Olympian. Four-time All-American. Three-time national champion. AAU national champion. One of the top 100 athletes in Oklahoma history.
Those accomplishments dot the resume of Oklahoma Christian University assistant track and field coach Jeff Bennett. Such a spectacular list of athletic achievements is sure to produce an air of arrogance, pride and egotism, right? Wrong.
Bennett is the epitome of humility. A stroll across Oklahoma Christian’s campus will show the upbeat Bennett going about his business and looking to better the community around him.
Stepping inside his office, where he also serves as OC’s associate dean of students, you’ll see a few modest photos from his Olympic days greatly outnumbered by pictures of family and friends. A true gentleman, Bennett is a wonderful ambassador for the university that he starred at four decades ago.
Bennett arrived at Oklahoma Christian from the northeastern Oklahoma town of Vinita in 1968. The 5-8 speedster won the NAIA national championship in the 400-meter hurdles that season. He went on to take the national title in the decathlon twice (1969, 1970) and also placed second in the pole vault (1970) under legendary track and field coach Ray Vaughn, Sr.
It was during Bennett’s freshman season of 1968 that he realized Olympic glory could be a reality.
“I started the decathlon in 1968, my first year of competing at OC. That year, I ended up No. 5 in the U.S. From there, the thought was, ‘If I’m already here, then surely if I put in the work over the next couple of years I can move up a couple of spots,’” Bennett said.
Looking to reach the top three in the nation, and earn Olympic qualification, Bennett worked through his stellar collegiate career with the 1972 Summer Olympics squarely in his sights.
When the summer of 1972 arrived, Bennett won the U.S. national meet and placed second at the U.S. Olympic Trials, making the unassuming small-town kid an Olympian.
“It was like a big, heavy burden lifted once I qualified. It was the greatest feeling knowing that I had finally made it and it was a reality,” Bennett said.
As the first Olympian in OC history, Bennett and his U.S. National Team teammates made training stops in Maine and Norway before traveling on to Munich, West Germany (as it was known then), for the Games. Once in Munich, Bennett took part in a sacred Olympic rite of passage: the opening ceremonies.
“It was a big deal. Probably as full as the stadium ever was, with 90,000 people,” Bennett said. “It was really a great feeling to come out of the tunnel and march down the avenue with all the teammates. It was a feeling unlike I’d ever had before or since.”
The decathlon was scheduled for the middle of the second week, but a tragedy scarred the 1972 Olympics forever. Terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes, leaving Bennett to wonder if his dream might come to a screeching halt.
“We had a day of wondering if we would get to compete. They had a big powwow to decide if we were going to go on or call it off. But they decided that if they called it off, it would be a victory for the terrorists,” Bennett said.
After pushing the schedule back one day, the Games went on.
When Bennett’s day finally arrived, he made OC, Oklahoma and the United States proud. With 7,974 points in the decathlon, Bennett finished fourth in the event, missing bronze-medal status by just 10 points.
The feat is all the more astounding considering the ground Bennett made up. He was in 13th place entering the final event, the 1,500 meters. But Bennett second-place finish in that race vaulted him into fourth overall.
It would be easy to make excuses when a medal was so agonizingly close. Some are quick to point out the German Olympic Committee’s “change” of pole-vaulting equipment just prior to the decathlon, which devalued months of Bennett’s training with different equipment. Although Bennett admits some sleepless nights following his near-miss, he makes no excuses and cherishes the overall experience.
“You replay those events over and over in your mind – ‘What if I would have long jumped a half inch further?’ – those types of things,” Bennett said. “But other than that, it was great.”
A pulled hamstring at the Olympic Trials kept Bennett from returning to the Olympics in 1976, but his days of representing America were not finished. He served 30 years in the U.S. National Guard while also earning his stripes as a schoolteacher and coach.
In celebration of the state’s Centennial a few years ago, The Oklahoman named Bennett one of the top 100 greatest athletes in state history. Bennett took the honor in stride, just like he has all of his accolades.
“I was surprised to be on that list,” Bennett said. “When you consider the amount of time Oklahoma has been around, to be in that company is a great honor and I was really pleased to be a part of that.”