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The legendary Jim Owens
Richard Linde, 8 June 2009

Only the passing of time will measure the true greatness of the legendary Jim Owens, who coached football at Washington from 1957 until 1974. His uniqueness as a football coach parallels the uniqueness of the era in which he coached. No other coaching period in Washington's football history has experienced so many ups and downs, so many triumphs and tribulations.

He left an indelible impression on the athletes he coached and on those of us who knew him.

Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, Coach Owens retired from Washington with these words to say, “We are the sum of our days, and should look sharp at how they pass. Of our days, they come and go like muffled veiled figures sent from a distant friendly party.”

I'll always remember him for the following:

-- For his perceptiveness and perspicatiousness:

His coaching stint at Texas A&M under “Bear” Bryant and his days at Junction, Texas laid the foundation for the so-called “Death March” at Washington. He was perceptive and diligent enough to take advantage of one-platoon football and use it to overcome the population advantage enjoyed by the California schools in the conference.

-- For his adaptability to change:

The Montlake milieu, far different than the barren Texas landscape, must have been a shock to the lanky Oklahoman, for there were no prickly goat heads on the UW practice field to annoy the players and coaches, just small pools of mud, patches of green grass and a smattering of rocks, which appeared magically as the sporadic, light rain washed away at the field.

-- For winning the two Rose Bowls and for his National Championship team in 1960.

Each team Owens' 1957/58 teams played against and lost to knew that it had been in a football game. They outlasted their opponents, fourth-quartering them when the game was on the line. In 1999, during a reunion of his 1959 team, Emmett Watson (Seattle Post Intelligencer) shared his memory of those Dawgs. “Players—winning players—were beat up, bruised, exhausted, sometimes stunned by what they’d been through. Instead of exulting they were moaning. That’s what the Huskies were doing to teams they lost to.”

In 1959, the Huskies went 10-1-0, beating Wisconsin in the 1960 Rose Bowl game, 44-8. Not only did that game turn the Rose Bowl around for the old Pacific Coast Conference, but also it was a critical juncture in Husky history that ended 36 years of frustration. Up to that point in time, Washington’s best effort in the Rose Bowl had been a 14-14 tie with Navy in 1924. In their previous appearance 16 years earlier (1944), Southern Cal had administered a wartime whopping, 29-0.

Washington beat Minnesota in the 1961 Rose Bowl, 17-7, and years later laid claim to the national championship.

-- For the turbulent era beginning in 1968 and its eventual outcome: See "Jim Owens: The Big Fella," Reference the section titled, "Racial Unrest." Also, see Bud Withers' article on Owens. Also see Charlie Mitchell, the indefatigable halfback who played for Owens.

-- For his change in coaching philosophies; it was like night and day:

Owens was forced into a passing game, whether he liked it or not. He had come from the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust school of football, and needed to change his philosophy. Enter Sonny Sixkiller, a sophomore out of Ashland, Oregon. Ironically, the Huskies installed Astroturf in 1968. Beginning in 1970, under Sixkiller, no more clouds of dust could be seen, just rooster tails from skidding corner backs trying to catch Husky receivers on rainy days. See the Washington record book for the records Sixkiller set at Washington.

-- For the turnarounds:

In 1970, The Huskies posted a 6-4 record, a marked improvement over their 1-9 record in 1969. Washington returned to the passing game that had worked so successfully many years before, when Don Heinrich quarterbacked the Huskies. Washington compiled two 8-3 seasons, back to back, in 1971 and 1972.

Owens never got mad, he just got even:

Oregon thrashed Washington 58-0 in 1973 and Washington pummeled Oregon 66-0 a year later.

In 1969, UCLA beat Washington 57-14, a year later, the Huskies reciprocated, winning 61-20.

-- For the NCAA rules’ changes that limited the number of scholarships a school was permitted to give, these limitations coming too late in Owens’ career at Washington:

Unfortunately, Owens’ last two seasons at Washington were losing ones. The California schools in the conference had a huge population advantage that Owens just couldn’t overcome. Coming along later in time, several NCAA rules mitigated the effect of this advantage, which helped Owens’ successors at Washington. If Owens had stayed at Washington a few more years, he might have left the program with his head held just a bit higher.

-- For an overall record that should be segmented because of his unique placement in time:

Jim Owens retired to Big Fork, Montana in 1974, garnering a 99-82-6 record at Washington.

His reign at Washington can be broken down into three periods:

(1) The first two years when the Huskies were coming off sanctions (1957-1958, 6-13-1);

(2) the years between them and the implementation of two-platoon football (1959-1963, 38-12-3);

and (3) the subsequent years leading to his retirement (1964-1974, 55-57-2).

-- For the statue that bears semblance and pays tribute to this legendary icon:

During halftime of the football game between Washington and USC (October 25, 2003), a statue of former Husky coach Jim Owens was unveiled. The sculpture was permanently installed outside of the northwest gates at Husky Stadium following the halftime ceremonies.

-- For his honesty, watchfulness and adherence to the rules:

He was as honest as the day is long and managed to control the rapacious boosters that had torpedoed UW football in the early fifties. His school, Washington, was never cited for lacking institutional control under his 18-year watch. He served as athletic director, as well as head coach from 1960-1969.

-- For his one record that will be overlooked by the media in years to come -- a gentle chiding. ;-)

With my apologies to former coaches Don James and Rick Neuheisel and the local media, it must be said that Jim Owens is the only Rose Bowl winning coach at Washington who avoided NCAA infractions and sanctions during his time. I'm simply stating a fact, with no aspersions implied. Is this a big deal? You bet it is in the face of what's happened to UW over the last 16 years.

-- For his help in changing people’s perception of Seattle:

Like Hugh McElhenny before him, he gave a provincial, modest seaport town notoriety and visibility, and today, among all of us who shared his spectacular moment in time, he stands as tall as his mentor, Paul "Bear" Bryant, and forever will.


Owens served two-and-a-half years with the Naval Air Corps during World War II, following his graduation from high school in 1944. For a while he was stationed in Corpus Christie, Texas where he was able to hitchhike home on the weekends and see his girl friend, whom he married when he was 19.

Following his service, Owens enrolled at Oklahoma, where he played from 1946-1949. Owens was the Sooners' captain and leading receiver, earning him All-American honors on Oklahoma's 11-0 squad in 1949.

After graduating in 1950, Owens played one season for the Baltimore Colts while also serving as a part-time assistant at Johns Hopkins University.

Owens was then an assistant under Paul 'Bear' Bryant at Kentucky from 1951-53 and followed Bryant to Texas A&M in 1954 and stayed until 1956.

Owens' Husky teams won three AAWU titles and went to three Rose Bowls,  including the Huskies' first ever Rose Bowl win in 1960, a 44-8 romp over Wisconsin. Owens split his other two trips to Pasadena when the Huskies beat Minnesota 17-7 in 1961 and lost to Illinois in 1964 17-7.

Owens retired after the 1974 campaign and was inducted into the Husky Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural class of 1979. Owens has been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.

Born on March 6, 1927, Jim Owens, age 82, passed away on June 6, 2009, at his home in Big Falls, Montana.

Richard Linde can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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