Ernest Benion: Illinois' First Black NCAA Champion
Feb. 26, 2008
When Mark Johnson became Illinois' 13th head wrestling coach, he already knew his first move. While acting as Grand Marshall at the 1992 IHSA state tournament, Johnson witnessed family friend and future Illini Eric Siebert fall to a unique and energetic Ernest Benion in the championship match. Benion's talent caught Johnson's eye as he earned the Class AA state title at 140 pounds to conclude his senior season.
Shortly after taking the position with the Illini, Johnson made a trip to Benion's home in Romeoville. Benion quickly committed to Illinois, giving Johnson his first signee in his new position. But he couldn't have anticipated what other firsts Benion would bring for Johnson and the university.
After using a redshirt season to gain strength and seasoning, Benion spent his next four years as an Illini putting together an impressive résumé full of awards and accomplishments. Benion became Illinois' first black NCAA champion in 1995 and was a three time All-American, becoming one of a select few wrestlers to earn first-, second-, and third-place finishes in the NCAA tournament. He also won the 1997 Big Ten title, helping the team finish third in the tournament, Illinois' best showing in 39 years.
But in 1995, Benion's NCAA title at 158 pounds was nearly overshadowed by Illini teammate Steve Marianetti's win at 150 pounds. Just before Benion was to take the mat at the NCAA Championships, Marianetti defeated a defending national champion to win the title. His huge upset drew mass attention and created a buzz in the crowd, distracting many fans from Benion's championship bout.
Johnson didn't overlook Ernest's history-making victory, though. Now, not only had he coached two NCAA champions in the same season, but Benion's title as Illinois' first black national champion was something unique. Coincidentally, Johnson was first coached in high school by Simon Roberts, the first-ever black NCAA champion, and after coaching Benion to the title, he now had an exceptional connection to both.
When he finished his career, Benion held the school record for career wins with 121 wins and was named Illinois' Dike Eddleman Athlete of the Year in 1997. Despite all of his accomplishments and his amazing athletic talent, Johnson remembers Benion's down-to-earth character most.
"He was a humble, modest and out-going guy," Johnson said. "He definitely wasn't cocky. Everybody liked Ernest Benion."
Everyone did like Ernest Benion, and similar to how his NCAA title match seemed to be overlooked by many fans in attendance, many people at Illinois recognized him for the things he did off the mat. Not only was he a captain and leader of the team, but also a friend to all. Eric Siebert and Benion became good friends as teammates at Illinois after they spent their high school careers as competitors.
"To me, it says a lot that he was very close to Eric Siebert when he got here since they wrestled each other at the state championships," Johnson. "When you can cross barriers after you've competed and beaten somebody in a big tournament like that, especially in the finals, it says a lot about your character," Johnson said.
Still, some of Johnson's fondest memories of Benion are placed outside of wrestling.
"We had a Fall Fun Fest for all the student-athletes out at the baseball field, and there was karaoke and all these athletes are making fools of themselves singing," Johnson said. "All of a sudden, Ernest starts singing and everybody is going, `Who is that? This guy is good,' and it was Benion."
Benion's singing talent didn't go unnoticed and someone soon asked him to sing the national anthem at Illinois volleyball matches, which he did all five years of his college career. In turn, a lot of those volleyball fans became wrestling fans.
But Benion's singing opportunities didn't stop there. In addition to the volleyball matches, Benion also sang the national anthem at the IHSA wrestling tournament. He sang at weddings and even sang at an Illinois-Michigan football game. He was extremely involved on campus and always supported his fellow athletes by attending other sporting events. Benion's outgoing character teamed with his amazing talent made him extremely popular. So popular that by the time his senior season came, Johnson had to remind him not to try to do too much.
"All the guys liked him," Johnson said. "He was a captain and he was a leader. He was one of those guys who was everything you want in a student-athlete," Johnson said. Benion earned the athletic department's Spirit Award in both 1995 and 1997 for all of his involvement on and off campus.
Benion left the University of Illinois after a phenomenal wrestling career that many Illini fans still remember. Although Benion made history and was extremely talented, his extraordinary character is what those closest to him remember most.
Ernest Benion's success as the first black NCAA champion at Illinois is one credential among many he created. While he may downplay many of his athletic accomplishments, the record book, the banner inside Huff Hall and his photo on the wrestling practice room's wall of national champions speak for themselves. He will long be remembered at Illinois as one of the greatest.