At the end of each year, Gazette columnist David Ramsey selects a Coach of the Year. This year, it's Bill Benton of Lewis-Palmer.
It’s a tradition, of sorts. Bill Benton directs his Lewis-Palmer boys' basketball team deep in the state tournament, and when the ride ends a balding 6-foot-4 tough guy can’t help himself.
Not loudly. Not to bring attention to himself.
He weeps for his players. He remembers all the labor, all the fight and all the fun.
In March, at Denver’s venerable Coliseum, Benton coached his Rangers to the 4A title game against Valor Christian, a private school jammed with all-stars from Greater Denver. L-P lost, which was no surprise.
Minutes after the final buzzer, Benton’s eyes filled with tears.
“I wanted to see them have success,” Benton says, thinking back to the loss. “It was such a special group, and those opportunities don’t come very often. I felt for them.”
This could be the season Benton weeps with joy. His Rangers, with four new starters, play smothering defense and highly efficient offense. They are unbeaten, ranked No. 1 and boast a strong chance to rule 4A.
Purity rules high school games, where friends play beside friends they’ve known since grade school and coaches teach a life lesson here and there while also seeking to reveal the mysteries of help defense.
Benton cares. Intensely. Authentically. Totally. In this way, he’s a typical high school coach. It’s not about money at the high school level. For coaches, it’s about the game and the kids and that nagging, never-dying itch to compete.
“I’ve loved the game since I was a little kid,” Benton says. “With coaching, you get the opportunity to keep doing it when you’re a grown man. It keeps you young.”
“And it makes you old.”
Benton competed in basketball, football and track at Fort Collins High before playing one season at Casper Junior College for coach John Morrison, whose son, Adam, served as the team’s ball boy. Adam was national Player of the Year in 2006 at Gonzaga and a first-round NBA pick.
The coach-in-training adored basketball and especially savored the defensive side and the shoving and hip-checking in the lane. But during his one season at Casper, he encountered his limits. He was surrounded by hungry, talented players. He struggled with knee trouble.
He ended his basketball days and transferred to Northern Colorado, where he formulated a new vision. He wanted to become a high school’s part-time basketball coach and full-time counselor.
He paid his dues, coaching in the eastern plains at Hanover and as an assistant to Russ McKinstry at Lewis-Palmer. He sat beside McKinstry when the Rangers won the 2012 and 2013 4A titles with rosters overflowing with talent. The front line of the 2012 team - Josh and Jordan Scott and Justin Smith – all earned Division I scholarships.
After the 2013 season, McKinstry departed, leaving Benton with a depleted roster and inflated expectations, always a scary combination.
First day of practice, Benton led his players to the L-P trophy case to examine the two title trophies.
“I can’t be coach McKinstry,” Benton told his players. “I won’t be coach McKinstry, just like you guys aren’t and can’t be the players who graduated.”
Benton paused as he stood in front of the trophy case.
“This is the last time we’ll address this,” he said, pointing at the trophies. “We are our own group.”
Two years later, Benton’s Rangers traveled to the state semis. Three years later, the Rangers played for the 4A title. As a player, Benton was a rugged, defense-first big man who labored without ceasing as he chased victory. His teams reflect him.
Jonathan Scott played three seasons at L-P for Benton before moving to Otero Junior College, where he’s averaging 13.4 points and shooting 47 percent from 3-point range this season.
During halftime of a crucial win Dec. 14 over state-ranked Pueblo South, Benton returned to the bench in a half-trance, a grim-faced man in a dark suit. His mind already dwelled in the second half.
Then Benton saw Scott, back home for the holidays.
The men shook hands and laughed and promised they would soon visit.
“He’s like another father to you,” Scott says. “It’s kind of hard to explain. You just have to be there to understand it.”