Steve Owen (American football)
|Date of birth||April 21, 1898|
|Place of birth||Cleo Springs, Oklahoma|
|Date of death||May 17, 1964(aged 66)|
|Place of death||Oneida, New York|
|Head coaching record|
|Championships won||1938 NFL Championship
1934 NFL Championship
|Playing stats||Pro Football Reference|
|Coaching stats||Pro Football Reference|
|Team(s) as a player|
|Team(s) as a coach/administrator|
|Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1966|
Stephen Joseph Owen (April 21, 1898 – May 17, 1964) was an American football player and coach who earned a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as head coach of the National Football League's New York Giants from 1930 to 1953. Owen's skill at designing defenses, his fundamentals-centered approach to the game and his innovative "A formation," a variation on the single-wing, also helped his offenses thrive and were key to his success. His personal style was memorable for the odd congruence of gravelly voice and easy disposition to go with his perpetual tobacco chewing.
Owen was born in Cleo Springs, Oklahoma and raised in an area known as the Cherokee Strip in the Oklahoma Territory, where his original goal was to become a jockey, a dream denied by his 5–11, 230 lb frame that earned him the nickname "Stout Steve." While working on a cattle ranch, he attended Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma where he was an all-around athlete in 1917-18. He supplemented his income at that time as a professional wrestler under the pseudonym "Jack O'Brien," a ruse to preserve his amateur status.
Owen served in the U.S. Army training corps in World War I, then returned to coach for a year at Phillips before going to work in oil fields in various parts of the Southwest. He started to play pro football in 1924, at $50 a game, for the NFL's Kansas City Cowboys (who played all their games on the road!). After playing for the Cowboys and then the Cleveland Bulldogs in 1925, he was sold to the New York Giants in 1926 for $500, joining his brother Bill. After a futile attempt to get a cut of the purchase price from Kansas City coach Leroy Andrews, he later said of the sale:
I had seen a lot of fat hogs go for more than they paid for me. But in those days, a fat hog was a lot more valuable than a fat tackle. I was going to New York even if I had to walk there.
In 1930, he was promoted to co-player-coach for the final two games of the season with another future Hall of Famer, Benny Friedman. The 2–0 finish was a premonition of Owen's future long-term success as sole head coach starting the following season. In an unusual move for the time, he didn't sign a formal contract with owner Tim Mara. He would coach the next 23 years on a handshake. He retired as a player following the 1931 NFL season except for a brief comeback in 1933, helping the Giants go 11–3 and get to the title game, the first of eight appearances the Giants would make during his tenure.
The team slipped to 8–5 in 1934, but still made the NFL championship game again. Facing the 13–0 Chicago Bears, the Giants came in as huge underdogs and trailed 13–3 at halftime. The icy conditions and 9 °F weather led to an adjustment between halves that became a memorable part of National Football League lore. A friend of the Maras owned a nearby shoe warehouse, and opened it on that freezing Sunday afternoon to supply the entire team with new sneakers for better footing on the frozen turf than they had had with conventional cleats, enabling them to run off 27 unanswered points in the second half for a 30–13 win and the team's first title. More than seven decades later, the contest is still remembered as "the sneakers game."
Despite the institution of the NFL draft due to the continued dominance of the Bears and Giants, the Giants returned to the championship game in 1935 and won their second and last title under Owen in 1938, 23-17 over the Green Bay Packers despite being outgained in yardage 379–208, with nine points on two blocked punts the margin of victory. New York appeared in four more season-ending NFL title clashes under Owen, but lost them all. An early World War II Three Stooges short referred to them when Moe sarcastically asked a hulking adversary, "Did you ever play footborl for da Giants?!"
In 1950, the Giants faced a powerful new foe with the arrival of the All-America Football Conference champion Cleveland Browns, who consigned them to runner-up finishes in each of the next three seasons although Owen's "umbrella defense" that shut down passing attacks made life miserable for the first-place Browns as New York won four of their six regular-season meetings, but dropped a defensive playoff struggle with them after finishing tied with the Browns for the Eastern Division title at the end of the 1950 season by the baseball-like score of 8-3 (thanks to a Cleveland safety) for the privilege of meeting the Western Division champion Los Angeles Rams in the title game, which the Browns won by two points on a go-ahead field goal in the closing seconds after trailing virtually the entire game.
After football-playing career
After the Giants slipped to 3–9 in 1953, Owen announced his retirement as head coach, ending his 28 years at field level with the Giants. His record as head coach was 150–99–17; his 150 wins are still far and away the most in franchise history. As the final minutes ticked away in his last game as Giant coach, a late-game loss, television cameras showed him standing alone on the sidelines in tears.
Owen remained with the Giants as head scout. During the 1954 season, he served as a collegiate spring practice assistant, first at South Carolina and then at Baylor. He returned to the collegiate ranks full-time in 1955 as an assistant coach at Baylor.
Just weeks after the end of the 1955 NFL season, the Philadelphia Eagles hired Hugh Devore as head coach and added Owen as his assistant soon after. But two seasons of struggling in Philadelphia led to the entire coaching staff's dismissal, and Owen eventually became a head coach yet again, this time on an interim basis with the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts on September 21, 1959.
The Argonauts declined Owen's offer to stay on as full-time head coach for 1960, but retained him as a scout and advisor before he moved to the CFL's Calgary Stampeders on August 23, 1960 as interim head coach, but as in Toronto Owen was replaced at the end of the season. On December 29 of the same year, he was named head coach of the CFL Saskatchewan Roughriders, a team that had won just once in 1960. Owen's 1961 team nearly reached the playoffs, then did so the following year and was voted CFL Coach of the Year. But after suffering a heart attack late in 1962, he resigned on January 6, 1963.
Unable to stay away from the sport, however, he soon came back as head coach of the United Football League's Syracuse Stormers on March 20, 1963 only to return to his beloved Giants that November to scout for them, unfortunately for only a short time before being stricken with a terminal cerebral hemorrhage the following May. A great active life in football came to a sad end after eight days in critical care, on May 17, 1964. Steve Owen was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the fourth class, enshrined 17 September 1966.
- Gottehrer, Barry. The Giants of New York, the history of professional football's most fabulous dynasty. New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1963 OCLC 1356301