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Jim Owens, The “Big Fella”
By Richard Linde, Updated April 2011

f Don James is the Dawgfather to Washington football, then Jim Owens is its great Dawgfather. Owens, who coached 18 years at Washington from 1957 to 1974, shaped West Coast football in a way that no other coach had before - a modern-day coach may never be so influential.

He began his head coaching career in the Pacific Coast Conference, which back in 1957 was the weakest conference in college football and an embarrassment to every PCC football fan.

"Hey, guys, those Midwest farm boys are tough and strong. You west coast kids are a bunch of sissies."

He resurrected a football program on the wane and was known to everybody who lived in Seattle - football fan or not. Like Hugh McElhenny before, 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. 

No story about a Husky coach of the fifties, however, would be complete without first mentioning the influential Roscoe “Torchy” Torrance, a Seattle businessman and avid Husky fan.

Sleepless in Seattle

In his book "Torchy!," Torrance recalls a meeting he had with Bear Bryant, who was coaching Kentucky at the time. According to Torrance, Bryant pointed to one of his assistant coaches and said, “That fellow will make a great coach for somebody some day.” The coach was Jim Owens. When Torrance returned to Seattle he mentioned the incident to Washington’s athletic director, George Briggs. A year later, Jim Owens took over as Washington’s head football coach, leaving Texas A&M as an assistant coach.

Owens took over a program in total turmoil. After he was fired in 1955, ex- Husky coach John Cherberg testified that Husky athletes were being paid under the table through a slush fund run by Torrance. Harvy Cassill (Washington’s AD) resigned in 1956 after it was disclosed that funds had been diverted from a pro football exhibition to the Greater Washington Advertising Organization, headed by Torrance. This organization distributed monthly paychecks to Husky players. In 1956, Washington was banned from the Rose Bowl (a two year ban) for its slush-fund scandal. Although boosters were allowed to help players out with cash payments in those days, the allowable amount was limited by the NCAA in the mid-fifties; Washington’s players received more than that amount.

Cherberg charged that Torrance was using the slush fund to turn Husky players against him. According to Torrance that charge wasn’t true at all. Although the local press had known about the slush fund all along, they backstabbed Torrance, treating it as a breaking story. Sports writers, who had been friends with him for years, left him twisting in the wind. Years later, Cherberg and Torrance shook hands, settling their differences. Cherberg used his new-found popularity to become the Lt. Governor of the State of Washington.

"I'm here to stay"

A cacophony of backbiting, countercharges and unrest set the scene for Jim Owens when he arrived in town. Call it “Sleepless in Seattle,” sans Tom Hanks. There was no love affair between Husky fans and their head coaches. Stated another way, taking over the Washington head coaching job in 1957 was akin to replacing the Captain of the Titanic just after it had struck the iceberg.

Seemingly naïve enough not to know any better, Jim Owens was just two months short of his thirtieth birthday when he took the job, replacing Darrel Royal who jumped ship for Texas after a one-year stint as head football coach at Washington.

“I’m here to stay,” said Owens, who was the fourth Husky football coach in a span of six years. Seemingly, he was ready to go down with the ship—or willing to be keelhauled like his predecessors.

Not surprisingly—considering those tumultuous times—Owens had losing seasons during his first two years at Washington (1957, 1958). Notwithstanding, Washington’s 1957 freshman class headed by Bob Schloredt may have been one of its best ever. In 1958, a Husky team made up mostly of sophomores traveled to Columbus, Ohio to play the heavily favored Ohio State Buckeyes, and lost 12-7. The Huskies were in the game all the way, a portent of things to come.

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.

Owens' 1960 football team was honored during the halftime of the USC game (Sept 29, 2007) as national champions. Minnesota, which was named the national champion by polls taken before the bowl games, lost to the Huskies, 17-7, in the 1961 Rose Bowl.

The Death March

Taking advantage of the limited substitution (one platoon football) rule, Owens conditioned his athletes better than anyone else. His teams fourth-quartered their opponents, pinning them to the mat after wearing them down for three quarters. His players believed in themselves because they had survived the “death march,” a term used by the media to describe one of the Husky Husky practices -- which was patterned after the workouts that Bear Bryant had used at Junction, Texas when Owens worked as an assistant coach.

As an assistant to Owens, Tom Tipps (also on the staff with Owens at Texas A&M) helped him install the physical conditioning program they had used at Texas A&M so successfully. In 1957, they took over a team that lacked depth; there was little experience at quarterback. The coaches looked for an edge. They took players to the point of where they thought they couldn’t do anymore, both physically and mentally. Then they’d push them some more. Husky practices resembled a military boot camp; the physical conditioning and mental toughness gained during the week translated into victories on Saturday.

After several successful years at Washington, other schools attempted to lure Owens away. At that time, fans were saying that Owens walked across the bay to get to the games from his home on Webster's Point, which was in the Laurelhurst area. In 1961, Owens assumed two roles: that of head football coach and athletic director. The new position paid more money and made it unattractive for him to leave Washington.

To compete with the pros for fan interest, the NCAA decided to return to two-platoon football in 1964. After that rules change, Owens was slow to modify his coaching philosophy. In the past, his teams emphasized defense and the running game, something he’d learned at Oklahoma. However, conditioning and mental preparedness were not as important as having skilled athletes on the playing field.

Up to that time, his teams had been run-oriented, only throwing the ball occasionally to keep the defense honest. But the other teams from the Pacific Eight conference were searching for quarterbacks who could pass the ball and looking for receivers who could get open and catch it. Fortunately for them, California’s high schools and junior colleges were turning out those commodities in droves. Nobody could run on the Trojans in those days, so it made sense to pass the ball and keep the fans interested by featuring a wide-open attack.

Considering the number of its teams that featured a passing game, it can be said that the Pacific Eight/Pac-10 was college football’s first real passing conference. It dominated the Rose Bowl from 1970-1992, going 19-4 against the ground-oriented Big Ten.

Owens was slow to match the rest of the conference in a wide-open attack. Tough entrance requirements at Washington made it hard for him to recruit skilled athletes from out of state. Then there was the racial unrest at Washington in 1968 through 1970, which haunted the Washington program. The Huskies went 1-9-0 in 1969 in the midst of that crisis.

Racial unrest

The sixties were a time of racial unrest and turmoil in the United States. In that decade, a popular president and one of his brothers were assassinated. Riots occurring in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, in August of 1965, resulted in the death of 35 people who were mostly black. In February of that year, Malcolm X was assassinated. In April 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King met a similar fate and, on June 5 of that year, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Beginning in 1961, The Vietnam War, the most unpopular war in American history, lasted through the decade and halfway into the next.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was a 1967 American drama film starring Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn. The film was groundbreaking for its positive representation of the controversial subject of interracial marriage, which historically had been illegal in most states of the United States, and was still illegal in 17 Southern states up until June 12 of the year of the film's release.

Many students of the sixties and early seventies "loathed the military," as former president Bill Clinton wrote in a letter to Colonel Holmes on December 3, 1969. To compound the racial problems at the UW, Jim Owens ran a football program that resembled a military boot camp at times.

Three incidents of racial revolt, occurring over a span of three years, began in 1968. Unfair treatment of black athletes at the university surfaced after Harry Edwards, a black Sociology professor at San Jose State, visited the Washington campus in 1968. Edwards is the author of the book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete (1969).

In that book, referring to gains made at San Jose State College in 1967 via demands by The United Black Students for Action, Edwards wrote, " So we called a rally to commence at noon on the opening day of classes for the fall, 1967, semester ... [for] the elimination of racism at San Jose State College. We invited all faculty members and administration officials. We outlined a list of demands and stated publicly what our strategy would be if our demands were not met. We, in effect, declared that we would prevent the opening football game of the season from being played by any means necessary...So we had carried the confrontation. But more than this, we had learned the use of power -- the power to be gained from exploiting the white man's economic and almost religious involvement in athletics."

Edwards, along with Tommy Smith of San Jose State College, helped influence the black boycott of the 1968 Olympic games.

The racial unrest at the UW was made public in March 1968 by Life Magazine. Thirteen African American players, who apparently were led by halfback Harvy Blanks, made four demands of the university and its athletic department.

  1. A four-man black athletic committee would oversee any changes that Jim Owens made in black personnel, such as demoting a player to second string.
  2. All coaches would be reviewed for discriminatory practices.
  3. An athletic trainer who purportedly used the “N” word was to be dismissed. It was alleged that he gave perfunctory treatment to injured black players.
  4. A black coach was to be hired.

Two of the demands were met. Carver Gayton, an African American player from one of Owens’ early teams, was hired as an assistant coach. The trainer was fired.

Whatever gains were made were laid to rest when, on October 29, 1969, four black players meeting with Gayton protested the demotion of black halfback Landy Harrell to second string. Harrell then quit the team over his punishment, which required him to run the steps of Husky Stadium twice for fumbling twice against Oregon in a 22-7 loss the previous week. They had other grievances as well and said they wanted to boycott the UCLA game, which was to be played on November 1.

After Gayton told Owens what had happened, Owens met with every player on the team and asked for their 100% commitment to the football program. Apparently, Blanks, Greg Alex, Lamar Mills and Ralph Bayard, all of them African Americans, said they could not. As a result, Owens suspended them from the team.

A UPI story, printed in the Ogden Standard Examiner, described the trip to Los Angeles for Washington's next game with UCLA as follows: Washington's team flew to Los Angeles Friday, minus 13 black members (four who were suspended plus nine who skipped the trip because of threats against them and their families.) "Four (black) players were suspended Thursday by coach Jim Owens for failure to express 'a 100 per cent commitment to Husky football.' Joe Kearney, director of sports programs at the university, said the remaining nine black players wanted to make the trip to Los Angeles for Saturday's game with UCLA. But he and assistant coach Carver Gayton, himself a (black), decided the nine should remain behind in the interest of their safety. 'The threat not only was implied, it was overt,' Kearney said. He said nearly 200 persons, mostly blacks, had gathered at the Crew House, where the football squad lives. 'There were rocks in some of their pockets,' Kearney said. 'There were threats against the families and the black athletes themselves.'" [Ogden UPI].

UCLA beat Washington, 57-14, in what turned out to be one of the most disappointing Husky games I have ever witnessed in person.

While Owens and his wife Martha were in Los Angeles, four men, two black and two white, assailed Owens’ 17-year old daughter, Kathy. They forced her car off the road and one of them, reportedly black, asked her if she was an Owens. Before she managed to drive off, the assailant pulled her head back by the hair and struck her in the face.

A newspaper account of the upheaval on the following Sunday went on to say, "Meanwhile, a spokesman for the football squad said Sunday the team does not think racial conflict was behind the Huskies' problems. Bob Burmeister, defensive safety on the team, issued a statement which he said speaks for 100 per cent of the team, including the four suspended blacks. 'We, as concerned members of the University of Washington football team, including the four suspended players,' the statement said, 'feel that the problems facing the University of Washington football program are team problems, and that there is no basis for racial conflict, and refute any statement to the contrary. This comes from 100 per cent of the team.' Burmeister said it was 'just the general consensus of the team that we have a meeting,' and the statement was the outcome. He said the meeting was at the university's Athletic Department, but no coaches were there." [Centralia]

"Another development late Sunday was a statement from Joe Jones, president of the University of Washington Black Athletes Alumni Club. It said in part: 'Jim Owens has demonstrated with his arbitrary suspension of four black athletes from the football team that he still is not willing or ready to give his black athletes an equal break. Because Jim Owens has not acted in good faith toward Assistant Coach Carver Gayton nor the black football players, the UWBAAC has no choice but to reiterate the demand for his dismissal. The UWBAAC also demands the reinstatement of Blanks, Bayard, Mills and Alex immediately.' The statement from Jones went on to say that the UWBAAC 'deplores those who resort to violence or threaten violence, whether they are white or black. Violence cannot resolve problems, particularly the problems that are crippling University of Washington football, it's for this reason that we denounce the anonymous assailant or assailants of Jim Owens' daughter.'" [Centralia]

On the same Sunday, Ron Reid of the San Mateo Times wrote, "It has also been alleged that Owens' (black) assistant coach, Carver Gayton, received a bomb threat against his home if he did not persuade the other black members of the squad to refuse to make the UCLA trip. All of which creates new worry for Ralston, and a Stanford squad that should have been happily working today after last Saturday's 33-0 rout of Oregon State is now an uptight organization for whom the tension of potential intimidation can hardly be ignored." [Reid].

Ralston, in preparing for Stanford's game with Washington, on November 8, was worried about threats and intimidations directed against his black players.

Joe Kearney, who assumed the role of athletic director after taking over from Owens earlier in the year, met with Gayton, Owens, school administrators, the Board of Regents and student leaders later in the week.

On Tuesday, November 4, Gayton’s brother, Gary, an attorney hired by the four suspended players, said that he would do everything in his power to see that Owens resigned or in someway be dismissed as football coach.

That statement triggered a backlash of support for Owens among white fans, some of whom had been noncommittal until then.

On Saturday, at the Stanford game, Owens was given a standing ovation by the predominantly 48,000 white fans as he took the field. His team was 0-7 at the time.

After meeting with the four suspended black players the next Friday, Owens announced that reinstatement of three of the African American players, Alex, Bayard and Mills. Blanks remained suspended; Gayton, caught in the middle of the suspensions, resigned as assistant coach the next Monday.

Blanks, through his attorney Gary Gayton, threatened to sue the school.

In April 1970, the school's Human Right Commission began an investigation into charges of racism in the athletic department.

On October 20, 1970, Kearney said the relationship between the athletic department and black athletes was substantially improved. That afternoon, Owens suspended black halfback Mark Wheeler for missing two practices.

Two days after the Washington State game, Wheeler (who had never returned to the team), Ira Hammon, Charles Evans and Calvin Jones left the team.

An AP article described the event as follows, "Four black University of Washington varsity football players said Monday they are ending their association with the school's athletic program. Mark Wheeler, a halfback, quit the team at midseason. The others are Calvin Jones, Ira Hammon and Charles Evans. 'We feel that the University of Washington football program has shown very little incentive in bettering its relationship between the black athletes and the coaches,' the four said in a statement at a news conference." (Nov 24, 1970 AP, The Billings Gazette).

Investigation by Board of Regents:

Their leaving the team triggered an investigation by the Board of Regents into racial practices at the university. The Human Rights Commission, which had been working on the problems since April, recommended that Owens and Kearney be fired.

On December 19, 1970,  the group dominated by  the Board of Regents, which had been investigating the situation for almost one month, recommended the hiring of a black assistant coach and a black athletics’ department manager.

Early in January, Ray Jackson, who had been on Owens’ first Rose Bowl team, was hired as an assistant coach. Former Seattle sportswriter Donald K. Smith, a black, was hired as associate athletic director.

Smith said that the firing of Owens and Kearney would not solve the situation, that its roots went much deeper than just those two men, and that it was a problem that existed elsewhere in the country.

Calvin Jones returned to the team as a result of negotiations with Smith, Gary Gayton and Owens. Wheeler enrolled at Harvard; Hammon and Evans transferred to Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.

Blanks never was reinstated nor did he file suit against the university. Later, Owens permitted him to play in an Alumni All-Star game to demonstrate his talent to pro scouts. He went on to pursue an acting career. Click on this link.

The Black Athletes Alumni Club, which had previously discouraged black athletes from attending Washington, reversed its stand.

Smith managed to restore peace and order to the Huskies’ football program. [Rockne, One Hundred Years].


January 22, 1971. UW players deny racism or the case of the missing  audio tape. Click on the photo (left) to enlarge. "We wanted our opinions known and they were given freely. We asked that a tape be made so the expressions given would be completely accurate ... Yet President Odegaard and members of the Board of Regents said they never heard the tape. Somehow the tape disappeared," one of the players said.

"We know the tape was good and trusted it was safe in the hands of Samuel Kelly.  Dr. Kearney has related to me since then, many other factors that, I'm convinced, were at work here," one of the former players at the meeting has told the author.


October, 1971. In a game against UCLA later in 1971, the Huskies seemed to have their racial issues mostly resolved, according to defensive back Calvin Jones, who said "we're starting to have confidence in one another." Jones had left the team in November 1970 after the suspension of Mark Wheeler. In the article, Owens was quoted as saying the team had good morale. (Click left to enlarge).


Donald Smith on Owens, four years later in the wake of the Tsunami that struck Union Bay:

The following quote appeared in the Ames Daily News in January 1974, Owens' last year at Washington. "'People said that Jim Owens was a racist,' Smith commented, adding that he personally had found Owens to be a warm, sensitive person. 'I would hate to see Jim Owens leave. He's made every effort to adjust his attitude. But he has one year left on a three-year contract. He has next year to do it (produce a winning team), or I don't know what will happen.'" [Lockhart].

"'I took the job in the face of criticism from the black community, which had been polarized,' Smith said. 'We still have a difficult time recruiting minority athletes because of that. The racial cause was a good rallying point for dissatisfied athletes. Their egos were built up in high school, then when they came to college they were thrown in with a lot of guys with big egos.' Smith explained that the athletes, black and white, who never really make the starting teams in college have trouble adjusting to not being stars any more."  [Lockhart].

Perspective, old wounds healed years later:

Click on this link for a Seattle Times interview with Jones, Hammon and Evans (Nov 6, 2006) (link to story). "I don't blame Jim Owens," Jones told the Times 36 years later. "It was the culture. He wasn't a black kid. He wasn't raised in a black environment. Why did it take so long? Because of our racism and our blindness, we can't see our weaknesses."

Hammon told the Times: "If Jim Owens were here right now, I would hug him. I would wrap my arms around him, and I would thank him for making me who I am today."

For Carver Gayton's historical account, click on this link.

Also, read about Husky running back Donny Moore (1965, '66) by clicking here.

And not so charitable in his remembrances, read: Harvy Blanks interview with the Seattle Times. "Ex-Husky looks back in anger," 31 October 2003. Excerpt: "Blanks was not asked back, but says he doesn't blame Owens for that. 'I basically called him a liar... Quite frankly, if I had been the coach, I wouldn't have let me back on, either.'"

Owens' final years at the UW

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.

In 1970, The Huskies posted a 6-4 record, a marked improvement over their 1-9 record in 1969. Washington had 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.

Unfortunately, Owens’ last two seasons 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 high.

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: The first two years when the Huskies were coming off sanctions (1957-1958, 6-13-1); the years between them and the implementation of two-platoon football (1959-1963, 38-12-3); and the subsequent years leading to his retirement (1964-1974, 55-57-2).

Owens passed away on June 6, 2009, at the age of 82.

For more on Joe Kearney's career reference [Condotta] below.

Although Jim Owens inherited a team on probation for booster irregularities in 1957, he is the only Rose Bowl winning coach at Washington whose tenure was not marred by sanctions meted out for violations of NCAA and/or conference rules and bylaws.

The UW's most charismatic coach

Jim Owens was the most charismatic of Washington’s head football coaches. With his good looks and positive personality, he was ready made for TV. As a student at Oklahoma, the coeds flocked after him on campus, but he said he never looked back. Everyone who met him was captivated by his wide smile and personality. When he spoke with you, he would look you right in the eye, and you believed what he said.

When Owens’ teams played in Los Angeles, I made a point to meet the team bus when it arrived at the Coliseum; I always gave Owens a wave of the hand as he got off the bus, and then would call out to wish him luck. He always waved back and smiled. I like to think he began to know me by sight after a few years, and expected me to be there. I was one of the few fans to show up on those occasions, for it was tough for Owens to win in LA. A lot of coaches would have been too arrogant or introverted to encourage my raucous behavior—but not Owens. If he had been a professional golfer, he would have been as popular with the fans as Seattle’s Freddie Couples.

Owens spent time in California searching for JC players. A couple of former JC coaches I talked with say they will never forget Owens’ magnetic personality and honesty. I had the same experience at a Los Angeles hotel, where I met Owens at a Husky Hoedown preceding a Rose Bowl game. He’d retired then, but was most gracious and willing to talk about the past, especially about that 1960 Rose Bowl game. That game is a watershed moment in Husky history, launching Washington football, as it is known today, the West Coast’s premier program.

Owens’ effort at Washington paved the way for the Dawgfather, Don James (1975-1992, 153-57-2). Without Jim Owens who knows where the Huskies would be today. When it comes to comparing Washington’s coaches, the “Big Fella” stands tall, maybe slightly taller than the rest.

Afterward (one of the first equal-opportunity coaches).

On October 25, 2003, Jim Owens was honored during half-time at the UW/USC football game. At that time, a statue of his likeness was unveiled and was given a permanent spot in front of Husky Stadium.

One day before the unveiling, black protestors decried the placement of the statue, and their protests were given top billing by the Seattle media.

Owens said accusations of racism were "totally untrue," as were charges that he "stacked" black players at certain positions to limit the number of African Americans on the field. One of Owens' black players, Dave Dinish agreed with Owens, saying Owens had players at their best positions, regardless of color.

Click here for the UW website's article on the statue.

As mentioned, I met Jim Owens in 1978 at a Husky Hoedown held at the St. Bonaventure hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

Owens dined with George Fleming who was one of the blacks on the 1960 Rose Bowl team, and I spoke with Fleming, reliving a remarkable moment in Husky history that forever changed West Coast football.

The following day, the Dawgs went on to beat Michigan, 27-20, in the Rose Bowl.

"Those (protesters) are well off base," said Dinish, who played halfback and receiver. "Jim Owens was extremely good to me."

"(We) should have a Jim Owens Day. I love the guy," said Ron Preston, another black who played running back. "I thought he was just as fair as could be."

None of the protestors that protested the placement of the statue were members of Owens' teams from 1968-70, when the racial unrest occurred. However, in the Seattle Times piece linked above, Harvy Blanks was quoted as saying, "His statue there does not make me feel good, the idea of this guy being honored in that way. That, to me, again shows that there are two Americas, or in this case, two remembrances. There is the white one and there is the black one."

In his book written with Bob Condotta, Sonny Sixkiller (1969-1973) has this to say, "I know there was some controversy about how Coach Owens treated some players, but as far as I saw it, he was always fair with everybody...I mean, I have to give him a lot of credit for taking a skinny kid out of Ashland, Oregon and letting him throw the football around. I'll always be proud of that. [Sixkiller, Condotta].

Stacking players? Gee, kind of hard stacking players when one-platoon football ruled the day. Ask Charlie Mitchell if Owens ever stacked him at halfback. Mitchell, one of the quickest backs I’d ever seen at Washington, started for Owens in a number of games and carried the ball ad nauseam.

"Humpback 32, on White." Mitchell off right tackle. Mitchell off left tackle.

Hey, Owens, throw Charlie a pass or two, or run him to the outside like Odell did with Hurricane Hugh.

Hey, Owens, remember Don Heinrich--the Arm, the Bremerton Bomber? He transferred the ball. Oh, sure, three things can happen and two of them are bad. I forgot.

Several of Owens’s blacks were named to all-conference teams, Mitchell (1961), Fleming (1960), Ray Jackson (1960). Wow, they sure got short-changed in carries. Was Owens an off-and-on again racist?

Oh, sure, Hugh McElhenny is the king of them all, but Mitchell deserves his legendary place in Husky history, too, along with George Fleming, Dave Dinish, Ray Jackson, Ron Preston and every black, including the protesters, who played for the Big Fella.

There weren’t many black players in college football during Owens early years at the UW; ironically, Owens was one of the first coaches in college football to give black players an equal opportunity, and he was taught by the great Paul Bear Bryant, who got converted over by Sam “Bam” Cunningham in 1970.

Later, after that historical game with USC, former Bear Bryant assistant coach Jerry Claiborne noted, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes that night than Martin Luther King had accomplished in 20 years.”

Was Owens a racist?

The fact is that Owens never was a bigot, racist or prejudiced. He was simply overwhelmed by the times, like most white Americans who had never suffered the prejudices of racism and profiling, all of them, both black and white Americans, caught ashore in a tsunami of misunderstanding and turbulence. Some of them have drifted out to sea and then back again, to rewrite a history that is never quite the same, the retelling of which, at times, suits the whims of a demagogue.

Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jim Owens exited 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.”


Owens served two-and-a-half years with the Naval Air Corps during World War II, following is 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.

Mea Culpa:

All of the opinions expressed in this article are my own, and should not be associated with any of the authors of the references listed below or with dawgman.com, with whom I wish to credit the photos.


  • [Farmer]. Farmer, Sam, "Bitter Roses, An Inside Look at the Washington Huskies’ Turbulent Year," Sagamore Publishing, 1993.

  • [Rockne]. Rockne, Dick, "Bow Down To Washington," The Strode Publishers, 1975.

  • [Torrance]. Torrance, Roscoe with Bob Karolevitz, "Torchy!, The Biography and Reminiscences of Roscoe C. Torrance," Dakota Homestead Publishers, 1988.

  • [Linde]. Linde, Richard, The Montlake Boys 4malamute.com, 24 January 2003.

  • [One Hundred Years]. "One Hundred Years of Husky Football," Professional Sports Publications, New York City, 1990.

  • [Sixkiller, Condotta]. Sixkiller, Sonny; Condotta, Bob, "Sonny Sixkiller's Tales from the Huskies Sideline, Sports Publishing, L.L.C., 804 North Neil Street, Champaign, Illinois, 61820.

  • [Lockhart]. Lockhart, Larry, "Smith: Lot of things not being reported," Ames Daily Tribune, Ames, Iowa, 17 January 1974.

  • [Centralia]. Centralia Daily Chronicle, 3 November 1969.

  • [Reid]. Reid, Ron, "Ralston worried over Husky racial situation," San Mateo Times, 3 November 1969.

  • [Ogden, UPI]. UPI, Ogden Standard-Examiner, Saturday, November 1, 1969.

  • [Condotta]. Condotta, Bob, "Former Washington athletic director Joe Kearney Dies," Seattle Times, 6 May 2010.

  • Raley, Dan, "Granddaddies of them all, 1960-61 Rose Bowl heroes relive the glory days," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 25 December 1991.


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