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Ex-coach Benson dies at 71

He led Tornado from 1957 through 1989; Fosbury was prot?g?

Dean Benson, one of Oregon's finest track and field athletes who served as Medford's High's head track coach for 32 years, died of complications from cancer on Christmas night.

He was 71.

Benson coached Black Tornado track from 1957 through 1989, guiding the team to numerous Southern Oregon Conference championships and the state title in 1964.

He also served as an assistant coach in football and basketball at Medford High for most of his tenure at the school.

Benson's star athletes at Medford included high jumper Dick Fosbury, who won three NCAA titles at Oregon State and the Olympic gold medal at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and sprinter Bob McIntyre, who was part of a world record 4x440-yard relay team at Stanford University.

— Dean was an inspiration to me, said Fosbury, reached by phone at his ranch outside of Bellevue, Idaho, on Monday. He worked to get the best out of his athletes, and you knew he really cared about you.

Fosbury, a 1965 Medford High graduate, revolutionized the high jump by going over the bar backwards. Benson helped Fosbury's cause by gathering chunks of foam rubber and mattresses and forming a soft pit in an era when sawdust landing areas were the norm.

He would cover the whole thing in netting and put bales of hay around the outside to keep it together, Fosbury said. They came out with the foam pits at the 1964 Olympics, but around here it was all sawdust. Dean was ahead of his time.

Benson was quite a track star himself. He won a state championship in the 120-yard high hurdles and led Bend High to the team title in 1952.

He enjoyed even more success in college, winning four Northwest Conference titles in the high hurdles and the NAIA national championship in 1955 for Willamette University.

His personal-record time of 13.9 seconds remains a Willamette record and helped earn him a ticket into the school's sports Hall of Fame.

Benson also competed at the 1956 Olympic Trials, where he finished fourth and just missed qualifying for the Summer Games later that year in Melbourne, Australia.

We were watching the Olympics at his house one time and they were doing a special on the guy (Lee Calhoun) who won the gold medal in '56, said Kelly Rasmussen, Benson's son-in-law. They showed the Trials and there was Dean. The top four finishers were bunched up. He missed going to the Olympics by inches.

Benson was also a standout wide receiver in football, receiving honorable mention in all-conference voting while at Willamette. He earned a tryout with the San Francisco 49ers in the late 1950s and made the team, only to flunk his physical due to a heart condition, Rasmussen said.

Hardly anyone in the Rogue Valley knew of Benson's accomplishments. A modest man, he kept such things to himself.

He was a very humble, very low-key guy, Rasmussen said. He deflected everything to the kids (he coached).

In the classroom, Benson taught physical education, health, biology and special education until his retirement in 1989.

His wife, Judy, preceded him in death in 1990. He's survived by four children and 11 grandchildren.

A memorial service and burial will be Saturday, with further details forthcoming.

Reach reporter Don Hunt at 776-4469, or e-mail Ex-coach Benson dies at 71"dhunt@mailtribune.com.