ACC Legend: Ben Bennett of Duke

Nov. 4, 2011

By Rob Daniels, Special to

From a strictly numerical standpoint, ACC football's greatest trend-setter came from California, threw for Duke and never played in a bowl game. Don't believe it? Consider what football was like when Ben Bennett began as a Blue Devil and how it developed in his time and since.

To call him the Potentate of Pass sounds a bit bombastic. Until you look at context.

Bennett, the Blue Devils' ACC Legend for 2011, graduated as the NCAA's record-holder in passing yards with 9,614. And just as he predicted, he's nowhere to be found on that chart, which stops at 20th place, these days.

"I knew it wouldn't (last)," he said from Orlando, Fla., where he has lived the past 20 years. "When I was a junior in high school, we were one of the pass-happiest teams in the area and we threw it 16 times a game. In my senior year, we were throwing it 19 times a game. When I got to Duke, the biggest day I ever had was as a freshman against Wake Forest. Went 38-for-62 or something. Now you've got teams that throw it 50 to 60 times on a regular basis. The evolution of the passing game meant that eventually, the dinosaur would be buried, and that was me."

When Bennett enrolled at Duke in the fall of 1980, the ACC's career passing mark had stood for a dozen years. Leo Hart, another Blue Devil, racked up 6,116 yards in three seasons, his numbers depressed by the freshman ineligibility standard of the time (1968-70).

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the ACC was a running league, statistically dominated by such greats as NC State's Ted Brown and Steve Atkins of Maryland. Brown's still the conference's career rushing champion, in fact.

But there was something brewing in Durham. An aggressive, confident quarterback from Sunnyvale, Calif., had arrived on the scene, having become the latest of millions to learn that mom knows best.

"MY mother had gone to Duke, and when I was going through the recruiting process, she asked me to save a trip out there," Bennett said. "First thing I told her: `I'm not playing basketball, mom. I'm playing football.' As it turned out, I took the trip, had the time of my life and fell in love with the place."

By magnificent coincidence, Bennett would be assigned to work with a former Heisman Trophy winner with a growing reputation in coaching circles as an innovative, aggressive, confident offensive coordinator who trashed convention like 1960s radicals in Chicago. Steve Spurrier and Ben Bennett became ACC football's slightly imperfect storm.

"I was his first quarterback, and he was my first coach," Bennett said. "It went pretty much like you would think it might. I thought I knew everything, and it took me a while to figure out that Steve did, in fact, know everything. We butted heads early on, which people of similar egos and personality types will do. But he figured out that I could do what he needed me to do and we could both be successful."

The numbers quickly became eye-catching. Bennett threw for more than 2,000 yards as a freshman, putting up the second-highest total in Duke history for a season. That included the 38-of-62, 469-yard day against Wake in which he set NCAA freshman records in all three categories.

Bennett missed two games the following year but never missed a call thereafter. If you look at his game-by-game figures today, you're not necessarily blown away. But for the time, this stuff was radical.

Bennett broke Hart's ACC mark with a game and a half to go in his junior year, during which Duke (6-5) posted a second straight winning season for the first time in a decade and only the second time since 1960-62. What happened thereafter burned the books.

His 3,086 passing yards in his senior season of 1983 took his total to 9,614 - or 57 percent above Hart's figure. Even if you grant Hart a hypothetical fourth season and assume it would have produced the average of the other three, Bennett would have beaten him by 18 percent.

Freshman eligibility had been around for nearly a decade when Bennett arrived, and in that time, nobody had seriously approached Hart. The best of the four-year QBs of the 1970s, Virginia's Scott Gardner, amassed 5,218 yards. Bennett smashed that mark by 84 percent.

It's not quite Ruthian in comparison to one's predecessors, but it's close.

And the world did notice. In 1983, a fledgling cable outfit from Atlanta, TBS, came up with the wacky idea of gerrymandering schedules and playing games on Thursday nights for the benefit of a nationwide audience. On Thursday, Nov. 10, 1983, Duke hosted its first night game when trucks hauled in temporary lights. They weren't there for the competition as such. The teams were a combined 5-13 at kickoff. They wanted to see a march toward history.

Ten days later, those lights and the truck stuck around the area and went to Chapel Hill. This, remember, was an era when televised college football was a relatively rare event. And again, the cameras weren't there to witness a meeting of Top-10 teams.

Today, of course, Thursday games are part of the ACC culture, and the big passing numbers have only gotten bigger.

Bennett moved on to a pro career that included time in the USFL, one NFL game, a few more in the World League and the friendliest league numerology could ever have, Arena Football. In 10 summers with six teams from 1988-97, Bennett threw for 14,168 yards and 267 touchdowns on 50-yard fields.

In one extraordinary contest, he threw two TDs and a pair of two-point conversions in the final 49 seconds to lead the Orlando Predators over the Detroit Drive, 50-49. And he got to call his own plays for the first time since Spurrier gave him conditional privileges to do so in the early 1980s.

"The most fun I ever had playing professional football was in the Arena League," Bennett said. "I was back in control."

Bennett then got into coaching, riding unreliable busses over long stretches of the nation's Interstate highway system. To this day, he has a cell number he acquired while running a team in New Hampshire. He made so many calls on it in search of players years ago that everybody knew it as his number, and he has kept it.

Bennett's latest project involves an attempt to bring the indoor version of football back to the Raleigh-Durham area. His nature suggests he won't rest for a while.