EDITOR'S NOTE: Sunday, Dec. 3 marked the 48th anniversary of the day Steve Owens received college football's top award, the Heisman Trophy. With the possibility of University of Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield possibly becoming the Sooners’ next honoree, here's a profile of Owens that first ran in the Miami News-Record in 2005.
When Sam Bradford was announced as the winner of the Heisman Trophy award in December, it came near the end of a glitzy hour-long, highlight- and commercial-loaded telecast on ESPN — the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports.”
When former Miamian Steve Owens was announced as the winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1969, he had to learn the news second-hand.
Oh, how things have changed in 40 years.
Owens learned he had won the award from the sports director of the campus radio station because of a problem with the phone hook-up used to notify the winner.
"At the time, they called if you won it," Owens said. "I waited in the union with Barb... they were supposed to call at noon New York time. The call (to university president J. Herbert Hollomon) didn't come through, so we were ready to go back to the apartment."
“Since we hadn’t heard anything, he looked at me and said ‘I think it’s over,” said his wife, Barbara Owens, noting that Steve had talked about wanting to be somewhere “far off” in case he didn’t win. “We walked to the door and could hear the students screaming.”
The Owenses took off for Hollomon’s office to learn the news for themselves
“I was running pretty hard, but I had a hard time catching my wife,” Owens said. “She was leading me by 50 yards.”
In one of the closest Heisman votes up to that point, Owens beat out Mike Phipps of Purdue 1,488-1,334, respectively, in a balloting that included sports writers, sportscasters and former Heisman winners.
Rex Kern of Ohio State and Archie (Peyton and Eli’s dad) Manning of Mississippi were third and fourth.
"The president's office had a hookup with New York," Steve said. "It was totally different those days. They would put the top three or four contenders at locations where they could get hold of them."
Owens was joined on the trip to New York City by Barbara, his parents, Olen and Cherry Owens (“dad had never flown before”), teammate Mike Harper and his wife, and Sooner coaches Chuck Fairbanks and Barry Switzer.
“This was pretty impressive to get on a plane and fly to New York City,” Steve Owens said. “We didn’t know what to expect when we got there, but we felt like we were right at home.”
Owens said he was taken to dinner at the old “21” Club and the Heisman ceremony took place in a gymnasium in downtown New York City.
“There were 200 or 300 people there,” Owens said. “There was no national TV — it was so intimate. After that, I went down and talked to the kids at the Downtown Athletic Club.”
“It was a great day for him,” Barbara said. “He was a hard worker who followed the rules.”
While in New York City, Owens made an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."
While waiting to go on air, Owens and then-Heisman Trust executive director Rudy Riska had a chance to visit with Muhammad Ali, who was appearing in a Broadway play at the time.
“He didn’t have a clue who I was,” Owens joked.
Owens thought he was part of a practical joke while waiting to go on the show.
“An aide to Johnny Carson said ‘the president of the United States would like to talk to you,”’ Owens said.
Richard Nixon extended an invitation to the Owenses to fly to Washington, D.C., and then go to Fayetteville, Ark., for the Texas-Arkansas game that determined the national champion.
Before the Owenses could board the plane, they went through a search by the Secret Service, which still was on edge six years following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The trophy had to be x-rayed.
“They ripped those nails (in the crate containing the trophy) loose real quick,” Barbara Owens said in a story which ran in the News-Record.
Owens and Nixon exchanged cufflinks, Owens swapping a special pair of gold Heisman cufflinks for Nixon’s presidential ones. Owens still treasures the gift.
“I have so many positive experiences from being a Heisman winner,” Owens said. “Winning the Heisman was special, but all the things that go along with it have really enriched my life. If I hadn’t won the Heisman, I probably wouldn’t have had a chance to meet Doak Walker, to meet John David Crow or meet Archie Griffin or even Jay Berwanger (the first Heisman winner).”
Even after 40 years, Owens said when he’s introduced to people, they say “you won the Heisman at Oklahoma.”
Owens, who played halfback for three years under Max Buzzard and Bill Watkins at Miami High School, was named co-back of the year by the Tulsa World and Oklahoman.
He also lettered four years in track and three years in basketball.
Owens was being recruited by Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma State and OU. He also drew interest from Texas, SMU and Notre Dame.
“The Big 8 was where I wanted to stay,” he said.
However, Owens came within an eyelash of becoming an Arkansas Razorback.
He had been recruited hard by Jim Mackenzie, who was a Razorback assistant at the time under Frank Broyles.
Owens already had a relationship with Mackenzie, who regularly stopped by MHS practices.
Arkansas won the national championship and beat Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl in Owens’ senior year at Miami. At the same time, OU endured its worst season ever, going 3-7, and head coach Gomer Jones was fired.
“The OU program was unsettled at the time,” former OU head coach Chuck Fairbanks said. “They’d had a change of coaches and had an all-new staff. Jim was such a dynamic guy. He went in and did a really good job convincing Steve that (OU) was the right place for him. I bet if you ask Steve, he’s glad that it happened.”
“Jim had said it would probably take OU four or five years to make the transition and I was listening to him,” Owens said. “Arkansas was attractive, because it was 80 miles from home.”
It turned out that Mackenzie was lured from Arkansas to replace Jones as the Sooners coach.
“Jim kept pressing me to go to Arkansas, but he called me after he got the job and said ‘forget all I had told you,’” Owens said.
Mackenzie led the Sooners to 6-4 record in 1966, but died in the off-season. Fairbanks was elevated to the top spot from defensive backfield coach.
“At our first staff meeting, our first goal was to de-recruit Steve,” Switzer said. “We had to convince him that he was the guy that could change the fortunes of Oklahoma. We also had to get a couple other guys in the state.”
“Jim did a great job of convincing Steve and his parents that OU was the right place for him to go,” Fairbanks said.
In just three seasons, Owens scored 56 touchdowns, surpassing the record of 52 set by Army's Glenn Davis in 1944-46.
He rushed for 3,867 yards, shattering the three-season mark of 2,675 yards set by Kansas' Gayle Sayers in 1962-64.
Owens concluded his Sooner career with an unbelievable 55-carry, 256-yard performance in a 28-27 victory over Oklahoma State.
The Sooners won the Big 8 championship his sophomore season, then beat Tennessee 26-24 in the Orange Bowl.
In 1968, OU shared the conference title with Kansas, but suffered a 28-27 loss to SMU in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston.
In 1969, Oklahoma was picked to win the Big 8, but the team was besieged with numerous injuries to key players.
The Sooners were 5-4 heading into the regular season finale against Oklahoma State.
“Coach Switzer (Barry Switzer) said ‘let’s focus on playing,’” Owens said. “We tried to put individual stuff away and focused on practicing and preparing to play. We just wanted to try to win games. If it was to be, fine, if it doesn’t that is fine too because I had done everything I could as a player to play the best I could and help my team.”
But there was historical significance to that game in more ways than one.
Rumors had circulated that the entire Oklahoma coaching staff would be fired if the Sooners didn’t beat OSU.
“We’d had a tough stretch,” Owens said. “Think about it — if they had fired Chuck or had fired Switzer, we’d never have seen ‘Sooner Magic’ (the phrase coined after numerous miraculous finishes during the Switzer era).”
The 55 carries by Owens remains an OU record. For that matter, he owns the top six individual efforts and accounts for nine of the top 10 individual rushing performances. His 905 career carries are a whopping 242 attempts more than runner-up Joe Washington, who had 656 attempts.
“I believe in having two (tailbacks), but I have to be honest, I still don’t like to be substituted for,” Owens said in his thumbnail sketch in the 1969 OU media guide.
By comparison, Harper carried the ball a total of 53 times in ’69.
How would Fairbanks have tried to stop Owens if he had been coaching against him?
“I would put more people up there than they had blockers,” Fairbanks said. “You’ve gotta have good players to stop him. But he didn’t do it by himself.
“We had good linemen and they played well and believed in him. And he had a guy in front who could block for him in Mike Harper. Give him the ball, give him a chance and he would give you 110 percent of his effort all the time.”
Late in the game against Oklahoma State “we were near the goalline and Bobby Womack called time,” Fairbanks said. “I said “Bobby, what are you thinking about? We have Oklahoma State on a dead run. You call time. He told me ‘Coach, Owens said he’s tired.’
“I told him ‘You get back in there and tell him he’ll have all winter to rest.’”
Owens continues to pass credit for his success to his offensive linemen: center Ken Mendenhall, guard Bill Elfstron, tackle Jack Porter and tight end Steve Zabel.
“Sometimes I think it was more important to them for me to win the Heisman than for me to win it,” Steve said. “Our offensive linemen took great pride in what we did.”
Three members of the’69 team were No. 1 picks in the NFL Draft, including Owens, who was taken by the Detroit Lions.
In all, 12 Sooners were drafted.
“We had some talent, when I look at Harper, (Jack) Mildren, Zabel and Mendenhall,” Owens said.
“It was the people who surrounded me — nobody wins the Heisman by themselves. You have to be surrounded by great players and I won it because of those guys.”
“Steve Owens in my opinion was one of the greatest college football players of all time, let alone he being among a handful of the best that has ever played at Oklahoma,” Fairbanks said. “He carried the team with his endurance and his competitiveness at a time when the running attack for our offense was all centered around his ability to carry the ball time after time after time. In that era he was setting record for endurance.”
Steve and Barbara Owens, married for 43 years, first started going to movies together in the eighth grade.
He was able to get in free because Barbara worked at the Coleman Theater in Miami.
“I could look out the window across the street at (noted artist) Charles Banks Wilson’s studio — he would wave at me and I could watch him do his painting,” Barbara said.
“Barbara has been such an important part in this,” Steve said. “She keeps me grounded. She has had such a positive influence on me, to keep things real. Fame and accolades will change people, but I think I am the same person I am when I left Miami. I am more mature, though.”
Steve was born in Gore but moved to Miami with the Owens clan when he was 6.
“I got such a great foundation of support in Miami,” he said. “I still remember my first Pop Warner team I played on. I love sports. There’s something special about football.”
Schooner Schmidt and Bud Gaines were his first two coaches. He also remembered the impact that Watkins, Buzzard and former Will Rogers and MHS principal Bill Smith had on him.
“They worked their tails off trying to help mold us into a football team,” said Owens, noting that he scored a touchdown the first time he ever touched the ball in competition.
Steve Owens was instrumental in getting the Miami Public School Enrichment Foundation established and he and Barbara spearheaded a fund-raising effort to help the city after the devastating July 2007 floods.