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February 17, 2012

Benzel calls departure bittersweet

For nearly a decade, the Robert Morris coaching hierarchy has included Joe Walton flanked by assistants John Banaszak, Scott Farison, and Scott Benzel.

The group provided stability, and when Walton retires after the 2013 season, the group will provide continuity. Benzel, however, will not be part of the transition. The longtime assistant and current co-defensive coordinator and co-recruiting coordinator accepted the assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator job at St. Francis (Pa.) on Thursday.

"It's kind of a bittersweet thing," Benzel said. "I didn't want to leave, but based on what was going on, I didn't have a choice."

What was going on was a sudden change in his family situation. St. Francis head coach Chris Villarrial approached Benzel about a month ago and offered him a job.

"I considered it, but really the driving force is my wife had lost her job. We were going to take a pretty significant hit, income wise," Benzel said.

Benzel spoke with Walton and Banaszak, and said they explored options to see if they could do anything to keep Benzel.

"Unfortunately there wasn't anything they could do," Benzel said. "And if I wanted to continue coaching, it was an opportunity to stay where I didn't have to move. I'll still live in Mt. Lebanon. It'll be a long commute, but we didn't have to sell the house. It's a tough decision."

Though the driving force behind his decision was the future of his family, Robert Morris wasn't in a situation where they could tell Benzel to hold on for a year or two, either. Walton will be in place for two years, and even with Banaszak's promotion at that time, little else is expected to change within the coaching staff. Benzel had to act, and he said the opportunity was one his colleagues understood.

"They kind of understand the situation," Benzel said. "I think people are happy to see me get the opportunity but also sad to see me go, to be honest with you. It's just one of those things, man."

Benzel will reunite with former Robert Morris players and assistant coaches Colyn Haugh, who now coaches the defensive line at St. Francis, and Jake Nulph, who will share coordinating duties with Benzel.

"That was important to me to be up there with guys who know what I want to do, know the system," Benzel said. "We wanted to keep Jake's title there, too. I'll be calling the defense but we'll coordinate together."

Benzel met with several players, including his group in the secondary, prior to announcing the move to the public.

"I didn't want them to know without me telling them first," Benzel said. "I think the players' reaction is always the toughest part. I've been here a fourth of my life. This would have been my tenth year. It was hard. I recruited a lot of those guys and had a lot of relationships."

There will be some awkward moments. Robert Morris visits St. Francis on October 6, marking the first time Benzel won't be on the Colonials sideline for a Robert Morris game in nearly ten years.

"It'll be different playing Robert Morris, obviously. But it's something also that I'm excited about and looking forward to," he said. "When you get an opportunity to go against your mentor and your coach, guys you've been with for a long, there's a little extra motivation as well."

Robert Morris, meanwhile, has a hole to fill on its coaching staff. It's unlikely that RMU hires an outside presence to replace Benzel directly, but they could bring in another assistant and juggle responsibilities within the current staff. Bill Hurley had assisted Benzel in the secondary the last few years and likely will take on a larger role. Other guys, such as Sam Dorsett and Pat Shepard, could take on larger roles in helping Farison shape Robert Morris' path on the recruiting trail.

Then there are the players. Benzel had an impact in helping to recruit many of the players on the roster, not just in the secondary. But Benzel said he expects them to be fine.

"You know kids. It'll be tough for a couple days and then they'll move on, and that's the way it should be," he said. "I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me because it's going to be a good opportunity as well."

Robert Morris begins spring ball in just over a month and opens the 2012 season on September 1 against defending Division I FCS national champion North Dakota State.

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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