Murray Evans, Sports Information Director
NORMAN – When Jeff Bennett set out from his hometown of Vinita in the summer of 1966 for a college recruiting trip that he hoped would determine his immediate future, Oklahoma Christian wasn’t on his radar screen.
Although he had no way of knowing so at the time, a side visit to OC on that trip – a suggestion by a coach at another school – forever would change Bennett’s life, putting him on a journey that included his formal induction into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame on Monday night.
The 68-year-old Bennett, who finished fourth in the decathlon at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, joined six other inductees in receiving the highest honor in Oklahoma athletics. Introducing Bennett during the ceremony at the Riverwind Casino was Oklahoma County Commissioner Ray Vaughn Jr. – the son of the late Ray Vaughn Sr., who founded OC’s athletic program and convinced Bennett to attend then-fledgling Oklahoma Christian College.
Bennett enjoyed considerable success at the high school level in northeastern Oklahoma, winning a state title in the pole vault and competing against (among others) future Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens of nearby Miami. Bennett’s coach wrote to a handful of track and field coaches at Oklahoma colleges, gauging their interest, and heard back from coaches at Oklahoma Baptist and the University of Oklahoma. Those were the two planned stops on Bennett’s 1966 trip.
He visited OBU first, and the Bison’s coach told Bennett their program was focused primarily on distance running. He suggested Bennett visit OCC and talk to Vaughn Sr., so instead of heading to Norman, Bennett and his high school coach instead went to far north Oklahoma City to visit what then was a somewhat rural, spartan campus with only a handful of buildings.
Vaughn Sr. and Bennett made an immediate connection, so much so that a few minutes after Vaughn Sr. offered Bennett a scholarship, that Bennett told his high school coach there was no need to visit OU. OCC would be Bennett’s collegiate home – for the rest of his life, it turned out.
Once at Oklahoma Christian, in addition to his own event workouts, Bennett would experiment with jumping and throwing events. Vaughn noticed and suggested the 5-foot-8 Bennett try the decathlon, a 10-event discipline that incorporates sprints, long-distance running, hurdling, jumping, vaulting and throwing.
Most decathletes stand 6-feet or taller, but Bennett’s lack of size didn’t prove to be a disadvantage because of his outstanding technique. By 1968, he was good enough to qualify for the Olympic Trials. Although he didn’t qualify for the U.S. team, a fifth-place finish was proof that he belonged.
He kept working. He won the NAIA decathlon title in 1969 – the first year it was contested at the national level – and repeated in 1970, having also won the titles at the prestigious Drake Relays, Texas Relays and Kansas Relays that year. Along the way, he set a still-standing OC record with 8,270 points in 1970.
He graduated from OC in 1970 and was drafted by the U.S. Army, which assigned him to its Special Services Division and placed him on the Army’s track team, which helped fund his training. In 1972, he won the Amateur Athletic Union decathlon and finished second in the U.S. Olympic Trials, earning him a spot on the national team. Finishing third in the trials was a newcomer named Bruce Jenner.
Bennett excelled in Munich, winning the pole vault and finishing second in the 400 meters and 1,500 meters and third in the 100 meters. But in the 110-meter hurdles – usually one of his stronger events – his arm had become tangled with that of another competitor and briefly slowed him. His time of 15.58 seconds was about a half-second worse than his average time, costing him about 45 points.
Still, thanks to his strong performance in the 1,500 – the decathlon’s final event – Bennett rallied to become the top U.S. finisher with 7,974 points. He placed behind two competitors from the Soviet Union, Mykola Avilov (8,454) and Leonid Lytvynenko (8,035), and Ryszard Katus of Poland (7,984).
Bennett went on to win the 1973 AAU title with a personal-best score of 8,121 points, and entered the 1976 Olympic Trials as one of the favorites before suffering a hamstring injury. (Jenner went on to win the 1976 Olympic gold medal in Montreal.) Bennett retired from international competition in 1977.
During his career, Bennett won 24 of the 51 decathlons which he began, scored more than 7,000 points 44 times and more than 8,000 points four times.
Bennett also was the NAIA champion in the 400-meter hurdles in 1968 and was runner-up in the pole vault in 1970. In addition to his school record in the decathlon, the four-time NAIA All-American held OC’s 400-meter hurdles record of 51.44 seconds from 1968 until this past May, when current OC star Landon Huslig broke it.
Bennett was inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame in 1976 and was a charter honoree of the OC Athletic Hall of Fame in 1991.
In his post-Olympic life, he has served two stints as an assistant track and field coach at OC, the first from 1974 to 1985. He spent 28 years in public education, working as a teacher, counselor and administrator for school districts in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. In 2003, he retired as a lieutenant colonel after serving for 32 years in the U.S. Army National Guard.
He also returned to OC in 2003, serving as both an assistant coach and as OC’s associate dean of students. He retired from the latter position in 2016, but continues his coaching duties. He has worked under all three of OC’s track and field head coaches – Vaughn, Randy Heath and current coach Wade Miller.
The other inductees who joined Bennett in this year’s induction class were former University of Central Oklahoma wrestling coach David James, former Oklahoma football stars Jason White and Bill Krisher, former Oklahoma State basketball star Bryant Reeves, former Oklahoma State wrestler Doug Blubaugh and Bill Greason, who played for minor league baseball’s Oklahoma City Indians and integrated pro sports in Oklahoma in 1952.
For more information about the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, visit https://www.oklahomasportshalloffame.org/home.html.