Oklahoma’s Bennie Owen: Man for All Seasons examines the coach’s role in shaping OU’s legacy.

It’s difficult for Norman author Gary King to imagine the University of Oklahoma (OU) without the accomplishments of its sixth head football coach, Benjamin “Bennie” Owen, whose 22-year tenure (1905–1926) with the Sooners is the longest in OU history.

“Bennie Owen made such an impact on Oklahoma that the most valuable and best-known acre of land in the state now bears his name. This acre is, of course, Owen Field, the turf on which the University of Oklahoma football games are played,” King wrote in his new book, Oklahoma’s Bennie Owen: Man for All Seasons.

Owen amassed a record of 122-54-16 at OU, establishing a legacy that would be carried on by legends Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops. According to King, it was the reputation Owen built that led Jim Tatum to accept the Sooners’ head coaching job in 1946, hiring Wilkinson as one of his assistants.

“If (Owen) had not been here and set the standard, Tatum might not have come, and then Tatum wouldn’t have brought Bud,” said King. “And if Bud hadn’t come, the whole history might have been a lot different.”

Driving force

King deftly tells the story of Owen’s journey from his birthplace in Chicago in 1875 to St. Louis — where, as a 13-year-old boy in 1888, he scored tickets to St. Louis Browns baseball games by selling his spot in the ticket line — to the windswept plains of Oklahoma Territory, where he built a football program. The narrative is skillfully interwoven with facts and details, painting a rich portrait of Owen, and the book features many vintage photographs.

“Bennie Owen was a leader of men,” King said. “He was a natural leader, and he inspired people.”

He calls Owen “the architect of Soonerland” because, as athletic director and later intramural director, he was the driving force behind original versions of Memorial Stadium, the field house, the Memorial Union building, the men’s swimming pool, the baseball field and bleachers, the tennis courts, the intramural fields and a nine-hole golf course that was located on what is today the Brandt Park Duck Pond.

“He literally did build (the golf course). He got on a tractor and pushed the dirt around and built the greens and the tee boxes,” King said.

A gifted athlete who aspired to be a physician, Owen played football at the University of Kansas. Small and quick, he was star quarterback for coach Fielding Yost’s undefeated 1899 team. After stints at Washburn College in Topeka, Kansas, and the University of Michigan, Owen accepted the head coaching job at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas, and defeated Oklahoma in 1903 and 1904.

When Owen came to OU in 1905, King wrote, the school had 484 students and had recently added two new buildings to bring its total to four. In his first year as head coach, Owen gave the Boomers (as they were known then; before that, they were the Rough Riders) their first victory over the Texas Longhorns. He adapted quickly to the many rule changes in the early 1900s, including the forward pass. King wrote that Owen ran a no-huddle, pass-first offense 50 years before Wilkinson and nearly 100 years before Stoops.

Owen quickly established a reputation for clean play and sportsmanship during football’s violent infancy. He did not drink, smoke or use profanity.

“He knew how to win and lose like a gentleman,” Dewey “Snorter” Luster, captain of Owen’s unbeaten 1920 team and an OU head coach, said of Owen.

Despite losing his right arm in a hunting accident in 1907, Owen never slowed down. According to his grandson, Joe Haynes, Owen could tie fishing lures and neckties better with one hand than he could with both, King wrote. A little-known fact about Owen is that he also served as head basketball coach for 13 years, having two undefeated seasons, and he spent 15 seasons as OU’s baseball coach, compiling a 142-102-4 mark.

The book also details Owen’s family life, including his wedding to Nina Bessent in 1912. The entire football team attended the wedding and presented the couple with a case of flat silver and a tray inscribed with the name of every member, King writes.

Owen was a charter member of the College Football Hall of Fame and was elected in 1951. He died in Houston on Feb. 26, 1970 at age 94.

Writing process

During his research, King said he spoke with Owen’s daughter, Dorothy Bryan, and several of Owen’s grandchildren and visited several places in Kansas to learn about Owen’s early years. He credits former OU sports information director Harold Keith with providing many details of Owen’s career. Without Keith’s book, Oklahoma Kickoff, published in 1948, King said much of Owen’s legacy might be lost to history.

Growing up in Norman during OU’s 47-game winning streak in the 1950s, King said he and his friends idolized the Sooners. He remembers attending a banquet honoring Owen in 1955 when he was 11. King taught psychology at Rose State College in Midwest City for 35 years before retiring in 2007. His first book, An Autumn Remembered: Bud Wilkinson’s Legendary ’56 Sooners, was published in 2006.

Oklahoma’s Bennie Owen: Man for All Seasons is available at local retailers, online bookstores or through Arcadia Publishing at arcadiapublishing.com.

Print headline: Manly leader, Oklahoma’s Bennie Owen: Man for All Seasons examines the coach’s role in shaping OU’s legacy.

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