SALT LAKE CITY — Deb Bennett dedicated her life to giving girls the very opportunities that weren't offered to her.
But the Skyline High head girls basketball coach isn't bitter about it. In fact, she feels quite the opposite.
After nearly three decades of making it possible girls to learn the lessons athletics offers, Bennett feels she's gained as much from her efforts as they have. Which is what made her decision to step down as the Eagles head coach so gut-wrenching.
"We had tears and we hugged," she said of Monday afternoon's meeting with her players. "It was the right decision, but it's hard. The hardest part is the reason you coach is because of the kids. Every year I look at them and say, 'They're so talented; they have so much potential; their so good and so much fun, I can't quit. I've been so fortunate to work with great kids over the years. It was a bitter sweet moment."
It ends one of the state's most impressive careers for a girls basketball coach as she leaves with a 327-110 record. Under Bennett's leadership, the Eagles earned a spot on the playoffs 19 straight seasons. She won 11 region titles and two state championships (2006 and 2008). Her teams finished twice two other times. Eagles assistant coach Lynette Schroeder will replace her as head coach.
What Bennett she received from the sport can't be quantified in numbers.
"Life lessons, enjoyment, an incredible opportunity to learn and grow with a group of people who have influenced and shaped me," she said. "I can't imagine who I would be and what I would be about if I hadn't been a part of something that I think is really important."
Bennett appreciates how important athletic opportunities are for girls because she didn't always have them. Born in Utah, her family lived in Idaho, Colorado and Kansas before returing to Utah when she was in high school. In Colorado and Kansas, she had the chance to play on some organized sports teams and it immediately began shaping who she was.
"I knew I wanted to be a coach and a teacher," she said. "When we moved back to Utah, I went to Bountiful High and they didn't have sports."
She played in summer softball leagues and, after graduation, she headed to Provo to earn that teaching degree.
"At BYU, I thought I'd gone to heaven," she said with a little laugh. "I had the chance to play on four college teams."
She played tennis, field hockey, basketball and softball. She learned from one of the state's best, Elaine Michaelis, who coached at BYU for four decades.
"I really had a great education at BYU, and it prepared me well to teach and coach," Bennett said.
She began her teaching career at Tooele High where she was the head basketball coach, head tennis coach, co-head gymnastics and track coach and assistant volleyball coach. After four years, she decided to take a break and she worked in retail for six years.
But the lure of coaching was too strong for her to resist. She went back to coaching and teaching PE and health at Granite Park Junior High in 1987-88.. She moved to Skyline in 1990, and she's been there for 22 years.
Bennett has had an impact not just on the girls she's coached and their families but on other coaches. WNBA all-star forward and Olympic gold medalist Natalie Williams began her high school coaching career as Bennett's assistant. She just finished her first year as head coach at Juan Diego.
Williams said she was saddened to learn of Bennett's retirement, but she was grateful for the guidance she received from the veteran coach.
"She taught me how to be a coach," said Williams. The Taylorsville High graduate who won a gold medal in the 2002 Summer Games as part of the U.S. women's basketball team, said that while she knew "Xs and Os" it was Bennett who taught her how to convey that knowledge while managing a team and all that goes with running a program.
Bennett said she doesn't believe she will regret the decision next winter..
"I'm a coach," she said. "I will always love coaching. It's shaped who I am, and I have enjoyed it tremendously…I know I can walk away from this and know that I've given it my best shot, and still be a part of kids' lives in another way and I feel good about that."
And as Skyline's athletic director over women's sports she will continue to help Utah's public schools provide opportunities for women.
"Along with trying to be a good coach, I've always tried to be an advocate for women's sports," she said. "There is nothing I like more than to walk into Dixie team camp and every single high school in St. George is filled with girls played basketball," she said. "I came from a time when all the gyms were full of boys and all of the girls were bystanders."