. At Tech he was roommate with cousin Timmy Smith, who went on a football scholarship. And yes, it’s the same Timmy Smith who holds the records for rushing yards in a Super Bowl.
“At Tech we won the Southwest Conference championship my junior year,” Benford recalled of his collegiate career. “We won the (Southwest) tournament and then I was drafted by the Celtics. I was the second pick after Len Bias, I went in the fourth round.”
After four years at Texas Tech, the defending champions Boston Celtics in the fourth round of the 1986 NBA draft selected Benford. Benford’s career in the NBA was not a highlight of his professional career, but it was the stepping-stone to a successful career playing overseas in Holland.
“I went to the Boston Celtics’ camp,” Benford said. “Then I went to the rookie free agent camp and after being released I went to Chicago to the Vernon camp. After that I got released and I went to Europe to play in the Netherlands, to play in Holland.”
Benford spent his professional career playing in Europe and it was a change. Before making the decision to play in Holland, Benford actually toured with a national team.
“I went over on a tour,” Benford recalled. “I went over for a week with the national team. We went to Slavia, Poland, and Holland to play. Then I got a call back and they wanted me to play there. I went to play and it was a great experience, and an adjustment. It was an adjustment being away your family and being overseas and calling them only once.”
FROM PLAYING TO COACHING
Benford credits his time playing overseas in helping him know what he wanted to do after his playing career came to an end. Benford was ready to pursue a career as a coach.
“When I came back I decided what I wanted to do,” Benford said. “ I wanted to be a coach. I always wanted to be a coach because of the influences the coaches had on me. Coach Ralph Tasker was a big influence on me, coach Rob Evans, and coach Gerald Myer those were two guys that had a big influence on me and I knew that I wanted to get into coaching.”
Benford’s coaching career, as an assistant and head coach, is very impressive. Many have him beginning his career as an assistant at the University of New Mexico, and then going to Arizona State University, a stop with University of Nebraska, and a stint in Marquette University. After Marquette, he was given the chance to be the head coach at North Texas. After five years Benford was released from his position, and then became the first assistant hired by Will Wade at Louisiana State University.
“When I came back I was at a junior high school in Lubbock,” Benford said on his first coaching stop after retiring as a player. “I coached there and did a little bit of little league coaching. My wife is from Albuquerque, and went to Texas Tech too; so I applied for couple coaching jobs in Albuquerque.”
“By the time I applied for a couple jobs in Albuquerque,” continued Benford. “Dave Bliss was the coach at the time in New Mexico. A good friend of mine, Carl Grant, had just left New Mexico for a job with Oklahoma State. I stopped by and talked to coach Bliss and coach I stopped by and saw coach Debuoise. They never knew I had interviewed for a couple jobs at the time.”
A week after meeting with Bliss, and with from a glowing referral from his former coach in Texas Tech, Benford was offered the chance to join the Lobos coaching staff. For Benford it was shock to be offered a chance to coach at the college level, something he had dreamed of doing. He just didn’t expect to happen so soon, but he accepted the position and challenge.
“I obviously wanted to be a college coach,” Benford said about getting offered a position at New Mexico. “I said ‘yeah, I would definitely like to try.’ I moved back to Albuquerque and instead of getting a high school job, I got a college job.”
Benford joined the New Mexico bench and was placed as the third assistant to coach Bliss. At the time the NCAA only allowed coaches to have two assistants, so Benford was placed in what they called the learning assistant.
It was difficult first year for Benford as the third assistant. His family was living with his in-laws and he had just had his third child. After the first year Benford talked with Bliss about heading back to Hobbs and taking a high school job.
“After that first year I told coach Bliss I’m going to head back to Hobbs,” Benford said. “The Hobbs coaching staff had asked me if I was interested in coming to Hobbs as they had an opening. Bliss told me that he wanted me here and the next year I was full time. I began recruiting and I was there for six years. We had a lot of success and a lot NBA players.”
Benford left New Mexico in 1998 to join Arizona State and work with coach Rob Evans. The decision to leave the Lobos was difficult for Benford as he had family in Albuquerque, with his wife’s family. He enjoyed that his children were close to their family and had a chance to grow around them, but ultimately they moved to Arizona when Benford joined the Sun Devils’ coaching staff.
“He (Evans) was like family, he was my mentor,” said Benford on joining Evans at Arizona State. “He called and said I need you to join me at Arizona State. He was at Ole Miss at the time, and I joined him at Arizona State. I was there for eight years with coach Evans.”
Benford was an assistant in Arizona State until 2004 and then became the associate head coach from 2004 until 2006. As the associate head coach, Benford was given more responsibility keen to being the head coach. The associate head coach worked on recruiting, running practices, and mentoring.
“At Arizona State with coach Evans we had some success,” Benford recalled. “Then I moved on from there to UTEP for two weeks. Then I went to Nebraska and was there for two years. Then from Nebraska, I went to Marquette with coach Buzz Williams, and I was there for four years. And I was the associate head coach there for two years.”
After Benford left Marquette he finally got the chance to be the head coach of a college program, at North Texas. Benford was the head coach of the Mean Green from 2012-17, amassing a 62-95 overall record and a 30-60 Sun Belt and Conference USA record.
“I finally got my head coaching job back in the state of Texas,” Benford said. “We were there for five years. It was up and down and we had a lot of injuries and it didn’t work out there. After I was let go I got a call two weeks later from coach Wade asking if I would be interested in joining him at LSU.”
“Making decisions,” Benford said on the biggest change from being an assistant to the head coach. “You managing everything from dealing with the media every day, dealing with administration everyday, and you have to manage your coaches. Then you have deal with your student-athletes and make sure they are staying on top of their academics. Then you deal with them and see how they are doing and growing as people and doing socially.”
JOINING UP WITH LSU
Benford joined Wade and the Tigers bench for the 2017 season. Benford was the first assistant coach hired by Wade, and then on March 8, Ben-ford was named the interim head coach of the Tigers when Wade was suspended for talking about a possible recruitment violation in an FBI wire-tap.
“I told the guys it’s not about me,” Benford recalled telling the players after being named interim head coach. “It’s about you guys, I’ve had my experience and time. I told everyone that this is about our players. This team has gone through so much adversity; we lost one of our teammates in Wayde Sims, who got shot before our first practice. It was like losing our brother, it was like losing a son.”
Benford credits the veteran leadership of the players in coming together after the death of Sims, and also in keeping the team together after Wade was indefinitely suspended by LSU. Benford continued to preach to the players and the rest of the coaching staff that they were there for the players, and the spotlight should be on the players not him.
“I got great advice from coach Myers,” Benford said. “He said keep the focus on the kids and don’t go in there and try to change anything. Keep doing what you are doing and make sure the kids are the focus. And make sure you hold them accountable. And coach Rob Evans said the same thing.
“And that’s what I did,” continued Benford. “And that was always my stance when I became a head coach. And I had a great coaching staff and players, and I didn’t make it about me. It was about the team and giving these guys a great experience.”
Benford credits his time at North Texas for preparing him to transition into the interim head coach position. At North Texas he learned to make decisions and how to manage egos, and at LSU there are a lot of egos from talented players. It all prepared him to be ready to coach his first game.
“It was great,” Benford said of his first game as LSU coach. “It was a lot of pressure cause we needed to beat Vandy, even though they were struggling. If we win we won the conference title for the first time in 13 years outright. We didn’t want to share it with Kentucky or Tennessee. We wanted to win it outright, and we had two players out.”
Benford recalled the game at the environment at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center was great, and more importantly the parents of Sims were in attendance and came to the bench. After winning the SEC title, they played against Florida in the SEC tournament.
“We got a bye and played against a very good Florida team,” Benford said of coaching in the SEC tournament. “We knew it was going to be a tough game with both games going into overtime. They beat us in overtime in our place and we beat them in overtime in their place. We jumped out on them early and they came back. It was back and forth late. They beat us with a three-point shot at the buzzer to beat us with one second to go. That was tough.”
After the loss, Benford made sure his players learned from their early exit while getting ready to play in the NCAA Tournament.
RUN TO THE SWEET 16
“When we came back from the SEC Tournament, I said hey guys look it’s time to hit the reset button and regroup,” Benford said. “We are going to the NCAA Tournament and we don’t know who we are playing. But everyone is 0-0; it’s a new season. We knew coach wasn’t coming back and we had to get ready for next week.”
“Coach Wade told me to get the guys focused and locked in so you guys can win some games and make a run in the tournament,” Benford said on the advice Wade gave him before the NCAA Tournament. “This is the goal we worked for all year.”
Benford believes that his team’s ability to hit the reset button and get focused led to their run to the Sweet 16.
“I thought because we hit the reset button and got focused, we were ready to go.” Benford said, “We won a couple games and reached the Sweet 16.”
Benford is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament having gone as a player, assistant coach, and now as a head coach. As a Red Raider, he played against a very talented Georgetown team. As an assistant with Marquette they reached the Sweet 16, and now with LSU he reached another Sweet 16.
“I’ve been there as a player and a coach,” Ben-ford said on the NCAA tournament. “I told them this is your time your time and this is what you worked hard for. I told them to go in relaxed and to enjoy the moment. Have fun, enjoy, play together, and work hard.”
Unfortunately for the Tigers, LSU lost in what Benford called the toughest region of the NCAA tournament. LSU lost to Michigan State, they team that beat heavily favored Duke to reach the Sweet 16.
Benford called Michigan State a very good team, led by veteran leaders and a Hall of Fame coach. That does not mean that he went into the game believing the team would lose, no instead he felt his team had a chance.
“We felt like we could have success,” Benford said. “But they are a really good team. They really took the fight to us.”
Overall Benford felt that despite all the adversity his team faced throughout the year, his players could hold their heads up and know they had a great season.
After falling in the Sweet 16, Benford knows that many are looking to see what the future holds for the former Hobbs Eagle and Texas Tech Red Raider.
“We don’t know what will happen,” Benford said on his future. “I’m still the interim coach, but I hope coach Wade is reinstated as this is his team and his program. We will see what happens in the next couple of weeks, and we had a few guys put their names in the draft. Right now I’m committed to LSU and our program and in helping our guys finish academically strong. We just have to see what happens with our program, and coach Wade and the decision the administration will make in the next couple of weeks.”
“I definitely want to be a head coach again,” Benford added. “Down the road or somewhere next year. I don’t know if that will be possible. I thought the success we had in getting into the Sweet 16. Obviously I didn’t have the success I wanted to at North Texas, but it was a great experience for me. I learned a lot of what to do and what not to do.”
After his performance with LSU, Benford will begin to see his name become associated with many open programs in the future, and it will not be a surprise to see him be given a second chance to lead a team to the NCAA Tournament.