His players often referred to him simply as The Man.
I was in Fordyce on Friday morning, waiting to meet with the director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum at Tuscaloosa, when I received the sad news.
Buddy Benson, the head football coach at Ouachita Baptist University for 31 seasons, had died at age 77.
It was, in a sense, fitting that I was in Fordyce helping the fine folks there plan for a Bear Bryant Museum when the call came. I say that because Buddy Benson was my Bear — a larger-than-life college football coach who influenced me in far more ways than I can begin to describe on this Good Friday night.
I’ve written before how fortunate I was to grow up in Arkadelphia when I did. That’s because my heroes weren’t faraway figures that I watched only on television or read about in magazines.
My three heroes — my father, Buddy Benson and Ouachita head basketball coach Bill Vining — were all right there in town. They were people I saw every day.
It’s easy to become overly sentimental, and I’ll do my best to guard against too many maudlin remembrances on this blog. Suffice it to say I’ve lost two of my heros in recent weeks — my dad last month; Coach Benson today.
I visited Coach Benson several times in the intensive care unit at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock. He wasn’t conscious, but his son-in-law Tiger and I spent a long time one afternoon during the Masters commenting on golf shots to him.
I would like to think he heard us.
After retiring from coaching following the 1995 season, Coach Benson served as Ouachita’s athletic director until 1998. In retirement, he was a constant presence on the golf course at DeGray Lake Resort State Park, where he was known for rounds of speed golf that tired out his playing partners.
I was raised just down the street from the Ouachita stadium and practice field. From almost the time I was old enough to walk, fall afternoons were spent watching my beloved Tigers practice (at least until I was old enough to have my own football practices to attend).
I was in awe of him.
I’m sure I was in the stands at Ouachita games as a baby, but I don’t ever remember sitting in the stands for a Tiger football game. From the time I was old enough to remember those Saturday games all the way through high school, I was roaming the Ouachita sidelines. By the time I was a freshman in college, I was in the press box broadcasting the games on the radio.
After games, Coach Benson and his family were at our house, we were at the Benson house or I was in the car with the coach and his assistants as we raced from an afternoon Ouachita game to another Arkansas city to watch an evening battle between two of our AIC opponents.
The things that writers and broadcasters look for in a team at the start of any football season are things such as size, speed and depth. Usually, Coach Benson’s Ouachita teams weren’t very big and weren’t very fast. There rarely was any depth. But some way, somehow, those squads consistently won more games than they lost.
Coach Benson always believed that the winning would take care of itself if he took care of the details.
Here’s how Arkansas Democrat sports editor Fred Morrow put it in a column after the Tigers had won a share of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championship in 1975: “His athletes are going to go to class. They’re not going to abuse (or even get caught using) tobacco or alcohol, and they’re going to keep their hair nice and neat, and they’re going to say yes sir and no sir. Oh, they’re also going to receive degrees.”
And here’s how Coach Benson put it: “I’m not running a popularity contest. I tell our players to keep working and keep doing the little things right. Just stick to your knitting and something good will happen.”
I mentioned Bear Bryant. It was Coach Bryant who once said, “I ain’t nothin’ but a winner.”
Buddy Benson was a winner all his life.
Coming out of De Queen High School, he was one of the most highly recruited running backs in the nation. Coach Benson’s mother kept wonderful scrapbooks through the years. I’ll never forget a De Queen Bee story posted in one of those scrapbooks that announced that the University of Oklahoma had sent a plane to pick up the touted running back. The plane landed at Horatio because the runway was longer than the runway at De Queen.
The De Queen recruit was taken to dinner that night in Oklahoma City by Sooner head coach Bud Wilkinson, the toast of the town after having won the national championship in 1950.
Coach Benson delighted in telling this story: “The waiter came over and asked us if we wanted to start with something. Coach Wilkinson said: ‘Buddy, I think I’ll have a shrimp cocktail. Do you want one?’ I had rarely been out of Sevier County. I thought he was testing me. So I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘No sir. I don’t drink.”’
Wilkinson’s teams won 47 consecutive games between 1953 and 1957. But Coach Benson missed his home state and transferred to the University of Arkansas. He helped lead the Razorbacks to a share of the 1954 Southwest Conference championship, an 8-3 record and a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Georgia Tech.
Despite all of his accomplishments at Ouachita, thousands of now elderly Arkansans still remember him best for throwing the 66-yard touchdown pass to Preston Carpenter at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium to lead the Hogs to a 6-0 victory over the nationally ranked Ole Miss Rebels.
The late Orville Henry, the longtime sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette, later would describe what was known as the “Powder River Play” as the school’s most famous play to that point because it put the Arkansas program on the map and gave the Razorbacks a statewide following.
After his college graduation in the spring of 1956, Coach Benson was offered a professional contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He turned down that offer (professional football paid rookies very little in those days) to try his hand at coaching high school football.
Once again, Buddy Benson was a winner.
He took a job at Lewisville High School in far south Arkansas, and his first team there went 10-1. His second team had a record of 7-1-2, and Buddy Benson was being talked about as one of the hottest young coaches in the region.
He needed to provide for his young family, though, and coaching high school sports in Arkansas was a good way to starve in the 1950s. So he decided to sell automobiles.
He told the sports editor of the Texarkana newspaper: “I’m getting a better deal going into the automobile business. It’s just one of those things. I had the opportunity to go, and I couldn’t pass it up. As much as I like it here, I have to make a living for my family.”
The writer Buddy Benson was speaking to was Wick Temple, who would go on to become a top executive for The Associated Press.
Temple wrote in a column: “His was the model small school coaching situation. He produced fine athletes and a fine athletic program. He had a good record and no difficulties with anyone, much less the school board. But he quit. He left what had taken him 10 years of playing and coaching to achieve.”
Three years later, Buddy Benson realized he had made a mistake.
It was August 1961 when he showed up at the annual coaching clinic in Little Rock to look for a job. He wasn’t choosy. He just wanted to be back in coaching.
Someone told him that the Ouachita head coach, Rab Rodgers, needed an assistant. Coach Benson met with Rodgers, and the older coach offered him an assistant’s position.
Buddy and Janet Benson moved to Arkadelphia 50 years ago and never left.
Rab Rodgers decided to get out of coaching in 1965 and serve as the school’s full-time athletic director. Coach Benson was promoted. It was, at best, a risky proposition for him. Few people believed Ouachita could win in football, and some of Coach’s Benson’s friends believed he had doomed his career by taking on an impossible task.
The school’s president, Dr. Ralph Phelps, had told the student body in the late 1950s: “We should not expect overnight miracles of our teams or coaching staffs. Ouachita, after having been at the pinnacle of athletic glory, has sunk about as low as a school can go without dropping competition altogether.”
The school had experienced just two winning seasons the previous 16 years.
That’s what makes this fact so remarkable in retrospect: Coach Benson did not have a losing season in his first 12 years. He worked his magic quickly. By his second year as head coach, the Tigers had captured a share of the AIC championship.
His players were a reflection of their leader. They wore suits on road trips, they maintained a clean-cut appearance and they played the game cleanly.
The Man turned boys into men.
His hundreds of former players had a strong loyalty to The Man, who had been a tough taskmaster when they were in school.
Yes, Buddy Benson was tough. He accepted nothing less than a player’s best.
“Suck it up,” he was fond of saying.
Coach Benson’s 162-140-8 record at Ouachita is amazing when you consider how little money he had to spend on his program and how poor the facilities were. He rarely had more than two or three full-time assistants. Most high school coaching staffs in Arkansas were larger than what he ever had at Ouachita.
Yet he produced 16 all-America and 208 all-conference players. His greatest accomplishment was the fact that almost all of his players graduated. Former Tigers moved on to success in business, medicine, law, education and other professions.
Buddy Benson’s recruiting strategy was based on quality rather than quantity, not only physical quality but also mental and moral excellence. Once those recruits reached the Ouachita campus, Coach Benson saw to it that football and social life did not outweigh academic concerns.
Let me put it this way: Those players were scared not to graduate.
Yes, Buddy Benson had opportunities to move to larger schools.
Sitting in his den one day, I asked him why he stayed at Ouachita despite the tiny athletic budgets and the crumbling facilities.
Here’s what he told me: “There’s just something special about this school. You can see it in the students and feel it when you walk around the campus. We have a high class of individuals who go to school here. I think that if a kid can stick it out with us for four years, he’ll end up being a pretty high-class person himself.”
Coach Benson’s most famous player, of course, was Cliff Harris. Cliff played in five Super Bowls for the Dallas Cowboys and was inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor.
I visited with Cliff by telephone this afternoon. He told me that he thought of Coach Benson often, even during those Super Bowl games.
Cliff said his college coach “taught us to achieve at levels we didn’t believe were possible. At critical moments in my life, I’ve thought of Coach Benson and the things he taught me. It was his influence that allowed me to step it up a notch at those important times.”
On the night my father died — as I waited at the Little Rock nursing home for the funeral home personnel to arrive from Arkadelphia and pick up his body — the first call I received on my cell phone was from Coach Benson.
“Are you all right?” he asked me. “Do you need me to come up there?”
“No sir,” I replied. “I’ll be OK.”
You see, he had taught me long ago to “suck it up” in tough times.
I have no doubt, though, that he would have been in the car headed to Little Rock in minutes had I said I needed him.
It’s Easter weekend, and we celebrate the resurrection. I’ll go to bed tonight with this good thought: The coffee is hot in heaven and Coach Benson has joined up with my dad, Quintus Crews, Ike Sharp, Otis Turner, Cliff’s dad Buddy Harris and all of those other great men who went before him.
They’re telling football stories around that round table just like the old days, discussing recruits and even second-guessing some of Coach Benson’s past play calls. Mac Sisson is there taking notes.
I’ll be honest. It’s hard to lose another hero.
On those hot August days when the preseason practices seemed to last until dark, Coach Benson would pace up and down the practice field under that big pecan tree and chant this to his players: “It’s hard but it’s fair. You had a good home, you should have stayed there.”
You know, I did have a good home in Arkadelphia. I had a good home because the town had men like Buddy Benson.
I hope you know what you meant to me, Coach. I loved you and everything you stood for.
Buddy Benson: He was one of a kind.
He was The Man.