News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Sports Columns

April 15, 2014

AMEY TAKES AIM: Loss of Coach Bennett leaves hole in Marshall

TERRE HAUTE — My email box is a little less busy now, and there’ll be a familiar face missing on basketball trips to Marshall in the future.

Carrol “Nellie” Bennett — truly a one-of-a-kind character — will be buried today.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet hundreds of “favorite” people in my job, but it’s no stretch to say that Coach was near the top of the list. He always had a twinkle in his eye, looking like he had a joke ready or a secret he was about to reveal, but opposing coaches learned he was a lot more than just good-natured.

I covered the Lions a couple of times during my first year at the Tribune-Star in 1971 and 1972 — the team that included his son Steve — but my favorite of his teams came about a year later. Fans in Marshall of a certain age no doubt remember that one with fondness themselves.

As much as I respect all the coaches I know today at every level — up to and certainly including the NBA — I still pine for the times when there wasn’t a stigma attached to simply wanting to outscore your opponent. With apologies to Coach, I’ll put it in Indiana terms — I’m more Branch McCracken than Bob Knight (big Jimmy Rayl fan back in the day).

Well, this early-1970s Marshall team was everything I could have hoped for — not that they were big enough to slow the game down against anybody anyway.

Most of you know Howie Johnson, and at 6-foot-2 and 150 pounds with rocks in his pockets, he was one of the Marshall big men. The other was 6-2 Tom York, while the remainder of the starting five — and I don’t remember the Lions going to the bench often — consisted of 5-10 Mike Volk, 5-10 Karl Prevo and 5-8 point guard Joe Ferris (if I spelled somebody’s name wrong, remember it’s been awhile).

York was good for 20 points a game with jumpers from the key, and Howie may have averaged 35 a game or so — from everywhere. They were fun with a capital F, and I saw them often enough (while also getting to eat banquet fried chicken at Tom’s Restaurant downtown and hitting the occasional pep session) that I got to know the key players, manager Brian Bloodworth and all of the cheerleaders.

They got through one round of tournament play and were playing Lawrenceville, coached by Ron Felling and including one of the Shidler brothers (two more very scary names for eastern Illinois fans of a certain age) for the sectional championship.

When the dust cleared after that one, the Lions had won (I seem to remember a 95-85 score, but it may have been higher than that) and Volk was the hero with 27 points, which was probably at least triple his average. I’ll never forget the first postgame quote.

“It’s funny how things work out,” Coach said with that sly grin of his. He knew how Felling was going to guard York and Howie, and he also knew that for the Indians to do that, they’d be leaving the short corner wide open. Volk practiced 10-foot baseline jumpers the week before the game, and may not have missed a one in the biggest game of his life.

As it turned out, that wasn’t the first team I got to cover at a state championship game, although that night I certainly thought they would be. But it was a fun ride, and one I’ve relived more than once with Coach in the 40 or so years since then. I would tell my old friend to rest in peace, but he’s probably stirring up something right now instead.

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