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Oklahoma Journeys

Benny Owen

2009-10-17

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In 1905 the University of Oklahoma hired Benny Owen to coach their football team. Then in the fall of 1907, he lost his right arm when the shotgun he was carrying while hunting discharged. Some thought that was the end of his coaching career, but it wasn't, and today he is remembered as one of the greatest coaches of all time. That's our story on Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

Benny Owen was born in Chicago in 1874. His family moved to St. Louis when he was twelve, and after he finished school, the family moved again, this time to Arkansas City, Kansas. Owen served as an apprentice to a local doctor for three years then enrolled in the University of Kansas in 1897 to pursue medical studies but soon discovered a knack for football.

Owen was the star quarterback on the undefeated 1899 Kansas Jayhawks team. Upon graduation, he took his first head coaching job at Washburn College in Topeka. Following a one year stint there, he spent another year as an assistant at the University of Michigan. While at Michigan, he helped develop the famous point-a-minute team built around the great Willie Heston. He got his first exposure to the Oklahoma team while head was the coach at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. His Bethany Swedes met and defeated two Sooner teams in 1903 and 1904.

Owen was hired to take over the Sooner football team the following year in 1905, succeeding one-year coach Fred Ewing. He stepped in and immediately turned the fledgling team around, giving Oklahoma its first win over southern rival Texas. Owen was loved by his players as he regularly would involve himself in scrimmages when he felt his players were lagging. Owen's first two years at Oklahoma were spent back and forth between Norman and Arkansas City, Kansas. Due to a reduced financial budget, Owen only remained on campus during the football season.

In 1907, on October 18th Owen lost his right arm in a hunting accident.

Early in the administration of Dr. Stanton Brooks, Owen was fired by the Oklahoma legislature. They believed his salary of $3,500 was far too great for an athletics coach. They then would use the loss of his arm as an excuse for dismissal. It was recommended he be terminated, and shortly thereafter, he was. However, when President Brooks heard about the news, he quickly got the decision rescinded. Owens did not learn of his "dismissal" until a week after his "re-hiring."

Early in Owen's tenure as head coach, funding for athletic teams were very much an issue. Due to costs involved in travel, Owen's team would regularly go out on long, grueling road trips. For example, his 1905 team played three games in five days, and in 1909 they played three games in six days.

In addition to his immortality as a football coach, Owen also spent 13 seasons as the Oklahoma men's basketball coach, and in those 13 years, he won nearly 70% of his games and had two undefeated seasons, while he only had two losing seasons. Along with Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops, he is one of four coaches to win over 100 games at the University of Oklahoma. No other college football program has more than three coaches to accomplish that feat. He died in February 1970 in Houston at the age of 94. You can learn more about athletics in Oklahoma by visiting the Oklahoma History Center, NE 23rd Street just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.