On March 7th, a Yahoo Sports report indicated that LSU head coach Will Wade’s made a concrete offer to a player based on FBI wiretapped calls. In the wake of the announcement, athletic director Joe Alleva suspended Wade indefinitely alongside star freshman Ja’vonte Smart, who would later be reinstated after one game for his cooperation with LSU and the NCAA.
Wade’s assistant coach Tony Benford took over on an interim basis amidst the turmoil. The 3rd-seeded Tigers survived their first-round matchup without Wade, holding off No. 14 Yale by 5. The win set up Saturday’s second-round tilt with No. 6 Maryland (12:10 p.m. EST, CBS).
This isn’t Benford’s first rodeo, as he’s been in the coaching ranks for 27 years. Here’s what you need to know about the 55-year old.
1. He’s 2-1 as the LSU Interim Coach
Benford’s first assignment was a layup, as LSU dismantled Vanderbilt 80-59. The Commodores were winless in SEC play this season, but the triumph gave LSU its first regular-season conference title since 2009.
His first challenge came in the SEC Tournament last week in Nashville, when the Tigers dropped a 76-73 decision to Florida. Officials assessed him a technical foul that led to a 6-point play for the Gators for a 66-63 lead with 3:45 left. Benford also went to a 1-3-1 defense in the final seconds that gave the Gators more room to operate for a winning shot by Andrew Nembhard.
Despite the initial mistakes, he kept a positive attitude going into the NCAA Tournament opener versus Yale.
“When we got back, we hit the reset button,” Benford said at the Sunday press conference before traveling to Jacksonville. “It’s a new season. We’re 0-0 like everyone else in the country.”
The Bulldogs entered with a prolific offense led by NBA Draft hopeful Miye Oni. Benford kept the defensive scheme simple, having his long-limbed players swarm Oni man-to-man. The Yale guard only managed 5 points.
Benford personally deflected the credit, instead giving it to Tigers guard Marlon Taylor.
LSU interim coach Tony Benford credited the defense of Marlon Taylor.
“He’s one of the best athletes in the SEC. Really good defender. Marlon is about 6’5″, 6’6″. We told him it’s going to be a challenge. Oni is a really good player, he’s a pro prospect, and I thought Marlon did a really good job of really being there on the catch and making it difficult for him to get to the rim, and I thought he challenged his three-point shots really well. So I thought Marlon Taylor did a really good job.”
Now he’s back over .500 in his fledgling LSU career.
2. He Coached at North Texas Before Will Wade Hired Him as an Assistant
Benford ran the North Texas program for 5 seasons, posting a 62-95 record overall and 30-60 mark in Sun Belt and Conference USA play.
He was fired in March 2017 for failing to make the conference tournament with an 8-22 record, including just a 2-16 mark in conference.
“After spending this season evaluating our men’s basketball program, we have determined that a change in leadership is necessary,” director of athletics Wren Baker told MeanGreenSports.com. “Tony and his staff have worked tirelessly for five seasons to help our student-athletes grow academically, socially and competitively. I am appreciative of those efforts. However, I believe we can compete for championships and, unfortunately, we have fallen short of those expectations.
“This is a highly attractive job that is located in one of the most talent-rich areas of the country and, in my opinion, the best region of the country to live in. I couldn’t be more excited about the future of the program.”
North Texas has posted 20-plus win seasons in each of the seasons since Benford left. Soon after, Wade turned to Benford to assist him at LSU, citing his prowess on the recruiting trail.
“Tony is the next step in our efforts to build a winning basketball program that all LSU fans can be proud of,” Wade said upon hiring Benford.
“His experience as both a head coach and longtime assistant on the recruiting trail will help us in our stated mission to recruit the best players that want to come to LSU and make LSU a consistent winner.”
There were off-the-court issues, too. In 2017, a North Texas student alleged she was raped by three members of the basketball team and was later asked by one of them to join an escort service. One player and a team manager were arrested for promoting prostitution, while another player was arrested for drug possession.
3. As an Assistant, He Helped Develop Such Future NBA Stars as Jimmy Butler
Benford is from New Mexico, and found work after his playing career coaching assisting Fran Fraschilla at UNM after a short stint at a junior high.
Benford then went to Arizona State and held two jobs in a 14-year span. He almost accepted a job at Utah State, but decided not to make the trip. He then took another job at UTEP, and but left after 2 weeks to accept a long-term position at Nebraska University.
He spent two seasons with the Cornhuskers before moving to Marquette University during the prime of the Big East. Benford coached NBA stars Jimmy Butler, Wesley Matthews and Jae Crowder in his time at Marquette, helping the Golden Eagles reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
His efforts landed him a spot at North Texas.
4. He’s One of the Best Coaches That Used to Be a Player in This 2019 NCAA Tournament
A native of Hobbs, New Mexico, Benford went about 100 miles northeast to college, playing guard for Texas Tech from 1982-86.
ESPN ranked all 68 NCAA tournament coaches as players. Benford, a 6-foot-4 guard, was 8th. He earned All-Southwest Conference honors in 1985-86, leading the Red Raiders with 14.4 points per game, once drilling three straight game-winning shots in an eight-day span against Houston, Arkansas and Rice.
“That,” Benford said with a chuckle, “was about 100 pounds ago.”
“I think the way you’d characterize Tony was he had a lot of intangibles,” said Don Williams, longtime sports writer for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “He was a guy who rose up at the big moments. He was a guy you were confident in when he had the ball in his hands late.”
He was a fourth-round pick in the 1986 NBA Draft of the Boston Celtics and played professionally in Holland during the 1986-87.
5. His Wife is Named Deborah and He has 4 Children
Per his LSU bio, Benford and his wife Deborah have four children: Jeremy Soria, Audriana, Tony, Jr., and Milena.