Jim Owens, who coached University of Washington football for 18 years and led a renaissance of the sport on the West Coast, died this morning at 82 at his home in Bigfork, Montana.
Jim Owens, who coached University of Washington football for 18 years and led a renaissance of the sport on the West Coast, died Saturday morning at 82 at his home in Bigfork, Mont.
Mr. Owens, who coached the Huskies from 1957-74, was one of the school’s enduring icons, a larger-than-life figure whose accomplishments were reflected in the erection of a statue in 2003 near the UW athletic offices on Montlake Boulevard.
“What can you say about Jim?” former UW player Don McKeta asked. “I can’t put it in words. Just like in your life, when you meet somebody that was so dominant, who does so much to create a positive image in your life, and you try to emulate that guy.
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“I think Jim was that to a lot of people.”
Mr. Owens was only 29 when he took over the UW program in 1957. He had played for the legendary Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma.
By the 1959 season, Mr. Owens had molded — through notoriously tough, arduous practices and conditioning — a team that went to the Rose Bowl, and throttled Wisconsin, 44-8, in one of the most shocking games in the history of the bowl.
“Coach never really said anything about his accomplishments,” McKeta said. “I do remember him saying coach Wilkinson had called him and said that was the finest-prepared football team he’d ever seen. Jim was really proud of that.”
Players from that 1959 team recall being made to feel like second-class citizens as the Wisconsin game approached. At one combined team dinner, recalls ex-UW guard Tim Bullard, “We got in the room before they [the Badgers] did. We were in the habit of kind of waiting for the coaches to come in before we sat down.”
That’s when Wisconsin entered, Bullard remembers, and a Badger player called out, “Sit down, Wisconsin’s here.”
Washington players recall their coaches capitalizing on motivation like that.
“It was kind of demeaning to us,” Bullard says, recalling the Wisconsin player. “We were just a bunch of kids from the Northwest. We [routed them], and it was one of the fine experiences of my life, I’ll tell you that.”
The Huskies returned to Pasadena the next season and upset top-ranked Minnesota, 17-7. The consecutive Rose Bowl victories came after the Big Ten had dominated West Coast teams in the game, winning 12 of 13.
“That was one of the unique coaching jobs ever done,” said Jim Sweeney, an ex-Washington State coach, referring to the twin Rose Bowl victories and their impact nationally.
Added Sweeney, “He was always the total definition of a gentleman. He was the same, win or lose, just a wonderful guy and a hell of a good friend.”
Mr. Owens’ 1969 team was torn by the racial strife that affected programs across the country. Several African-American Huskies were asked by Mr. Owens to give 100 percent commitment to the team after they alleged UW was showing favoritism to white players and “stacking” African Americans at certain positions so they were competing among each other for those spots.
When some of those players wouldn’t make that commitment, they were suspended.
Thirty-four years later, in 2003, the old issues re-emerged when Washington brought Mr. Owens back to Seattle for the unveiling of a commemorative statue. Ten black community leaders denounced the school for putting the statue on state property.
Mr. Owens met with some former players, including a couple who had been suspended, and said at a news conference, “Looking back, I wish we had done some things differently.
“That was a painful time, especially for some of the black athletes we coached. Some of the decisions I made during that time were decisions I felt would be the best for the team. It was never my intention to single out the black athletes in any way. By speaking today, I am hoping to bring a sense of healing to a difficult time.”
In 1970, Mr. Owens introduced a sophomore quarterback, Sonny Sixkiller, and went to a predominantly passing offense. Washington went 22-10 in Sixkiller’s three seasons, and then in Mr. Owens’ final two years, the program went 7-15 and he was replaced by Don James.
Mr. Owens had a 99-82-6 record at Washington.
“I got to know him very well,” said Bobby Monroe, a fullback on the 1960-62 teams and an assistant coach in the late ’60s under Mr. Owens. “He was a class man, a class operator, a wonderful husband and father, a wonderful person to be around.
“My heart’s broken.”
Mr. Owens’ son, Steve, said his father had been in poor health in recent years, with some problems related to his heart and high blood pressure.
“The past month, he took a real turn [for the worse],” Steve Owens said.
Mr. Owens’ wife, Martha, his son and his three daughters — Kathy, Leslie and Martha Sue — were with him at his home when he died.
“He had a nice, peaceful passing,” Steve Owens said.
Services are pending.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org