Everyone loves a good underdog story. It’s why a video feature on Wisconsin student manager and walk-on Tanner Bronson immediately grabbed the attention of Bryan Bender while watching a Badgers basketball game on the television.
Bender knew his basketball playing days would soon be coming to an end as a 5-foot-8 player from a small farm town in Wisconsin. As a result, the short video on Bronson’s journey turned Bender onto the idea of pursuing his own role as a student manager. 
He attended the University of Minnesota and quickly made contact with the basketball office day after day before they had no choice but to let him come onboard.
“I tried literally five or six times before they finally said, ‘Hey, quit coming over here. You can work for our team.’ It was a persistency thing and started as a freshman,” Bender said. “I think I made $450 a semester to be a student manager. I was literally on the bottom filling water bottles everyday and filming every practice.”
Still, it formed the foundation for a future dedicated to being around the game of basketball and influencing young people. Bender crashed the film sessions, sitting in the back and filling his notebook with a plethora of notes, absorbing all the information like a sponge.
During his junior year, Tubby Smith arrived as the head coach at Minnesota while Bender had firmly planted himself as a head manager in the program. Bender’s proficiency in video allowed him to stay on under Smith’s staff as a grad assistant and later as a video coordinator.
It was the values learned from Smith that carried extreme weight with Bender throughout his own coaching journey.
“[Tubby] was elite in the way that he connected to everybody around him,” Bender said. “He had a way of making everyone feel special. I think that translates to so many things in life is your ability to connect with people and making them feel like they are important in that present moment. 
“He was a millionaire head coach and had won a national title. He was at the pinnacle of college basketball at Kentucky and he comes to Minnesota, yet he knew my mom’s name. He would always ask about my family and different things… That’s a skill that if you can connect with people on that level, you’re going to get more out of them.”
Despite an NCAA tournament appearance and a win over UCLA to advance to the round of 32, Smith and his staff were fired by Minnesota in 2013, leaving Bender on the search for a new position.
Over his years at Minnesota, Bender had been searching for the open door into the coaching profession, making it to the final interviews, but ultimately falling short due to lack of recruiting and coaching experience. However, Bender found his footing as a volunteer assistant coach at Missouri State University - West Plains where he ran the study hall program and taught on campus.
Now equipped with a year of recruiting and coaching experience, Bender followed Jim Fox, a connection he had made while doing an internship at USA Basketball, to Appalachian State to become the director of operations.
“I really trusted coach Fox when I went there,” Bender said. “He made me feel like I was going to be more on the coaching aspect of it than the administration side. I was in every coach’s meeting. I was involved with a lot of scouting. I had a lot of input in different categories and was able to learn through osmosis. He handed a lot of responsibilities to me and said ‘Go.’ He trusted me with that. I worked as hard as I could for him in that time.”
Bender’s responsibilities expanded to planning a foreign trip to Europe, learning the ins and outs of the team’s offense based on screens and deception, and keeping all the details straight within the program. However, it still left him longing for more en route to his goal in becoming a Division I head coach.
“After three years, it was one of those things where we didn’t have any movement on our staff,” Bender said. “I didn’t know what was going to be happening. It was one of those things where I wanted to coach again. How am I going to make that jump to being a D-I assistant? I thought the best way of doing that was to go down a level again and go back to junior college.”
IMG_4243 A relationship built through camps at Minnesota allowed Bender to find an opening back at the JUCO level as an assistant coach to Thomas Gray at Southwest Mississippi CC. Entering his fourth season, Gray had turned down a number of different jobs at the Division I level, but felt like his time to jump ship might be coming sooner rather than later. As a result, it put Bender in a position to come in and use every day as a job interview for the head coaching position.
“Nothing in our business is ever promised or guaranteed, but he was waiting for the right opportunity to make his jump to D-I. Knowing it was a possibility, he challenged me to think like a head coach to prepare myself to potentially be the next coach here,” Bender said. “For 10 months I worked as hard as I possibly could. When it was time to pass the torch, it was a really easy decision for this administration to hear everything is going in the right direction with this program. ‘Bryan did an excellent job, so we’re going to promote him as the head coach.’ Just kind of thinking like that and preparing like that every day and working the correct relationships in the community from the administration side to get the job here.”
It’s where Bender finds himself today, entering his third year as the head coach at Southwest Mississippi. 
The JUCO scene provides a number of different challenges that pop up on a daily basis for Bender. The roster flips every year with a recruiting class of 10-12 players. There’s the balancing act of the focus from the players between winning in the present and looking forward to the future destination at the next level. Bender’s program wouldn't be able to thrive without a culture that’s implanted into every coach, player, and manager from the beginning.
“Culture is the most important part of your program,” Bender said. “We’ve flipped that to not just thinking about winning all the time, but being the best version of themselves. Not comparing themselves to other things and other people because comparison is the thief of joy. You control your own happiness and how hard you work."
“If you have that mentality everyday of working hard, doing things the right way, JUCO is not the point. The point is using junior college to get you to where you want to be. That goes for everybody in your program. You want hungry people and you want people with growth mindsets. That’s your staff and that’s your managers and that’s your players. You want them to think of things that are bigger than what you want to accomplish.”
So how does Bender use this unique position as a JUCO head coach to prepare his players for the next step in life? The ‘why’ is different for each player as it’s a melting pot of high school kids, D-I bounce-backs, other JUCO transfers, qualifiers and non-qualifiers, but there’s one standard that remains the same: high character and academic standards.
In 2018-2019, the Bears were named NJCAA Men’s Basketball Academic Team of the Year with a 3.43 team GPA. It epitomizes the belief from Bender that things must first be done right off the court before it can all come together on the court.
“You’re competing with this guy from Florida, Texas, Louisiana and you’re the same player,” Bender said. “Why am I going to take you over someone else at those other places? One of those things is the academic side. Are they going to take the kid with the 3.6 or the 2.6? Of course they’re going to take the 3.6. Our goal is to get you to that best place where we can find for you, so let’s take care of this business here. 
IMG_4245 “One of the cool things is we have a 100 percent graduation rate since I’ve been here and been first or second in the country in GPA and the top in Mississippi. It’s something that we’re proud of, but the guys do it and realize it's for the benefit of their future long term.”
Just like his JUCO players are looking to become Division I players, Bender is on his own path into Division I coaching. However, he’s two feet in and allowing himself to bloom at his current position at Southwest Mississippi CC.
It’s an everyday process filled with endless possibilities, but it all goes back to his care for the players and why he’s in the coaching profession in the first place. The same reason why he dove headfirst into becoming a student manager all those years ago.
“If your players understand that you’re in it for them and they know I love and care for them and I’m going to do anything to have their back, you get to that pinnacle of influence,” Bender said. “These guys are ready to jump out of a plane with no parachute because they know I got their back. That’s how I built the program. It’s a process. You think about the long term and you get caught up in winning and different things, but I genuinely believe that if you can keep chipping away at everything every day and doing things the right way, then eventually things are going to work out in your favor.”

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