Former KU coach Owens' book reflects on life, values

5/3/2014

By BRETT MARSHALL

By BRETT MARSHALL

bmarshall@gctelegram.com

It's a sunny Friday morning at The Golf Club at Southwind, and the day's event is a gathering of Rock Chalk, University of Kansas Alumni Association members and the Jayhawk faithful.

There's no Charlie Weis, the KU football coach, and Bill Self is not on the guest of honor list for the 2014 event, which attracted about 65 to 70 supporters for the golf, dinner and speaking festivities.

This time, the keynote talk was to be given by former KU basketball coach Ted Owens, now an 85-year-old senior statesman, who resides in Tulsa, Okla., but is still going strong with his hand in an investment business.

Owens is in an elite fraternity, a select group of eight men — the number of head men's basketball coaches at Kansas that now spans three different centuries.

That Owens, at age 85, is still in demand to talk to the Jayhawk faithful is a testament to the character of the man who guided the KU court fortunes for nearly two decades, when he was on the Allen Fieldhouse bench from 1964 to 1983.

That elite group of coaches was not lost on Owens when asked about some of his cherished memories while coaching at Kansas.

"Just being a part of the tradition at Kansas is overwhelming," Owens said during an interview prior to the golf outing. "When I first went there in 1960 (as an assistant to Dick Harp), I was not aware that Dr. Naismith was the first coach. Riding on bus trips and listening to coach Harp, Dean Nesmith (KU trainer), Don Pierce (sports information director) and Max Falkenstien (KU broadcaster), I learned about the tradition and Kansas basketball. I came to love and appreciate it. To be included in those eight (James Naismith, Dr. F.C. "Phog" Allen, William O. Hamilton, Harp, Larry Brown, Roy Williams and now Bill Self), is a great honor and one that I cherish."

When Owens left KU after two disappointing back-to-back seasons with losing records, he had won more games than all but two KU coaches — Allen, and now Roy Williams. He was 348-182 (.657) and took two teams to the NCAA Final Four (1971 and 1974), only to lose in the semifinals each time. He coached five All-Americans (Walter Wesley, JoJo White, Dave Robisch, Bud Stallworth and Darnell Valentine).

When asked to pick out some of the top players of his coaching career at KU, Owens smiled and reminded of a story once told by Coach "Doc" Allen.

"Just wait 25 years and let's see what they've done with their lives," Owens said in how Dr. Allen replied to those same questions. "By that criteria, our guys have done extremely well. I've those five All-Americans, but I've had some other players who were just about as good as they were. They were good people, and they've done well in life, and I'm really proud of that."

Owens also was autographing and selling a new book that was just released late in 2013. The book's title, "At The Hang-Up: Seeking Your Purpose, Running the Race, Finishing Strong," came about as he looked at his life when he turned 80 years and wanted to leave something for his children and grandchildren.

"In recent years, I had tried to remember things about my mom and dad that I forgot to ask them," Owens said regarding the book. "Back in those days, you didn't ask your parents about much of anything. All of a sudden, my mom and dad are dead, my two brothers are dead, so there's no one to ask.

"I'm not gonna do that to my kids," Owens said. "So I started to write down some notes. I wanted them to know about me, but more than that, I wanted them to know about my parents and the sacrifices they made during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression that allowed us to play sports and to go to school."

Several years in the making, Owens said he is pleased with the result of the book and its early reception.

"A friend of mine who's a writer said I needed to publish this, so in addition to the story of my life, they wanted me to write the lessons I had learned in life. So those are included with each chapter."

And where did the name, "At the Hang-Up" come from?

"Unless you pull cotton, you don't understand that," Owens said with a smile. "I grew up in western Oklahoma (Hollis) and my dad had a cotton farm. So when you pull cotton at the end of a roll, when the sack is full, you take it to the wagon and you hang it up on the scales, and you call that the hang-up.

"At the end of the day, my dad would try to motivate us to get another wagon load. He'd get his sack out of the car, and he'd say, 'come on boys, let's see if you can beat 'ol Dad.' We'd be annoyed because we knew he was using amateur psychology on us, but our competitive instincts would kick in and we'd try and beat 'ol Dad. We'd be out ahead of him, and we'd say, 'looks like we got you this time Dad.' He'd tell us, 'It's not what you have now boys, it's what you have at the hang-up that matters."

Owens said his life lessons come from those experiences.

"That's a reminder of the way life is," Owens said. "There will be times that you'll be out ahead. There will be times where you'll be terribly discouraged. But no matter what's happening, keep focus on your ultimate goals and purpose. That it's what you have at the hang-up that matters."

A standout athlete in high school, Owens played basketball at the University of Oklahoma, and so played against KU teams coached by Phog Allen. He's coached against some of the great names in the history of college basketball — Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, Henry Iba of Oklahoma State, John Wooden of UCLA, and a host of others. More contemporary greats included Dean Smith, Bobby Knight, Eddie Sutton, Jack Hartman and Norm Stewart.

"I had the privilege of coaching against some of the great people in the game," Owens said. Owens recalled his first game at the Jayhawk helm, a road game at Arkansas (Dec. 1, 1964).

"Arkansas wasn't a great team, and we're down 17 at halftime," Owens recalled. "I was telling myself, 'they're gonna really think they hired a dud.' I was 34 years old, and I thought, 'oh my, I hope they're not listening back home.' But we came back and won the game (65-60)."

His first game coaching in Allen Fieldhouse followed that opening road win, and it came against a New Mexico team that had won the NIT championship the year before.

"They had a really good team, and we played a great game and beat them (59-40, Dec. 3, 1964). It's a memory that is pretty special."

Owens said coaching in Allen Fieldhouse and then returning years later for games, gathering of former players and coaches, is always a special time.

"It brought chills to me then, and it still brings chills," Owens said. "It's a great thing they've done there. You can be gone 20 years, I've been gone about 30 now, and you can go back and sing every song, identify every chant. They've done an incredible job of keeping the traditions the same."

Owens said that the facelifts and interior upgrades that have been made at Allen Fieldhouse has not caused it to lose its special appeal.

"Back when I coached, we had a dirt floor under the court, and when they would take the floor out, we didn't get it back until October 15 (start of practice)," Owens said. "It looked like a big barn. The track team was working out, the football team would practice and dust would be flying around. But on game night, it was just beautiful."

And for Owens, it is those memories that make it easy for him to say yes to a function such as Friday's western Kansas gathering of the Jayhawk faithful.

"It's not blowing, how about that," Owens said of the lack of wind. "It's just gorgeous, and I love playing golf. Golf may be the best game of all. First of all, it teaches you patience and self-discipline. Golf's an honorable game. It depends on each person following the rules. It's a tremendous game, and it's a game that you can never whip. Just about the time you think you've got a hold on it, you'll go out and shoot 10 strokes higher."

Owens maintains a handicap of about 15, but can shoot his age, saying that his best round of 73 came several years ago at Topeka Country Club, while his latest "best" round was a 74 in Tulsa.

"Beat my age by 10," Owens quipped. "Doesn't get much better than that. I'm just glad that at my age I can get out and do things and feel like I've got something to contribute to other people. That's what makes life special."

For inquiries regarding Owens' book, "At The Hang-Up: Seeking Your Purpose, Running the Race, Finishing Strong," go to www.ascendbooks.com.

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