Remembering Benny Dees’ Wyoming legacy

GoWyo.com

(Laramie, WY) – University of Wyoming From 1987 to 1993, the University of Wyoming mens basketball team was coached by Benny Dees. Dees had an overall record of 104-77 and helped the Cowboys to NCAA and NIT appearances.

Benny passed away Tuesday at age 86.

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University of Wyoming Sr. Associate Athletics Director and broadcaster Kevin McKinney wrote a commentary about Dees’ legacy. That article in full can be found below.

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Benny Dees could light up a room.

He could light up an official, too. When that side surfaced, his red face and full head of white hair was something to see. That side rarely got the best of him.

I’m terribly saddened by his passing on Monday following a lengthy illness. He was 86

What I remember most about him is that smile, and his ability to laugh out loud, and make us laugh right along with him.

When I think of Benny I get a warm feeling of many great times and memorable games. He was the Cowboys’ head basketball coach from 1987-88 through 1992-93. As with any coach, there were ups and downs during his tenure. Twice his teams won at least 20 games. He took the Pokes to an NCAA tournament. He posted 104 victories. But there were a couple of leaner years too.

One thing about him that never wavered during his time here was his marvelous sense of humor.

He made people feel comfortable around him, as if he’d known them forever.

He had a way of putting things in perspective, and that perspective was due in part, I believe, to his ability to laugh at himself.

He was a fierce competitor all right. He wanted to win as badly as anyone I’ve known. Yet, he made sure you knew that he knew it wasn’t rocket science. Coaching and winning were important, but not the most important. Relationships were what it was all about in Benny Dees’ book.

Loving his family was everything. Loving his players was everything. Friends, of which he had many, were everything. One of his best in the coaching world was The Bear, Don Haskins.

His wife, Nancy, his three children, Jennifer, Johanna and Josh and his grandchildren were his world. It is a lovely family.

He came to Wyoming in 1987 when it was the best of times for Cowboy basketball. For a new coach, however, it was a challenging time. The Pokes had just completed one of the best years in school basketball history. They had won 24 games and made it all the way to the NCAA’s Sweet 16.

That team was returning virtually intact, including eight seniors. That was the fun part. But amazing expectations were the challenging part.
With that sense of humor of his he told me one day that if the ’88 Pokes won every game and beat the Boston Celtics it might not be enough.

But there was never a hesitation in his mind about taking the Wyoming job.

He loved Wyoming.

He came to UW from Georgia in the late 1950’s to play basketball and baseball. Playing for the legendary Ev Shelton he found out about the tradition of Cowboy basketball. He was a member of Wyoming’s 1957-58 Skyline Conference Championship team.

Benny always credited Shelton with the development of his coaching philosophy. “My teams shot more times in a minute than his did in a game,” he would laugh. “But he taught me a sound, fundamental approach to the game. He taught me about defense. That’s what I tried to teach my teams.”

He also lettered two years for the Poke baseball team and was an all-conference third baseman. He loved that game too.

Coaching the game of basketball was extremely important to him. But so were the kids he coached. He and his staff brought in some of the most talented basketball players in school history. Names like Slater, Ratliff, Brown, Breaux, Higgins, Davis, Bryant, Henry and Page were as talented as any ever recruited here. All of them were special to Benny.

Some of them would tell you he saved their lives.

“He touched so many people,” the great Reggie Slater says of his former coach. “When my mother passed away, he knew how devastated I was. He stepped in and took me under his wing, probably more than most coaches would have.

“He was funny and a great guy to be around. . .most of the time,” Reggie laughs. “I will remember him for how much he cared about us, and how much he cared about Wyoming. He had such a positive impact on so many.”

I happened to be in Athletic Director Paul Roach’s office the night he offered Benny the job vacated by Jim Brandenburg, who had taken the San Diego State job. At the time, Benny was the highly successful head coach at the University of New Orleans, a program that he had turned around in two years.
I could hear him say through the phone, ‘hell yes I’ll take the job’. He told Paul he could be here tomorrow if necessary. Then he told him how proud he was to be offered, and to be coming back to Wyoming.

The Sports Information Director at New Orleans called me early the next morning and said that Benny had left a message saying he was going to Wyoming. “That’s all he said,” the SID told me. “I’m not sure if he’s going up there to vacation or coach basketball.” I told him it was to coach basketball.

Benny was a good basketball coach. While he learned defense from Shelton—he was the defensive coach for Wimp Sanderson at Alabama for example—he knew something about offense too.

During that first season with Fennis Dembo, Eric Leckner and that outstanding team, the Cowboys reached the century mark six different times. Unfortunately, one of those 100-point nights came in the first round of that 1988 NCAA Tournament, against a team that had more offense than any team in the country, Loyola Marymount. In fact, it was one of the most prolific offensive teams in collegiate basketball history.

The Cowboys lost that first-round game, 119-115. Naturally, the fan base was upset, since most around the state thought that Wyoming would win the national title. Despite the abrupt ending, the Cowboys still won 26 games that season! Benny’s 1990-91 team also posted a 20-win season.

A native of Mt. Vernon, Ga., Benny began his coaching career in 1958, the year he graduated from UW, at Ware County High School in Waycross, Ga. His major college head coaching career began at Virginia Commonwealth in 1967. After two years there, he joined the Western Kentucky staff. He actually got out of college coaching in 1973 and became a high school administrator, but returned in 1977 as an assistant at Georgia Tech. In 1981 he joined Sanderson’s Alabama staff, and became New Orleans’ head coach in 1985.

When he accepted the Wyoming job, he became only the third UW graduate in school history to guide the Cowboy basketball program.  The other two were Bill Strannigan and Moe Radovich. Benny was always very proud of that.

With Benny’s passing a special coaching chapter in Cowboy basketball history is closed. He was one of my most unforgettable characters.  I have lost a friend, and so has Wyoming.

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