LYNN — Ron Bennett coached for 41 years at Lynn English, beginning in 1965 in basketball; and in 1975 adding baseball to his repertoire.
By the time it was all said and done, in 2006, Bennett had amassed somewhere in the vicinity of 800 wins in both sports combined, according to Jimmy Doyle, his assistant of 32 years, and Paul Halloran, who was sports editor of The Item for much of his tenure. That made Bennett the winningest high school coach in Lynn history.
More importantly, say those who played for him, Bennett set a standard that some felt was difficult to achieve, but others realized, especially later in their lives, was not that difficult, or unreasonable.
“He was a wonderful guy,” said Doyle, who joined Bennett in 1975 and retired, along with him, in 2006, when then-principal Andy Fila opened his basketball job up. Fila had opened up the baseball job in 2003.
“He was misunderstood by a lot of people,” Doyle said. “We have kids who have been fiercely loyal to him, and kids who didn’t like him. That’s the way it is with coaching.”
Count Dick Newton as one of the loyalists.
“There were some kids who were known as ‘Bennett boys,’ kids who followed the rules all the time, and never deviated,” said Newton, the athletic director at English. “There were rules such as no cutting classes, cut your hair, get to school on time. Those were rules that you should go by anyway. If you cared about playing for Lynn English, they weren’t hard rules to follow. He was just setting you up for what you were going to face later in life.”
Bennett, 80, died Saturday at the Kaplan Hospice in Danvers. And, said Newton, while he “wanted to win even more than you did,” he had a less-publicized softer side that friends say defined him much better than his rigid, authoritarian reputation.
“I will tell you,” said Newton, “that every trophy, every jacket, and every banquet he ever threw came out of his own pocket, both for baseball and basketball. He worked hard for the kids he coached.”
Former Swampscott High basketball coach Brian Bagley was the recipient of Bennett’s kindness. Bagley, who played three years for Bennett, lost his father early in his freshman year at Mass. Maritime. About a month later, there was a parents’ weekend, and Bagley knew his mother wasn’t going to be able to get down to Buzzards Bay for it.
“It was shaping up to be a tough weekend for me,” he said. “But then I walked into the cafeteria, and there was my mother and Mr. Bennett. He’d taken her down and we spent the whole day together. Those are things you don’t forget. Mr. Bennett was like a second father to me.”
It proved to be a tough year for Bagley. He dropped out and spent the summer “digging limestone into a crusher.” Bennett introduced him to the late Elmo Benedetto, who helped get him into Boston State, from which he graduated with a teaching degree.
“There are probably thousands of stories like that,” said Lynn Councilor-at-Large Buzzy Barton, a former coach at English and a former player for Bennett.
“He’d do it in his own quiet way,” said Barton. “That’s the kind of guy he was.
“I’m going to miss him,” said Barton. “He’d do things for kids, even after they left school — things you don’t forget. He’s in heaven now.”
Bennett would later, as coach at English, establish the Elmo Benedetto Boys Basketball Jamboree, and scholarship fund, in honor of the man who, in Bennett’s words, “always said that there was a college for every kid.” Much later, in 1999, he was the inaugural recipient of the Elmo F. Benedetto Athletics Award, an honor bestowed on him by the Agganis Foundation.
Bennett was inducted into the English Hall of Fame in 2013, alongside Newton.
Bennett’s requirements of showing up to class on time, not skipping classes, and maintaining a good academic standing were not lost on English assistant principal Gary Molea.
“Not every kid’s going to play college basketball, or baseball,” Molea said. “We’re here to make sure they go to class and follow the rules.
“Mr. Bennett always said, and I agree, it’s a privilege to be a part of a team. It’s not a mandate. You have to follow the rules of the school with regard to academics and conduct, and you have to follow the rules of the coach.
“When I went for the (football coaching) job, I put together a packet, and talked to Mr. Bennett,” Molea said. “He was the one who told me about how he made sure all his athletes had their teachers fill out progress reports to make sure they were doing all right in class. I’d never heard of that before. When I coached, it was something I did year round.”
But Bennett also had his coaching accomplishments too. His 1980 baseball team won the state championship, and in the previous two years, his team won the Eastern Mass title (1979) and the North sectional (1978, which was Newton’s senior year). And of his approximately 800 victories, more than 300 were in baseball — a sport he came to 10 years later than basketball.
Both Bagley and Newton said friendship went out the window when they coached against Bennett.
“I think I coached against Mr. Bennett for 18 years (while at Swampscott),” Bagley said. “It developed into a fierce rivalry. And I can tell you there were a lot of games where, win or lose, we didn’t have a whole lot to say afterward. He really wanted to win.”
“It was always great playing for a guy who you knew wanted to win more than you did,” said Newton. “I loved playing for him because he was going to get the best out of you, and he didn’t pull any punches. He played the best kids and played no favorites.
“And for someone like me, who went on to play baseball in college (St. Leo’s in Florida), that was what I needed,” said Newton. “He prepared me well for college.”
Of course, there are the legendary Bennett stories about his unbending nature. Newton verifies some of them.
“He used to have practices at 8 a.m. on Saturdays, and if you were late, you had to run the entire practice,” he said. “Nobody showed up late.”
When Newton was a sophomore, a state tournament game was scheduled two days after the senior prom. Bennett’s teams always practiced the day before a game. There would be no exception.
“There are all kinds of stories that he scheduled it in the morning, but it was at 4 in the afternoon,” Newton said. “Still, six seniors didn’t show up at it. They were all benched for a state tournament game.”