YAKIMA — Central Washington, an NCAA Division II university, made Division I headlines Friday by firing football coach Blaine Bennett.
The dismissal came only five days before Wildcats players are scheduled to report for preseason workouts, and 29 days before CWU opens its season at home against Texas A&M-Kingsville.
John Picha, a former Wildcat player, Central graduate and longtime assistant coach, has been named interim head coach. A CWU news release said a national search for a permanent coach will start this fall.
Thursday night, Bennett spoke with the Herald-Republic via cellphone from a staff retreat at a lodge in the Yakima River Canyon, expressing optimism about his sixth season at Central.
Picha, meanwhile, was asked to meet with first-year athletic director Dennis Francois on Friday morning and was offered the interim position. When Picha accepted, Bennett was informed of the school’s decision.
A source speaking on the condition of anonymity said Bennett refused a request for his resignation.
Reached Friday afternoon, Bennett was asked if he was given an explanation for his removal. “No,” he said. “You’ll have to ask the president (James Gaudino) or the athletic director.”
Bennett added that he had been in contact with Gary McNeil of the Washington Education Association and would also consult an attorney.
Francois, who began his duties in mid-June after replacing the retired Jack Bishop, was contacted by the Herald-Republic, and said, “Since my arrival, I’ve had a chance to review various parts of our athletic department and came to the conclusion that we needed to go in a new direction with our football program.
“I can’t really go into much detail, however there were numerous things that led to this decision.”
The decision, and its timing, make the move Central’s most profound athletic personnel event since the forced resignation of legendary men’s basketball coach Dean Nicholson in 1990.
Bennett, 48, is a Walla Walla native who spent part of his youth in the Kittitas Valley while his father, Blaine “Shorty” Bennett was a highly successful coach at Ellensburg High School.
The family later moved to Walla Walla, where Blaine Bennett was a star quarterback for his dad and graduated in 1983.
He later played for Shorty Bennett at Whitworth College before embarking on a coaching career that included assistant stints at several places before Bennett became Western Oregon’s head coach in 1995.
Following five years with the Wolves, Bennett assisted Joe Tiller at Purdue from 2001-2005 and John L. Smith at Michigan State in 2006. He was the Spartans assistant head coach and wide receivers coach.
Bennett came to Central in 2008, following ex-Wildcat quarterback and assistant coach Beau Baldwin, who had guided the Wildcats for one season. Baldwin then took the head coaching job at Eastern Washington after Paul Wulff was hired at Washington State.
Having compiled a 41-16 record that included four GNAC championships in five years at Central, Bennett said Friday, “It has been a privilege to have been the head football coach at Central Washington University. I am particularly pround of the student athletes on this year’s team and I wish them every success both on and off the field.
“Also, I would like to thank the Ellensburg community, for myself and my family, for the truly wonderful treatment we’ve received since moving back to the Kittitas Valley. Of course, I’d like to thank the exceptional coaches we’ve had, and I am proud of the successes we’ve had, particularly the 2009 team that was probably one of the best to ever wear a Central uniform. And I believe we’ve improved the image and perception of our program, not only on the Central campus but throughout the conference, the Pacific Northwest and even nationally. We’ve done it the right way.”
Bennett’s two sons, B.J. and Matt, are on the 2013 team. B.J. Bennett will be a redshirt sophomore receiver who last year served as holder for field goals and extra points, and Matt Bennett will be a true freshman, having graduated last spring from Ellensburg High School.
The 47-year-old Picha, meanwhile, came to CWU as an offensive lineman from Wenatchee Valley College, played two years for the Wildcats and became a graduate assistant in 1988.
He has been a full-time assistant for the past 18 years.
“I’m honored to be asked to lead the program and I’m excited about the challenge,” Picha said in a university news release. “We’ve got a good group of returning players and we’ve been able to add some transfer students and freshmen who will help. The GNAC is a tough conference, but we’re going to compete very well.”