If you’re a Cougars basketball fan, you know Bart Benton.
For the past two years, you’ve stood, clapping and yelling, as he leads the team out of the tunnel between the two lines of bouncing cheerleaders and high-kicking Cougarettes. You’ve watched him put in the first basket in warm-ups – perhaps comparing his slightly stiff form to the fluidity of one of the starters and secretly wondering how you might look out there. During the game, at different moments, you’ve noted him sitting there, shoulder to shoulder with the other bench players: his bright, infectious smile, the wattage of an arena light. You’ve perhaps chuckled to yourself when you spied kids in the stands holding homemade “Bart Benton” signs. And you’ve cheered maniacally when he enters the game, because by then, the outcome is ensured, and you desperately want to see him shoot, see him score, see him do anything.
For most fans, Bart Benton, a four-year walk-on, is us out on the court. We like to think of this proverbial 12th man as a sedan racing against sports cars, our personal David among Goliaths, an everyday guy who happens to have one of the best seats in the house.
Unfortunately, that kind of thinking is an air ball of comic proportions. Because, as anyone close to the program knows, there’s no cushy seat on the Cougars bench. Each member, from the starting five to the scout team, represents an incredible amount of commitment and sacrifice.
In fact, playing on the Cougars scout team has its own special burden: time. It’s the responsibility of the scout team to learn every opposing team’s offensive schemes in order to run them against the starting players in practice.
“Basically, we have a practice before practice,” Benton explains. “We work with one of the assistant coaches and go through all of the other team’s plays. We’re there an hour before practice, learning and perfecting the opposition. And we do it six days a week.”
This emphasis on the scout team’s preparation has been a new wrinkle for the Cougars under first-year Head Coach Doug Wojcik.
“The scout team, for me, has always been important,” he says. “They’re very influential in our practices. On the scout team, the better the player, the smarter the player, the better our main players are going to be in the game because they were challenged in practice.”
Attend a practice and you’ll see immediately what Wojcik means. At times plays get whistled dead for practice squad miscues. A player on the scout team doesn’t get a pass from the coach when it comes to concentration, energy or execution. Intensity is required in every drill, every play.
“I hold my walk-ons accountable just like I hold a starter accountable,” Wojcik says. “The same standards apply to them as they do to the kids that start and play. In that regard, I was a huge change for Bart.”
“Yeah, he’s a maniac,” laughs Benton about Wojcik’s passion and ferocity on the court, “but he’s a really good guy. We didn’t do the practice squad quite like that before he arrived. It’s intense now. And that’s a good thing for the team.”
For Benton, the team – as a concept and in reality – is the most important thing. It’s what he was always looking for when he chose the College. Like his teammates, Benton has a similar lifelong love affair with basketball, getting his first hoop when he was a toddler and playing organized ball since fourth grade. As a high school player at George Walton Academy in Monroe, Ga., he was a local star, earning three all-county selections as well as all-region and all-region tournament honors and team MVP his senior year. He knew he could probably play Division III and be a major contributor, but he always wanted to experience the Division I level, with a chance to make it to March Madness.
And on cue, fate stepped in. Benton had been working out at the Suwanee Sports Academy with Kevin Cantwell, a former assistant coach under Bobby Cremins at Georgia Tech. When Cantwell learned that Benton wanted to go to the College, he called Cremins to see if he needed another player. Cremins told Cantwell that he always needed a good kid on his team. And just like that, Benton arrived at the College as a non-scholarship walk-on.
But Benton never took this opportunity for granted.
“I know what my role on the team is,” Benton says. “I need to be the guy with the good attitude, who leads by example, trying to give it 100 percent every day, whether in the weight room, on the practice court or in the classroom.”
And he has. Last spring, Benton earned strength-and-conditioning All-America honors. A self-described political junkie and a high performer in the classroom, he qualified for the communication department’s Mentor-Protégé Program, in which he was paired with Tucker Eskew, a Republican political consultant and major player in President George W. Bush’s administration. And next year, he’s off to law school in Georgia.
But before becoming a legal eagle, Benton focused on finishing strong as a Cougar and added a few more moments to his personal highlight reel: a buzzer-beating assist in the Towson game and a raucous, game-opening three-pointer against Wofford on Senior Night. After that, if all goes according to his plan, it’s a career in business law and, just maybe, a life in politics.
And knowing Bart Benton, he’ll again take center stage and bring another arena crowd to its feet.
Photography by Reese Moore