SOMETIMES IT TAKES A life-altering experience to re-direct a person’s focus in life. Just ask David Bennett, who once coached his Coastal Carolina football team in front of 107,000 fans at Penn State and now will lead newly formed River Bluff High before a smattering of parents and friends in what amounts to an exhibition season ahead.
Three years ago, Bennett believed he was set for the long haul as the first coach at Coastal Carolina. Then he was unceremoniously dumped with no valid reason given for why Coastal Carolina no longer wanted his services despite a 63-39 record in 11 seasons, including four Big South Conference championships.
“It teaches you what really matters, those relationships,” Bennett said this week over lunch as he prepared to conduct his initial meeting of River Bluff coaches as the school’s first athletics director. “My wife and I have had more time together. We’ve spent more time with our children.”
Following a year as athletics director at Socastee High, a year in which he did not coach, Bennett also spent more time with athletes in all sports. The experience reinforced for Bennett why he chose coaching as a profession.
“These kids in high school, it’s a four-year window,” Bennett said. “It’s a small window that’s going to shape them for the rest of their lives. We get to be part of that.”
Coming out of graduate school at Clemson, Bennett was set to accept a job as plant supervisor for Sea Pro Boats in Winnsboro, which was owned by his former Presbyterian College suitemate, Tommy Hancock.
Then Bobby Carlton, the football coach at Goose Creek, called and asked for two weeks of preseason camp assistance in dealing with quarterbacks and running backs.
“We’ve got coach Bennett as a guidance counselor and offensive coordinator, if he’ll stay,” Bennett recalled Carlton telling the team at the end of camp. “But he can go make more money running a boat company.”
One by one the players lined up and pleaded with Bennett to remain as their coach.
“I had to call my buddy on the pay phone and tell him, ‘I’m not coming to work at the boat factory,’ ” Bennett said. “It’s about those kids. It’s about the relationship you have with those kids. That will carry you.”
Bennett said those relationships carried him through successful runs at Catawba College, where he was 63-17 in eight seasons, and at Coastal Carolina, where he became as well-known for a YouTube-sensation rant about barking dogs as he was for winning football.
The firing jolted the 51-year-old Bennett while also leading him back to his roots in the profession. Now, instead of overseeing 100 football players as a college coach, Bennett can connect with and affect the lives of 500 athletes as a high school coach and athletics director.
The 2012-13 school year at Socastee High also allowed Bennett to better realize that there is more to athletics than football, particularly at the high school level.
Upon meeting Phil Savitz, River Bluff’s new boys soccer coach, Bennett was curious about one thing: How many pep rallies did Savitz experience for his 14 state championship teams in 33 years at Irmo High?
“What?” Bennett said Savitz replied.
“How many pep rallies did you have for soccer?”
Savitz did not have to say anything. Bennett knew the answer.
“We’re going to have pep rallies for all our sports,” Bennett said. “That’s what it’s about. It’s not just about football. Look, people pay to see football. It’s a love of our state and of the southeast. But ...”
Bennett said he enjoyed holding the gate open for the Socastee marching band as much as he did cheering the football team. His eyes light up when he tells of getting the Socastee band, cheerleaders, dance team, ROTC and chorus to choreograph pregame ceremonies. Not surprisingly, the River Bluff band director was included in the meeting of coaches this week.
That ability to connect all activities on campus caught the attention of Luke Clamp, River Bluff’s principal, during the athletics director interview.
“He emphasized the coach as servant, a leader and a teacher,” Clamp said. “He was very excited and eager to see and connect with every student-athlete on campus.”
This past weekend, Bennett put his young football team through its first preseason camp. The athletes, and Bennett’s coaching staff, spent two nights and three days at the school, sleeping on cots and bonding as a team. The weekend’s highlight was a viewing of “Remember the Titans” on the stadium’s new video board.
Following camp, one player stopped by Bennett’s office.
“Coach, thanks for being here,” said Phoenix Henke, a freshman defensive lineman. “Thanks for taking this job.”
Bennett paused, perhaps reflecting to his beginnings in the coaching business.
“Hey,” he said, “I’m honored to be here.”