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Doug Moe: No happy ending for team for the ages

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For years now, my friend Dave Bruns has been telling me I need to write a column about his friend Steve Bennett, as the three of us are all Madison West High School graduates and Bennett happens to have had one of the most successful business careers in recent memory.

A 2003 magazine profile of Bennett was headlined, "The Hottest CEO in Tech."

At that time, Bennett was running a tech company called Intuit — flagship brands included TurboTax and Quicken — after 23 years with General Electric.

Bennett was in the midst of turning Intuit around. During his eight years heading the company, annual revenues increased from less than $1 billion to $2.7 billion.

As a Madison kid made very good, Bennett was certainly column worthy, but I'm an English major, and business stories make me jumpy.

Then, the other day, it hit me — I can call Steve Bennett because he was a starter on the greatest high school basketball team Madison ever produced, a team that went to the boys high school tournament at the UW Field House 40 years ago this week as the overwhelming favorite to win the state championship.

It didn't work out quite that way, which for some of us remains a good lesson in basketball and life. No, strike that. It was a rotten lesson. Truth is, I still want to cry when I think about it.

I was a West sophomore when tournament week commenced in March 1972. I went to all the home games that season, and some of the away games.

The Regents had five senior starters: Bennett, Tom Ritchie, Jim Gardner, Mike Stansell and Bob Falk. Falk, who later played for the Badgers, was the unquestioned star — a jump-shooting scoring machine — but the team's real strength was how well they played together.

"A very unselfish group of guys who pulled for each other," Mike Stansell told me, years later. He was an insurance agent in Hales Corners by then.

When I reached Bennett this week, at his home in San Mateo County, Calif., he chuckled and recalled that Stansell "never lost a tip all year" even though Mike was only a few inches over 6 feet.

That team didn't lose much of anything. They lacked a big man but played a great run-and-shoot offense. They were a little under the radar for a while, because they dropped their second game of the season on the road to a very good Janesville Craig team.

They didn't lose again during the regular season, and how they were beating people began to get noticed. West trounced defending state champion Janesville Parker, 85-59. Then they creamed Madison La Follette, 83-37. Next they destroyed Appleton West, 94-57.

West avenged the Craig loss with a 87-70 victory, and then in the early rounds of the tournament dispatched Mount Horeb (97-67) and Baraboo (100-63).

Before the quarterfinals at the Field House, Cap Times sports columnist Fred Milverstedt wrote, "The Regents are said to be the best team Madison ever produced."

Assistant coach Roger Wiebe told me as much years later. "They were the best team we ever produced."

But after a win in the quarterfinals against Eau Claire Memorial, the unthinkable happened. Just before halftime in the semifinal with Milwaukee Hamilton, Falk hurt his knee going for a steal and had to leave the game.

"What people forget," Bennett said this week, "is that Tom Goldsworthy, our third guard, had hurt his knee the week before."

West lost, 55-47. I walked the whole way home from the Field House feeling sick.

The team may have dealt with defeat better than the fans. All five starters went on and played college sports. Bennett earned a business degree at UW-Madison and starred on the baseball team.

He told me why he left GE for Intuit in 1999. "GE is a big machine. I always wondered how much of my success was due to the machine, and how much was me. I also wanted to come to Silicon Valley."

Today, at 58, Bennett consults and invests in start-ups, while serving on a number of high-profile boards, including Symantec. He gets back to Madison to see his mother, Lou, and spent five years as chairman of the Dean's Advisory Board for the Wisconsin School of Business.

This time of year, Bennett sometimes thinks of his high school basketball days. "It was a great time," he said.

Forty years on, I still wish we could change the ending.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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