Hoosier Halo - Coach's broken neck inspires team

Friday, March 8, 2002

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Kathi Bennett smiles when asked about the contraption screwed into her skull.

The halo brace she wears looks uncomfortable and awkward. But for the Indiana women's basketball coach, things are fine. She is alive and doing reasonably well, considering she's coaching with a broken neck, and her team is playing its best as it enters the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995.

"I'm just so thankful," Bennett said, knowing how much worse the Feb. 8 automobile accident could have been. "The break was right near my artery. So for the first 24 hours, I was in critical care and I couldn't move. If I did, I would have stroked out."

It's not as if she moves that easily now.

To turn, she must pivot with her entire body, and her walk is deliberate. When the Hoosiers celebrated their first Big Ten tournament championship Monday night in a pile of bodies, Bennett was limited to watching from the side and pumping her fist.

The halo is used to stabilize the second vertebrae in her neck, which was broken in two places after she was hit while making a left-hand turn in Bloomington. She was cited for the accident, in which she was the only person injured.

Bennett said she remembered little about the accident -- except waking up and knowing immediately something was wrong.

"I knew it was pretty serious because of the pain. I felt like, 'How could it hurt this much if there wasn't something wrong?"' she said. "But then I thought, 'Maybe it's not as bad' because I could move my hands and my feet."

In the hospital, Bennett said, the pain gave her migraine headaches and the painkillers made her ill.

Her parents -- her father is former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett -- rushed to be at her side.

But basketball never was far from Kathi Bennett's mind.

Point guard Heather Cassady tells of arriving at the hospital a few days after the accident and having Bennett talk only about Minnesota, the Hoosiers' next opponent.

Her father even watched a couple practices and offered his advice -- to the team and his daughter.

"He told me that what you work your entire career for, in building a system, doesn't go away in a week," she said.

A little more than two weeks later, Bennett saw that for herself.

Back on the sideline

She returned to the bench with four screws inserted into her skull and an 8-pound brace strapped over her shoulders and running almost to her waist.

Bennett, in her second season at Indiana, does what she still can -- sometimes calling plays and talking during timeouts -- but she is limited.

Assistant coach Trish Betthauser, who has been at Bennett's side for the past six seasons, calls out the plays, makes the substitutions and strolls the sidelines as Bennett once did.

"It's been enjoyable to work with the team in this particular fashion," Betthauser said. "I feel like anything we've done has been done as a complete staff."

And as a complete team, since the players have come closer together.

The difference has been demonstrated on the court. Two days after Bennett's accident, the Hoosiers lost 79-55 to in-state rival Purdue. Afterward, Betthauser instructed the team to change its mindset.

Since then, the Hoosiers have changed course.

They won their next three games, then knocked off Iowa, Purdue and Penn State -- teams the Hoosiers had gone 0-5 against during the regular season -- to win the tournament and an NCAA bid.

The inspiration, most players said, was Bennett.

"What happened to coach, that was real," freshman Jenny DeMuth said. "After that we pulled together as a team."

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