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Pioneering wrestling coach Don Benning passes at 81

Don Benning, pioneer wrestling coach and former member of the U.S. Olympic wrestling committee, died Thursday night. He was 81.

Don Benning
In athletics and academics, Benning was a man of many firsts. First black faculty member at the University of Omaha, now University of Nebraska-Omaha. First black head coach in a predominantly white university (Omaha) in the United States and the first to lead a team to a national championship, according to his hometown newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald. First black member of the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Committee, in 1969.

Don Benning grew up in Omaha. At North High School, Benning was a three-sport athlete; in addition to wrestling, he competed in football and baseball. He continued in those same three sports at what is now UNO, joining the newly reinstated wrestling program there as a senior, where he was undefeated. (Benning had turned down an invitation to wrestle as a walk-on at Iowa State because his family could not afford to send him there.)

In the early 1960s, Benning launched his professional career at UNO, as first African-American to join the faculty at UNO, and its first black coach in any sport, taking the reins of the wrestling program in 1963. In eight seasons as Nebraska-Omaha head wrestling coach, Benning led the teams to an 87-24-4 dual-meet record... with a dominating 55-3-2 record in his last four seasons at the helm, according to Leo Adam Biga, author of "Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness" about Omaha black sports legends. In 1970, Benning took the team to the national title at the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) Wrestling Championships after UNO had placed second in the team standings at the 1968 and 1969 NAIA Nationals.

Benning told Biga, "Because of the uniqueness of the situation and the circumstances, I knew if I failed I was not going to be judged by being Don Benning, it was going to be because I was African-American."

"You have to understand in the early 1960s, when I was first in these positions, there wasn't a push nationally for diversity or participation in society," Benning said to Biga for his book. "The push for change came in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act, when organizations were forced to look at things differently. As conservative a community as Omaha was and still is it made my hiring more unusual. I was on the fast track …

"On the academic side or the athletic side, the bottom line was I had to get the job done. I was walking in water that hadn't been walked in before. I could not afford not to be successful. Being black and young, there was tremendous pressure … not to mention the fact I needed to win."
After concluding his teaching and coaching career at Omaha, Benning then became an administrator for the Omaha Public Schools, guiding the district through the desegregation process in a career that spanned 26 years.

Benning earned a number of honors throughout his career, including the NAIA Award of Merit and the Sports Illustrated Award of Merit. He was also named NAIA Coach of the Year. Benning is a member of the UNO Wrestling Hall of Fame, the NSWCA (Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association) Coaching Hall of Fame, and the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Funeral services are pending.

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