The journey of men’s basketball head coach Tony Benford; from small town to the NBA and back again

The journey of men’s basketball head coach Tony Benford; from small town to the NBA and back again

Head coach Tony Benford stands on the sideline during the game against Texas College. Benford is in the last year of his contract. Colin Mitchell

The journey of men’s basketball head coach Tony Benford; from small town to the NBA and back again
November 30
13:13 2016

From the beginning, Tony Benford knew what his calling was.

“I always knew I wanted to coach,” Benford said.

Benford’s passion for coaching started a long time ago. When he was just a middle schooler in Hobbs, New Mexico, Benford got to experience something not many young basketball players got the opportunity to do.

In Hobbs, and especially in the Benford family, three things mattered: god, family and basketball. Former longtime and historic head coach of Hobbs High School, Ralph Tasker, would hold camps so that he could get a look at the younger prospects in his town.

“That was the goal,” Benford said. “To play for Hobbs High School was everyone’s goal.”

Tasker was monumental in establishing a winning tradition in the hard-working town of Hobbs. Benford lost a total of three games in his entire career from middle school to high school in a town of 30,000 people.

When he got his chance, Benford made the most of it.

Benford was named the New Mexico Player of the Year and a Converse All-American as a senior for a 27.5 points per game clip with Hobbs. He also helped bring his school a state title in his final season, averaging 29 points per contest in the state tournament.

For Benford, he was just continuing a long tradition and expectation of winning.

“Everybody expected to win championships,” Benford said. “It’s all about winning there. We had great role models. It’s hard working people. People who love family and God.”

His high school play caught the attention of a handful of schools, but Benford knew already where he was going. Hobbs native and mentor Rob Evans was at Texas Tech University and had helped establish a pipeline from Hobbs to Lubbock.

Evans is now Benford’s associate head coach at North Texas more than 30 years later.

The Next Level

Benford knew he was going to be a Red Raider under historic coach Gerald Myers. Myers was a Red Raider through and through after being a student-athlete at Tech in the 50s. In his tenure, he won the most games of any Texas Tech men’s basketball coach.

Myers pushed his players and had a brazen personality. He was not always the easiest coach to play for.

Benford was not fazed.

“I was from Hobbs,” Benford said with a laugh. “We knew how to work.”

Myers’ attention to detail is what ultimately helped shaped Benford into the coach he is today.

“He’s a very very good coach,” Benford said. “I learned a lot from him. The thing I took from him is that you have to be detailed. You have to be firm with your student athletes and you have to be a balanced coach on teaching offense and defense.”

Head coach Tony Benford talks during timeout against Drexel. Colin MitchellHead coach Tony Benford talks during timeout against Drexel. Colin Mitchell

Benford changed his play when he arrived in Lubbock.

Hobbs was a high flying offensive power-house that would routinely be near the top in scoring in the nation while Texas Tech played a more half-court style.

The 6’3 guard was a center-piece of a Red Raider team that won Southwest Conference regular-season and tournament titles in 1985. The Red Raiders snagged a 1986 SWC tournament championship while Benford was selected to the All-Southwest Conference team and was named the tournament’s MVP.

“He worked at it,” Evans said. “He worked tirelessly. He studied the game. He wasn’t a great athlete, but he was a good player because he worked at it.”

Benford caught the attention of a handful of NBA teams and, in 1986, Benford was selected by the reigning champion Boston Celtics in the fourth round of the NBA Draft. It was a strange day for the Lakers fan, but he put aside his fandom.

Benford celebrated with family and friends that night, but the next morning he received a call that shook him.

A reporter from the Boston Globe rung.

“He says, ‘have you heard the news?’” Benford said. “I say, ‘no.’”

The Celtics second overall pick, Len Bias from the University of Maryland, was dead. Bias overdosed on cocaine the night he was selected.

“I was shocked,” Benford said. “That was a tough camp. Nobody really wanted to be there. There was a cloud over camp.”

But Benford and the Celtics pushed on. After trying his chops against Larry Bird, Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle and Bill Walton, Benford was released by the Celtics and picked up by the Chicago Bulls. After competing against Michael Jordan in Bulls’ camp, Benford was released again.

After failing to find a home in the NBA, he found an opportunity in the Netherlands. Benford played in Holland for the 1986-87 season before returning home to pursue a career in coaching.

Answering his calling

Europe was a nice change of pace for Benford.

“It was different,” Benford said. “It was a good experience. It was good basketball. After all the pressure of trying to play in the NBA and you don’t quite make it, it was nice. You go over there and everyone wants your autograph and is treating you the right way.”

Benford started off coaching junior high, but quickly found a job in his home state of New Mexico. It was a special time for the Benford family.

Benford then went to Arizona State and held two jobs in a 14-year span. Then in a whirlwind, he accepted a job at Utah State, but never went to Utah. Then the University of Texas at El Paso called, and Benford was there for two weeks before accepting a long-term position at Nebraska University.

He spent two seasons with the Cornhuskers before moving to Marquette University during the prime of the Big East. Benford coached NBA stars Jimmy Butler, Wesley Matthews and Jae Crowder in his time at Marquette, helping the Golden Eagles reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Marquette is where Benford honed his craft, developing a system of inside-outside play with an emphasis on paint touches. After taking the North Texas head coaching job in 2012, Benford modeled the Mean Green program on this strategy.

In his four years at North Texas, the Mean Green has been near the top of Conference-USA in free-throw attempts due to this. Benford and his staff chart every paint touch North Texas takes, and if they are not getting enough, someone will say something.

“Now we don’t make a lot of free throws,” Benford said, chuckling. “But if we can get that number up we’re going to average more points.”

When building his staff at North Texas, Benford knew one key cog he had to have – his old friend Evans. He asked Evans to join his him as an associate head coach after his introductory press conference, and would not take no for an answer

Head coach Tony Benford explains plays during a timeout against Hartford. Colin Mitchell

Head coach Tony Benford explains plays during a timeout against Hartford. Colin Mitchell

Evans had been at Texas Christian University for less than a year and was also being courted by the legendary Larry Brown at Southern Methodist University, but after careful deliberation and a 3 a.m. conversation, he and his wife decided a move to Denton would be best.

The tables had turned.

“I knew that’s where I needed to be,” Evans said. “I felt like I had a lot to offer because he was a new head coach. I wanted to get him off on the right track with sound advice.”

He wanted a man that had seen it all on his bench, and a man he could bounce ideas off of at any time.

“There are times when he’ll text us and email us at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Evans said. “But that’s what you’ve got to do to be successful.”

Why you coach

Benford knows why he coaches, which is something he thinks is necessary. He wants to make an impact on the lives of young men through basketball. Senior guard J-Mychal Reese has been affected by Benford in his time at North Texas after transferring from Texas A&M University.

Reese immediately picked up on the type of coach Benford would be when he first met him.

“He always says if you’re playing hard and working hard, the rest will take care of itself,” Reese said. “He pretty much lives by that and has us thinking the same way. It’s fun to play for him.”

In the final year of his contract at North Texas, Benford has the Mean Green off to a 4-3 start. With just 54 wins and one conference tournament win to his name at North Texas, job security could become a question at the end of the season.

Despite this, Benford knows he’s won when he gets a call from one of his players down the road telling him what they meant to him. As a father and a husband, he wants to help mold his players into role models.

Not too long ago one of his former players got married and shot his former coach a text saying he loved him.

“Stay true to yourself and be genuine,” Benford said. “Those guys that can call me are so rewarding to me. That makes it worthwhile.”

Featured Image: Head coach Tony Benford stands on the sideline during the game against Texas College. Benford is in the last year of his contract. Colin Mitchell

 

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Clay Massey

Clay Massey

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1 Comment

  1. Dwight
    Dwight December 05, 12:53

    An absolutely fabulous man, friend, teammate, and moreover, a great husband to Debbie and a great father of three lovely kids. I was Tony’s roommate and teammate at Texas Tech and I knew what a great coach he would be back then. So proud of his accomplishments.

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