Jesse N. "Buddy" Benson (1933–2011)
Jesse N. “Buddy” Benson earned statewide recognition in Arkansas athletic circles, first as a football player for the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and later as the head football coach for thirty-one seasons at Ouachita Baptist University (OBU) in Arkadelphia (Clark County). Benson was a 1993 inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and was inducted into both the Ouachita Sports Hall of Fame and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Hall of Fame.
Buddy Benson was born on November 9, 1933, in Wright City, Oklahoma, to Jesse Benson and Louise Pate Benson. He was one of the nation’s most actively recruited football players after he graduated from high school at De Queen (Sevier County). He signed in 1952 with University of Oklahoma under Coach Bud Wilkinson, whose Sooners team had won the national championship in 1950 (and which, between 1953 and 1957, won forty-seven consecutive games). Benson missed his adopted home state, however, and transferred after one season to UA.
Known in college as “Buddy Bob,” Benson helped lead Coach Bowden Wyatt’s 1954 Razorback football team to an 8–3 record, a share of the Southwest Conference championship, and a place in the Cotton Bowl against Georgia Tech. In 1954, Benson threw a sixty-six-yard touchdown pass to Preston Carpenter at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to propel the Razorbacks to a 6–0 victory over a nationally ranked team from the University of Mississippi. Orville Henry, longtime sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette, would later describe what became known as the Powder River Play as the school’s most famous football play to that point because it put the UA program on the map and gave the Razorbacks a statewide following.
Following college graduation in 1956, Benson was offered a professional contract to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League. He turned down the offer in order to try his hand at coaching high school football. His first team, at Lewisville (Lafayette County), went 10–1, and his second team had a 7–1–2 record. In the spring of 1958, he decided he could make more money selling automobiles and went to work for his father-in-law in Nashville (Howard County). He and his wife, Janet, had two children, and as Benson remarked of his decision, “As much as I like it here, I have to make a living for my family.”
Three years later, Benson attended the annual Arkansas coaches’ clinic in Little Rock, hoping to get back into coaching. He had been told by a friend that OBU’s head coach, Rab Rodgers, was searching for an assistant. Rodgers hired Benson, and Benson went to work at OBU at the start of the 1961–62 school year. When Rodgers decided to serve as OBU’s full-time athletic director in 1965, Benson was promoted to head coach. He took over a program that had had just two winning seasons in the previous sixteen years. OBU’s president, Ralph Phelps, had declared a few years earlier in a speech to the student body: “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.” As Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sports columnist Jim Bailey later wrote: “By the 1950s,…Ouachita struggled in common with most other privately subsidized colleges at a distinct disadvantage against most state-supported schools. Benson drastically improved the situation.”
OBU did not have a losing season in Benson’s first twelve years as head coach. By his second year, the Tigers had captured a share of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference (AIC) championship and earned a reputation for good sportsmanship combined with tough play on the field. After OBU won a share of the AIC championship in 1975, Arkansas Democrat sports editor Fred Morrow wrote of Benson: “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 diplomas.”
Benson produced sixteen all-American and 308 all-conference players during his thirty-one years as OBU’s head coach. He compiled a 162–140–8 record at OBU and won at least a share of four AIC championships (1966, 1970, 1975, and 1982), even though the school had a much smaller athletic budget and inferior facilities compared to most of the schools against which it competed.
Benson received offers from several larger schools throughout the years but chose to remain at OBU. His most famous player was Cliff Harris, who went on to play in five Super Bowls during the 1970s for the Dallas Cowboys and was inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor.
After retiring from coaching following the 1995 season, Benson served as OBU’s athletic director until 1998.
Benson spent the rest of his life in Arkadelphia. He died of congestive heart failure at a Little Rock hospital on April 22, 2011. He is buried at Rest Haven Memorial Gardens in Arkadelphia. In September 2015, OBU honored Benson by changing the name of its football field from A. U. Williams Field to Benson-Williams Field.
For additional information:
Bailey, Jim. “Benson Lost the Bob, Not Will to Win.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 3, 2011, p. 2C.
Hall, Wally. “OBU’s Benson tamed Rebels, Molded Men.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 26, 2011, p. 1C.
Nelson, Rex. “He Was the Man.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 30, 2011, p. 9B.
Schulte, Troy. “Benson, Storied Figure, Dies at 77.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 23, 2011, p. 1C.
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