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Well-traveled football, track and field coach Jim Benn retires after 31 years

Jim Benn
Posted at 3:55 PM, Jun 13, 2024

MISSOULA — Jim Benn nearly ran the gamut coaching high school sports in Montana.

A career that started in Manhattan and ended in Bigfork — with stops at Corvallis, Huntley Project, Ronan, Malta and Missoula Loyola in between — concluded this spring after 72 total seasons as a football, basketball, swimming and track and field coach and athletic director. Benn announced his retirement on June 6.

“Coaching’s a passion-driven endeavor, and it’s a tiring thing,” Benn told MTN Sports. “I wasn’t feeling like I was doing all the things that I’d done in years past and didn’t want to steal from the kids or the game.”

The game gave Benn a lot over the years, starting when he was a young multi-sport athlete himself. He competed in football, basketball and track and field at Frenchtown, which was a Class B school when he graduated high school in 1992.

“I played for, in my opinion, the greatest coach in Montana history in Tim Racicot, just the way he treated us,” Benn said. “And he made me believe in myself maybe when sometimes I didn’t.”

Those lessons learned from Racicot, a Montana Coaches Association hall of famer who won four state football championships at Frenchtown, set a standard for Benn’s career: He always worked with and often came after great coaches.

“In my younger coaching days, I had all these great mentors that just treated me well,” Benn said. “They didn’t care about my age, and they knew how passionate I was about it.”

Benn got his coaching start in 1993. After bouncing around colleges, he ended up in Bozeman at Montana State University. While waiting to start classes, Benn applied to be a middle school basketball coach at Manhattan.

“I was like, ‘Well, let’s give this a shot,’” Benn recalled. “And Kim McMurray was the athletic director there and got me on board. And then I had all these great coaches that are still there at Manhattan that kind of took me under their wing and taught me things.

“Getting to be around Pat Lynch, who is one of the class acts in Montana as far as I’m concerned, and seeing how they interacted with kids and how programs were put together, it was the best training you could possibly imagine.”

Benn learned from Lynch — another MCA hall of famer — at Manhattan from 1993-97, kick-starting a coaching career that spanned 31 years. Benn landed his first high school head coaching job at Corvallis, leading the Blue Devils’ track and field program while serving as an assistant coach on the football staff.

After five years at Corvallis, Benn left for Huntley Project, where he had a historic run coaching the Red Devil track teams. With Benn at the helm, both the Project boys and girls won back-to-back Class B state championships in 2006 and 2007. It remains the only time in Class B track and field history the same school won both the boys and girls championships in consecutive years.

“I love being around the kids and seeing them grow from 100-pound freshmen to 200-pound seniors,” Benn said. “I love the strategy. … There’s the strategy in track of building your roster and getting people in the right events and getting them to perform at high levels.”

It wasn’t until he left Huntley Project that Benn became a head football coach, returning to western Montana to lead the program at Ronan. The Chiefs won only three games in Benn’s first season, but he helped build the team into a playoff contender in his fourth year. Ronan placed second in the old District 6B in 2011 and reached the semifinals of the state playoffs.

Benn then spent two years at Malta — working alongside two more MCA hall of famers in Scott King and Tad Schye — before the pull of family brought him back to western Montana. He closed out his coaching career with a stint on staff at Missoula Loyola and these past four years as the head football coach at Bigfork.

As the head coach, Benn — behind his signature multi-faceted rushing attack — took teams to the playoffs eight times, earning a runner-up finish in 2021 at Bigfork and another semifinal appearance in 2022.

While at Bigfork, he also helped MCA hall of fame coach Sue Loeffler with the track and field teams and dipped his toes in the swimming waters.

“They needed a coach and nobody was stepping up, so I told (athletic director) Matt Porrovecchio, ‘Hey, you know what? We’ll try it. What the heck?’ And my wife (Genna) and I jumped on board, and it was great,” Benn said. “We had 10 kids and pulled up three eighth graders, and it was a really cool experience and an interesting way to cap the whole thing.”

Bigfork made the move from Class B to Class A prior to the 2023-24 school year. Benn helped the Vikings make that transition, leading them to the Class A state football playoffs last fall.

Now he leaves the program to Hunter Johnson, a Dillon native who was on Benn’s staff. Benn has offered to assist in an advisory role if Johnson wants his help.

“I told him that I’ll be in the booth if you want some eyes,” Benn said. “Just trying to be supportive and helpful. I like the idea of mentoring a little bit at this level, so it’ll be fun.”