Don Benning, first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university in the United States


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Mad Chatter: Don Benning's determination paved road to history; Jordan Spieth's thrill ride; Kyrie Irving shuns LeBron

Don Benning had several accomplishments in his life, including being the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university in the United States

 

 

“Adversity makes you stronger … if you survive the adversity.”

Don Benning said it. And while the quote doesn’t win points for originality, it most certainly does for representing his remarkable life. On Monday, Benning’s family and friends gathered at St. John AME Church for his funeral. They knew the man for more than his list of accomplishments, but what a list it was:

» First African-American faculty member at the University of Omaha, now UNO.

» First African-American head coach at a predominantly white university in the United States.

» First African-American head coach to lead a team to a national championship.

» First African-American in Nebraska to win a national championship in a college sport (1970 NAIA wrestling).

» First African-American doctorate recipient in the NU College of Education.

» First African-American athletic director at an Omaha Public Schools high school, Central.

» First recipient of the state Athletic Director of the Year Award.

» First African-American U.S. Olympic wrestling committee member.

Maybe there were more prominent civil rights leaders in Omaha. Maybe there were more famous sports figures in Omaha. But few, if any, commanded as much respect as Don Benning. What’s missing from the bio, though, is the struggle he experienced.

About a decade ago, Don and I had several long conversations in connection to a project I was working on. One day at a Village Inn, I spent three hours with him. He was the kind of man who was comfortable with long pauses as he searched for the right words. His story was worth the wait.

Benning grew up essentially alone. His house at 1334 Ogden St. (just off 16th and Fort) sat in a poor, white neighborhood — and that was a problem in the early 1940s. Benning fought classmates every day, he said, routinely hearing a racial slur he described as “that word.”

Did he ever ask his parents to leave the neighborhood?

“Obviously you don’t know my father,” he told me.

When Don was born, his mother was 46, his dad 45. (His oldest brother was 25 years older and his closest sibling was five years older.) His mother was “an angel,” Don said. But his father had been demoralized by racial prejudice.

He hauled garbage. He retrieved bags. He worked at the packinghouse. Every day, he felt disrespect. Some African-American men handled it differently, Don said. Some people didn’t bring it home.

“My dad was a very … very … angry man. Sometimes he took that out on his family. So there wasn’t a whole lot of communication.”

Don’s isolation — in the neighborhood and in his house — fueled an extraordinary sense of independence. Drive.

At an unusually young age, he told me, he figured out something that may sound simple: When you make a decision, somebody’s going to like it and somebody’s not going to. You have to decide whom you want to please.

“I said to myself, I’m going to do what I’m going to do, I don’t care whether you like it or not. I was that way. Some still say I’m that way. … I listen to a lot of people, but I don’t follow anyone.”

At Omaha North, he won city titles in wrestling his junior and senior years, finishing second at state at 154 pounds. Neither parent ever saw him compete.

At the start of his senior year, Don told his mother he was going to college. We don’t have the money, she said.

“Well, I’m going to college,” Don said.

He earned his way, spending a semester at Dana College, then transferring to “Omaha U,” where he endured frequent football injuries. He went out for wrestling in 1957-58, the first year the school offered the sport.

Benning wanted a teaching job in Omaha Public Schools, but OPS wasn’t hiring African-American teachers. So in 1958, he packed his bags to head for Chicago, where he had a job waiting. Fate intervened. Benning stopped by Omaha U. to say a few goodbyes.

“I saw Milo Bail,” Benning said. The university president was walking to his office.

Bail asked what he was doing and Benning told him the story. He was going to Chicago.

“No, you’re not,” Bail said.

He offered Benning a graduate fellowship in education. He assisted the football and wrestling teams until earning his master’s. Then in 1963, Omaha U. hired Don Benning, 26 years old, as the head wrestling coach. The first African-American head coach in America at a predominantly white university.

“When I make it big-time,” he’d always told his mother, “I’m going to take care of you.”

He was on his way. Then, before his first match as head coach, Don’s father died. Since childhood, he’d come to understand the reasons for his dad’s anger. The way that disrespect fuels animosity and bitterness.

“I still loved my dad when I had a lot of reasons not to.”

Three weeks later, his mother died, too. That was the toughest moment. Forty-five years later, in a Village Inn booth, Benning broke down thinking about it.

“OK,” he said, after a minute of silence, “What’s next?”

What’s next is Benning validating Milo Bail’s leap of faith. He built one of the best wrestling programs in the country, regardless of division. He recruited tough kids from all over the country and chiseled an even sharper edge.

In Benning’s last five seasons, the team was 65-6-4 in duals, including a win over vaunted Iowa at the Hawkeyes’ home invitational.

Meanwhile, Omaha was coming unhinged amid social revolution. Benning saw 24th Street burning. He saw hopelessness derail so many peers and friends. It hurt him to see talented people be denied opportunities. To see such potential wasted. He wouldn’t let it happen to him.

“I firmly believe that to fight and be able to battle those things that can keep you down, you have to have a strong belief in self. I am somebody.

“You had to think of yourself as … the only one who’s going to keep me from being the best I can be is me. I have to shift it away from what’s going on out there and say, ‘It’s on my shoulders.’

“You’ve got to be able to lose a lot of battles but know you’re going to get to where you want to go.”

When UNO won the NAIA national title in 1970, The World-Herald named Benning Nebraska College Coach of the Year. “He is the first Negro to be so honored,” said the paper. He was 33.

One year later, Benning quit coaching. He completed his doctorate and took a job as Omaha Central’s assistant principal and athletic director. Benning worked 26 years for OPS, retiring in 1997 after 18 years as assistant superintendent.

Race was a barrier to the end. Benning believed he was qualified to be superintendent of Omaha Public Schools. He also believed that he’d never get the job. Quite a contrast to Milo Bail in 1961, he said.

Think about the scenario again. Benning’s college classmates were getting job offers in the city and he wasn’t. Hatred could’ve infected him, too, he said. Instead …

“A very powerful white man who had nothing to gain and everything to lose says, ‘You’ve got the ability to come to work and be a graduate fellow in secondary education.’ That’s pretty ironic.”

Benning will go down as a towering figure in Omaha in the last half of the 20th century. A man whose influence and accomplishments are only understood through the context of history. He was not born on a path to prominence. He earned it with a tenacious “sense of self.”

Thumbtacked to the bulletin board in his office, Don Benning kept this poem, which defined his groundbreaking wrestling program and his life:

“Adversity makes you stronger … if you survive the adversity.”

Don Benning said it. And while the quote doesn’t win points for originality, it most certainly does for representing his remarkable life. On Monday, Benning’s family and friends gathered at St. John AME Church for his funeral. They knew the man for more than his list of accomplishments, but what a list it was:

» First African-American faculty member at the University of Omaha, now UNO.

» First African-American head coach at a predominantly white university in the United States.

» First African-American head coach to lead a team to a national championship.

» First African-American in Nebraska to win a national championship in a college sport (1970 NAIA wrestling).

» First African-American doctorate recipient in the NU College of Education.

» First African-American athletic director at an Omaha Public Schools high school, Central.

» First recipient of the state Athletic Director of the Year Award.

» First African-American U.S. Olympic wrestling committee member.

Maybe there were more prominent civil rights leaders in Omaha. Maybe there were more famous sports figures in Omaha. But few, if any, commanded as much respect as Don Benning. What’s missing from the bio, though, is the struggle he experienced.

About a decade ago, Don and I had several long conversations in connection to a project I was working on. One day at a Village Inn, I spent three hours with him. He was the kind of man who was comfortable with long pauses as he searched for the right words. His story was worth the wait.

Benning grew up essentially alone. His house at 1334 Ogden St. (just off 16th and Fort) sat in a poor, white neighborhood — and that was a problem in the early 1940s. Benning fought classmates every day, he said, routinely hearing a racial slur he described as “that word.”

Did he ever ask his parents to leave the neighborhood?

“Obviously you don’t know my father,” he told me.

When Don was born, his mother was 46, his dad 45. (His oldest brother was 25 years older and his closest sibling was five years older.) His mother was “an angel,” Don said. But his father had been demoralized by racial prejudice.

He hauled garbage. He retrieved bags. He worked at the packinghouse. Every day, he felt disrespect. Some African-American men handled it differently, Don said. Some people didn’t bring it home.

“My dad was a very … very … angry man. Sometimes he took that out on his family. So there wasn’t a whole lot of communication.”

Don’s isolation — in the neighborhood and in his house — fueled an extraordinary sense of independence. Drive.

At an unusually young age, he told me, he figured out something that may sound simple: When you make a decision, somebody’s going to like it and somebody’s not going to. You have to decide whom you want to please.

“I said to myself, I’m going to do what I’m going to do, I don’t care whether you like it or not. I was that way. Some still say I’m that way. … I listen to a lot of people, but I don’t follow anyone.”

At Omaha North, he won city titles in wrestling his junior and senior years, finishing second at state at 154 pounds. Neither parent ever saw him compete.

At the start of his senior year, Don told his mother he was going to college. We don’t have the money, she said.

“Well, I’m going to college,” Don said.

He earned his way, spending a semester at Dana College, then transferring to “Omaha U,” where he endured frequent football injuries. He went out for wrestling in 1957-58, the first year the school offered the sport.

Benning wanted a teaching job in Omaha Public Schools, but OPS wasn’t hiring African-American teachers. So in 1958, he packed his bags to head for Chicago, where he had a job waiting. Fate intervened. Benning stopped by Omaha U. to say a few goodbyes.

“I saw Milo Bail,” Benning said. The university president was walking to his office.

Bail asked what he was doing and Benning told him the story. He was going to Chicago.

“No, you’re not,” Bail said.

He offered Benning a graduate fellowship in education. He assisted the football and wrestling teams until earning his master’s. Then in 1963, Omaha U. hired Don Benning, 26 years old, as the head wrestling coach. The first African-American head coach in America at a predominantly white university.

“When I make it big-time,” he’d always told his mother, “I’m going to take care of you.”

He was on his way. Then, before his first match as head coach, Don’s father died. Since childhood, he’d come to understand the reasons for his dad’s anger. The way that disrespect fuels animosity and bitterness.

“I still loved my dad when I had a lot of reasons not to.”

Three weeks later, his mother died, too. That was the toughest moment. Forty-five years later, in a Village Inn booth, Benning broke down thinking about it.

“OK,” he said, after a minute of silence, “What’s next?”

What’s next is Benning validating Milo Bail’s leap of faith. He built one of the best wrestling programs in the country, regardless of division. He recruited tough kids from all over the country and chiseled an even sharper edge.

In Benning’s last five seasons, the team was 65-6-4 in duals, including a win over vaunted Iowa at the Hawkeyes’ home invitational.

Meanwhile, Omaha was coming unhinged amid social revolution. Benning saw 24th Street burning. He saw hopelessness derail so many peers and friends. It hurt him to see talented people be denied opportunities. To see such potential wasted. He wouldn’t let it happen to him.

“I firmly believe that to fight and be able to battle those things that can keep you down, you have to have a strong belief in self. I am somebody.

“You had to think of yourself as … the only one who’s going to keep me from being the best I can be is me. I have to shift it away from what’s going on out there and say, ‘It’s on my shoulders.’

“You’ve got to be able to lose a lot of battles but know you’re going to get to where you want to go.”

When UNO won the NAIA national title in 1970, The World-Herald named Benning Nebraska College Coach of the Year. “He is the first Negro to be so honored,” said the paper. He was 33.

One year later, Benning quit coaching. He completed his doctorate and took a job as Omaha Central’s assistant principal and athletic director. Benning worked 26 years for OPS, retiring in 1997 after 18 years as assistant superintendent.

Race was a barrier to the end. Benning believed he was qualified to be superintendent of Omaha Public Schools. He also believed that he’d never get the job. Quite a contrast to Milo Bail in 1961, he said.

Think about the scenario again. Benning’s college classmates were getting job offers in the city and he wasn’t. Hatred could’ve infected him, too, he said. Instead …

“A very powerful white man who had nothing to gain and everything to lose says, ‘You’ve got the ability to come to work and be a graduate fellow in secondary education.’ That’s pretty ironic.”

Benning will go down as a towering figure in Omaha in the last half of the 20th century. A man whose influence and accomplishments are only understood through the context of history. He was not born on a path to prominence. He earned it with a tenacious “sense of self.”

Thumbtacked to the bulletin board in his office, Don Benning kept this poem, which defined his groundbreaking wrestling program and his life:

If you think you are beaten, you are;

If you think you dare not, you don’t.

If you’d like to win, but think you can’t,

It’s almost a cinch you won’t…

Life’s battles don’t always go

To the stronger or faster man;

But sooner or later the man who wins

Is the one who thinks he can.

***

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http://www.omaha.com/uno/blog/mad-chatter-don-benning-s-determination-paved-road-to-history/article_61054e6a-708c-11e7-ace3-034ecdd94a95.html

 

 


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