FRESNO, Calif. — Over 34 years as the head coach, the late Bob Bennett helped lead the Fresno State baseball program to national prominence, and in the decade before that, he also helped Bullard become one of the top high school programs in the Valley.
You can see Bennett’s influence at the high school by taking one look at the list of league, Valley, state, and national titles on the back of the third base dugout at the school’s baseball field.
“He turned Bullard into a powerhouse,” says Walt Byrd Jr., who played under Bennett at Bullard from 1963-1965. “Bob was the one who kind of put it on the map.”
“You know, the epitome of what you might want a baseball coach to be,” says Mike Noakes, who coached at the middle school that fed into Bullard during part of Bennett’s tenure as the varsity coach at the high school.
In the late 1950’s, Bennett took over the program at the new high school in west Fresno, after being a standout catcher under Pete Beiden at Fresno State, and then coaching baseball at Kingsburg High for two years.
“Bullard was a small school at the time,” says Noakes.
But despite competing against larger and more established schools, in Bennett’s 10 years leading the program, Bullard was always a contender. Bennett never won a Valley title, but did win two North Yosemite League titles, at the time, the toughest league in the Valley.
“To me, he was kind of the architect of what Bullard has meant, and from that point on, Bullard’s been one of the great baseball schools in the area,” says Byrd Jr.
Byrd Jr. says from the moment you met him, Bennett was one of “those guys that had a presence,” and his disciplined, old-school style extended to both the diamond and the classroom, where he also taught a business class at Bullard.
“He came to school every day at Bullard in a coat and tie,” says Noakes. “In this day and age, that really doesn’t happen.”
“I can’t even imagine how many times we ran the bases and we did alignment on plays, over and over and over,” adds Byrd Jr.
And Bennett’s influence at Bullard went far beyond the wins and losses.
“You know, he had a tremendous influence on my life,” says Byrd Jr. “Not just my playing life, but just growing up as a young kid.”
Some former players like Byrd Jr., a former President of the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame, and Ken Papi, the legendary former baseball coach at Fresno High, went on to become prominent sports figures in the Valley.
And former coaching colleagues at Bullard like the late Augie Garrido, a former Bennett assistant, and Noakes, also Bennett’s junior varsity coach at one point, went on to legendary coaching success.
Garrido retired in 2016 as college baseball’s winningest coach. Noakes took over for Bennett in 1970 at Bullard, and led the Knights to five valley championships, and two mythical national titles, over the next 28 years.
“I learned a tremendous amount about high school baseball being mentored by him,” says Noakes.