Oklahoma Christian University Assistant Track and Field Coach Jeff Bennett received Oklahoma’s highest athletic honor when he was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame August 14.
“To be chosen as one of the best athletes in Oklahoma history is quite an honor,” Bennett said.
According to the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, a selection committee selects 20 nominees from a list containing about 150 athletes. Voters, including existing Hall of Fame members and Oklahoma sports journalists, then select inductees based on criteria of athletic accomplishments and close identification with Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame becomes Bennett’s third career hall of fame honor. Bennett was inducted into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame in 1976 and was named a charter honoree of the Oklahoma Christian Hall of Fame in 1991.
During his senior year of high school, Bennett won the state championship in pole vault. Then, he continued his track and field career at Oklahoma Christian College from 1966 to 1970. Under the guidance of Coach Ray Vaughn Sr., Bennett began competing in the decathlon.
“Coach Vaughn Sr. was pretty good at analyzing what you could and couldn’t do,” Bennett said. “For him to suggest that I do the decathlon at my size was kind of unheard of, but it worked out really well.”
Competing in his third decathlon competition in 1968, Bennett scored enough points to qualify for the Olympic trial training camp. At the Olympic trials, Bennett placed fifth in the United States.
“That’s when the light came on that if I got back and worked really hard for the next four years I could move up a couple of spots and make the 1972 team,” Bennett said.
After graduating Oklahoma Christian as a four-time NAIA All-American, the Army drafted Bennett in 1970. While in the Army, Bennett competed for the Army track team. In 1971, Bennett placed first in the International Military Games decathlon.
“The Army was an answer to prayers,” Bennett said. “I was trying to figure out how I was going to be able to work out, train and fund my way to track meets. The Army track team was my sponsor, and it made all the difference in the world those last two years when I was training for the 1972 Olympics.”
At the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1972, Bennett placed second in the decathlon to earn him a spot on the Olympic roster. During the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, Bennett placed fourth with 7,974 points, missing the medal stand by just 10 points.
“I think it’s one of those bittersweet things,” Bennett said. “There is so many ways you can make 10 points in the decathlon. At the same time, go back and look at the big picture. I made the Olympic Team, represented the U.S. well, and it was one of the greatest athletic feats of my career.”
Bennett retired from competition in 1977. Currently, he serves as an assistant coach for the Oklahoma Christian track and field team, primarily coaching the field and throwing events.
“He can look at things from a different perspective,” said Oklahoma Christian Head Track and Field Coach Wade Miller. “He does a really good job of meeting the athlete where they’re at. Being able to apply the things he learned as an athlete, it’s extremely valuable to our program.”
In May 2017, Oklahoma Christian senior track athlete Landon Huslig broke Bennett’s 49-year-old 400-meter hurdles record, and Bennett saw it all happen.
“The coaching staff, as we watched Landon compete his sophomore year, he was zeroed in on that record,” Miller said. “Coach Bennett and him talked about it and had a friendly banter about that record. The day he broke it, Landon had a really impressive performance. Coach Bennett was there, and it was fun to just be a part of that atmosphere and to see the torch being passed.”
Huslig said he is honored to have the opportunity to have an Olympian such as Bennett as his coach.
“He’s a really down-to-earth, funny guy,” Huslig said. “It’s hard to remember sometimes that he was an Olympian. We’ll joke back and forth on what times I think I can hit if I can match him, stuff like that. He’s so humble that it’s easy to forget, and it’s pretty cool to have someone that good, be that humble.”
Bennett represented the first athlete from Oklahoma Christian inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.
“The big thing is Oklahoma Christian is where I got my start, as far as branching out into the decathlon and putting me on the track toward the Olympics,” Bennett said. To recognize Oklahoma Christian for that contribution, for the guidance of Coach Vaughn and for giving me the opportunity to do the things that I ended up doing is really special. Oklahoma Christian will always have a special place in my heart.”