Benjy Taylor tells you it’s just the next game on the schedule. The fire in the Hawaii assistant coach’s eyes reveals much more.
When the Rainbow Warriors (6-2) play Chicago State (3-9) at 7 tonight in Maui’s Lahaina Civic Center, Taylor will be on the opposite bench from players he once counseled, molded and counted on through good times and bad.
Taylor was the head coach of the Cougars for the past three seasons, until he was fired in April. The CSU roster, now led by first-year coach Tracy Dildy, is nearly identical to Taylor’s team that went 9-23 last year.
It might not have ended well, but Taylor took the Cougars to a 19-13 record in 2008-09, a Division I record for wins at CSU and the school’s first winning season in 23 years. He was named the Independent Division I Coach of the Year, but clashes with CSU administration over support for the program made his situation there tenuous even on the best of days.
Taylor said his parting of ways with CSU after 2009-10 was mutual — "I was ready to go long before that," he said — but the subject of his former players is still a sensitive one. CSU has seven seniors. Many still keep in touch.
"I brought those guys there. They believed in me, believed in my vision," Taylor said. "And we accomplished some good things there. … I hope they finish the year strong. I just hope and pray they don’t get started against us."
CSU is in the islands for the third straight year because Taylor scheduled the game before he left. Each year his team made the trip, he felt it could win here. Though his Cougars fell short both times, he expects they feel the same way under Dildy.
Dildy, who goes back with Taylor about 15 years through the assistant coaching grapevine, recognizes tonight’s game will be a strange situation for men on both sides.
"I know the kids are going to be partially torn because this whole team is a team that Coach Taylor and his staff put together," Dildy said. "These are all kids that he recruited and had relationships with. So I know it’s going to be awkward for him and probably them."
Taylor has proven he can take himself out of the spotlight. When UH coach Gib Arnold invited Taylor to join his staff at Hawaii, it meant that Taylor would have to go back to being an assistant after his first Division I head coaching job, and he accepted that.
Arnold had a positive experience on the Pepperdine staff with Taylor, and was ecstatic when his old friend became available. He sought Taylor for his energy and recruiting base that stretches to his native North Carolina and alma mater, Richmond.
"He jumped in. He was all in from the day I talked to him, and has done a marvelous job," Arnold said. "Everything else has changed from where he was."
Taylor, ever a positive presence at practices, has a knack for knowing when a player needs a word of support on the side, and when a raised voice is needed alongside Arnold’s.
Basketball matters again, and that means everything to him. His wife, Wendy, and children have transplanted successfully to Manoa.
"I love it. I mean, what we do during practice, what we do in the preseason, during games, matters now," Taylor said. "It didn’t matter before. It didn’t matter because people didn’t care. That gets a little disheartening after a while. When kids pour their all into it, when everyone pours their all into it, you want it to matter. That’s one thing about here. We have great support. We have a great administration. For me to leave the situation I left and come here, it just shows that I’m highly favored and I’m fortunate to be in this business."
Some scars remain. Taylor never really recovered after he was forced to lay off one of his assistants, Scott Soprych, because of budget cutbacks after the 19-win season. He was down to two assistants by the end.
"That took a lot out of me, because we really were a family," Taylor said. "It was tough for me to bounce back from that, and to this day I still haven’t bounced back from that."
He was let go by athletic director Sudie Davis on April 19. Taylor called it "probably the first night I had a good night’s sleep in about 18 months."