Owens Brought Toughness and Respect

When Jim Owens was hired by the University of Washington he wasn't even 30 years old. He had played for the great Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma and had been an assistant coach to the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant. He was tall, dark, and handsome and became one of the truly great football coaches is the history of the school, the city, the state, and the conference.

It's too bad that he has always been remembered for the racial strife that struck both his program and our whole nation at the same time. He wasn't just hard on the African American players; he was hard on all his players. He demanded toughness and his teams were always in better condition than anyone they played.

My first year of playing organized football was 1957. I played for a pee-wee level team called the View Ridge Ram Jets. We lived so close to the university that we could hear the crowd roar at Husky Stadium. After almost every one of our Saturday morning games we rode our bikes to the stadium, jumped the fence and begged for chinstraps as the Dawgs went up the tunnel.

We couldn't get enough football then and all of us wanted to become Huskies someday. We'd go watch practices that lasted four or four-and-a-half hours, and you could always hear the pads popping. It was a hard-nosed, tough and demanding form of football. Every player was conditioned to play both ways for a whole game. They ran, and ran, and ran, and hit. And then they ran some more. There were no fat guys. In fact, many the linemen were barely over 200 pounds.

Nobody was in better shape than Jim Owens' Huskies.

Now they didn't win a lot of games his first two years, going 3-6-1 and 3-7. But by 1959, Owens took his team and half of Seattle with him to the Rose Bowl, where they pounded the Wisconsin Badgers 44-8. Our family hopped in the station wagon and went with them. It was highlighted by our first trip to Disneyland, but the Rose Bowl Stadium simply blew me away.

I just knew I would come back there and play someday and it became more than just a goal for me. I knew then I wanted to play for the great Jim Owens.

Being in the eighth grade, football was my obsession, and with no pro team in town, the Huskies were The Team: They played tenacious defense and ran the ball, rarely throwing more than 10 times a game. By the 1959 season there were hardly any of the original players left on the team. He had ran off the weak ones and had instituted a period known as the Death March, during which the Huskies went from soft to hard, both on and off the field. He taught a conservative approach to the game and they won by playing great defense, running the football on offense, and being solid in the kicking game.

My team went undefeated and won the championship my senior year, but Jim Owens didn't offer me a scholarship. I was crushed. That same year, Owens took his team back to the Rose Bowl, but this time lost to Illinois. It had been their third trip to Pasadena in a seven-year period, and by then his teams struck fear into most opponents. Especially in Husky Stadium.

Coach Owens lived in my neighborhood, in both the Wedgewood and Laurelhurst areas of the North end. He was a walking legend and his stature was such that when he walked into a room, it was like John Wayne had entered. He was always bigger than life to me and clearly one of the most well-respected coaches in the country. At that time, Jim Owens was an icon in Northwest sports.

One of his assistants, Bert Clark, left after that last Rose Bowl game and became the coach at Washington State. He took the Owens style of football to Pullman and he also took me along with him. He also brought the heavy emphasis on conditioning and we ran 10 x 100's after every practice. Guys dropped like flies in the hot sun. After four seasons, of the 105 players he bought in with me, only nine of us were left.

I had gone from a wannabe Husky to an angry Cougar, and during my senior year when I was the captain of my team, we finally beat the Huskies after eight straight losses. I received the Apple Cup Trophy on behalf of my team and felt I had finally been vindicated.

Coach Owens approached me in the tunnel, put his arm over my shoulder and told me, 'Congratulations. I think I made a mistake by not recruiting you.' It was one of the greatest moments of my playing career. It made me proud to have survived.

The next year was 1968, my first year in coaching. We beat the Huskies 24-0 in Spokane. It became a precursor to the worst year of Coach Owens' career, when in 1969 the Huskies stumbled to 1-9. It was also the worst year because the Washington campus erupted in racial violence and it spilled over onto the football field. I was attending Washington by then in order to complete my education degree and watched the protests and marches on a daily basis.

I was playing that year for the Seattle Rangers in semi-pro football under Don White, another ex-Owens assistant, and many of my teammates were ex-Huskies, including Donnie Moore - who I had always considered to be one of the really great Husky running backs. Donnie had been at the heart of the Husky racial controversy and had essentially been kicked off the team. He and the other Huskies on the team just shook their heads whenever discussions led to the problems at Washington.

The problem wasn't at Washington: It was a national issue, and unfortunately coach Owens got swept up in it. No question there was some validity to the charges, but coach Owens was by then the athletic director and head coach, and it's tough to fire yourself. He did weather the storm, and even changed his approach to the game by bringing in Sonny Sixkiller and throwing the ball more.

Coach Owens stuck around until the end of the 1974 season before finally stepping down after 18 years on the job. It was under the Owens era that the Husky Stadium crowd started cheering for the defense. It was under Jim Owens that the Huskies became a tough-minded team. You'd better not be standing around the pile because someone was always coming to knock your block off. They played through the whistle, and everyone hustled all the time on both offense and defense. Linemen were expected to be downfield blocking safeties and everyone on defense sprinted to the football. Loafing was considered a critical error, and there was little or no room for discussion. You played with courage and you kept your mouth shut. You let your pads do the talking.

Opponents feared coming to Husky Stadium because even if you beat the Dawgs, you were going to get really beaten up in the process.

During the Snow Bowl in the early nineties I was upstairs in the scout box when a man entered the room with a long coat and a hat pulled down over his ears. I told him he had to get the hell out of our box and told coach Jim Lambright we had some nut standing behind us. When Jim turned around, the guy took off his hat and it was none other than coach Owens. We all had a good laugh.

He knew we were struggling and had come by just to pick us up. We still lost, but having Coach Owens there had made my day. We were still going to the Rose Bowl and he was still tall, grey and handsome.

To me, Jim Owens put Husky football on the map. He had been part of the Junction Boys as an assistant to the Bear and he brought that toughness to Seattle and made it the backbone of Husky football. He started the traditions that are still alive in the way Husky football is played today. He was a great coach and a wonderful human being and will always be remembered by those who played for him.


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