The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) has been a special place for Jack Bennett and his family.
Jack followed in his older brother Dick’s footsteps and became the head coach of the UWSP men’s basketball team, where he coached both of his sons, and went on to become the all-time winningest coach in program history.
During his final two seasons, the Pointers won back-to-back NCAA Division III National Titles, with his youngest son, Nick, playing a starring role.
This summer, Nick was hired as an assistant coach for rival UW-Whitewater, the fourth-ranked team in the nation, which will travel to play at second-ranked UWSP Wednesday, Dec. 11, at Bennett Court, the Pointers’ home floor that was named in honor of Dick and Jack Bennett.
“There is such a history with us,” said Jack. “It goes back to when my brother took over at Point to rebuild the program, to the time that I got the job in ’96, to the fact that both sons played here.
“And when I answer the question about Nick being an assistant at Whitewater and going against Point, I would simply put it this way: ‘blood runs thicker than water,’” said Jack. “However, I don’t think that does justice to what this situation is. In this case, it’s almost like, ‘some blood runs thicker than other blood.’”
Following high school head coaching stops at Park Falls, Marinette and Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln, where current UWSP men’s basketball head coach Bob Semling was one of his assistant coaches, Jack moved to the college ranks and became an assistant coach at UW-Eau Claire, which was the main rival to UWSP.
Meanwhile, his brother Dick was the head coach at UWSP from 1976 to 1984, where he led the Pointers to a runner-up finish at the 1984 NAIA National Tournament, and went on to become a NCAA Division 1 head coach at UW-Green Bay, the University of Wisconsin and Washington State University.
“Probably the difficult time for me and my brother was the years I was an assistant at Eau Claire and we played them,” said Jack. “His last year at Point was my first year at Eau Claire.
“And then we played his Green Bay teams his first two years in nonconference games,” said Jack. “And that was difficult.”
Jack later coached his oldest son Jay at Rhinelander High School and then was named the head coach of the UWSP men’s basketball team in 1996.
“When I got the Point job, Jay transferred here from (Division II) Michigan Tech,” said Jack. “He was part of our first run of the (four) Conference Titles and actually was part of a couple of great teams.”
After the Pointers won their second consecutive Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) Title in Jay’s senior season in 2000-01, Nick came off the bench for the Pointers as a freshman the next year.
Nick averaged 5.6 points per game in his first season and then moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore and averaged 13.5 points for the 24-4 Pointers.
Semling joined the Pointers’ staff as an assistant coach the next season, when UWSP made its first trip to the NCAA Division III Final Four and advanced to the National Championship Game.
There, Nick scored 30 points and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Division III Tournament, as the Pointers beat defending National Champion Williams College 84-82 on a jumper from Jason Kalsow with 0.2 seconds left to win the 2004 National Title.
“That’s one of those things where the dream comes true,” said Jack. “And with time, it’s come to mean even more.”
After averaging 17.2 points per game as a junior, Nick earned First Team All-American honors after he scored 18.3 points per game as a senior, and UWSP advanced to the Final Four for a second year in a row.
The Pointers went on to win their second consecutive National Title, as Nick scored 18 points in a 73-49 win over Rochester in the National Championship Game, while Jack retired following the season and Semling took over as the team’s head coach.
“We perhaps had three or four kids that should have been or could have been playing Division 1 basketball,” said Jack. “But we were blessed to have them here and for those guys to play at such a high level.
“And it’s continued,” said Jack. “Bob has done one of the more difficult things, and that is to take over a program at the top, and he’s maintained it.”
“We still use Nick as an example of a guy that improved so much throughout his four years,” said Semling. “From his high school senior year to his college senior year, he improved vastly and became such an outstanding player.
“He was a self-made player that was really motivated by good players around him, and he wanted to do something special in his time here,” said Semling.
Following his playing days, Nick joined Semling’s staff at UWSP as a graduate assistant coach for one season and then was at Marquette University for one season before he worked for three seasons as an assistant coach at NCAA Division 1 Florida Gulf Coast University from 2007-08 to 2009-10.
“I’m very happy that he had the guts to spread his wings,” said Jack. “He spent that one year at Marquette as the video coordinator when coach Tom Crean was there, and the three years at Florida Gulf Coast, where he brought in three, four of those guys that played big roles in their tournament run (to the Sweet 16) this year.”
Nick went on to serve as an assistant coach at NCAA Division 1 Texas Pan-American for three seasons, as the team improved from 6-25 in 2010-11 to 16-16 last season, but head coach Ryan Marks and his staff were let go after the season in March.
“At some point, Nick was really looking at, ‘is this an opportunity for me to try something different for a couple of years?’” said Semling. “But Nick had always said that WIAC basketball is so much better than what people really understood, and playing at the lower level Division 1 programs and traveling those three seasons, I think his respect for the WIAC grew even greater.
“And he mentioned a number of times that that might be something that he has an eye on, getting back to being an assistant coach in this league,” said Semling.
“They really did rebuild Texas-Pan Am, but Division 1 can be a very cutthroat business,” said Jack. “And when coach (Pat) Miller at Whitewater expressed great interest, Nick wanted that job.”
In August, Nick was hired as an assistant coach at Whitewater, which won the 2012 NCAA Division III National Championship and has won four WIAC Titles in the last eight seasons, with UWSP winning the other four.
“Whitewater had an opening, and it was one of those things that, I never thought twice about it,” said Semling, who guided the Pointers to the 2010 National Title. “As a coach you’d like to keep your alums and keep them in your own program, but so much of it is just timing and having an opening.
“Whitewater had an opening, and it was a great opportunity for Nick to get back into coaching and to coach back in his home state,” said Semling. “And to be able to coach for a good program and a good head coach in the WIAC.”
“The two most dominant basketball programs in the last 15 years have been Stevens Point and Whitewater,” said Jack. “And now Nick has been blessed to have been a player and coach at this program and now to be able to coach down in Whitewater.
“We’re grateful,” said Jack. “And I think his mother is the most grateful, because he was home for Thanksgiving this year, which is the first time in seven years he’s been able to be home for that holiday.”
When the two teams meet next Wednesday, Jack said he’ll probably hide in the corner of the balcony at the Quandt Fieldhouse and watch the game from there, while Semling is glad to see Nick continue his coaching career.
“It’s not awkward at all because of the fact that Nick means so much to all of us,” said Semling. “You look at back-to-back National Titles, and he’s on two of those team photos up on the wall.
“So we always hope for the best for Nick in his coaching career, and it’s a little fun,” said Semling. “When we get out on the road and you bump into him, we’ll have fun with the rivalry.
“Because he’s still a Pointer deep down,” said Semling. “But he’s fiercely loyal to Whitewater now and trying to help them become an even better program.”
“I’m looking forward to it, and I’m not looking forward to it, if that makes sense,” said Jack. “It’s going to be emotional, and you always want what’s best for your family, and I want to see Nick and his team do very well.
“But there are so many terrific fans that have been part of what we did here, and the fact that they’re playing on that court that’s named after my brother and I, it’s going to mean something,” said Jack. “I just want a great game. Two teams that I think could really have special seasons, go at it hard, and in the end, whoever’s meant to win wins.”