Oklahoma football: Bennie Owen ran the forerunner to the OSSAA
Last week, I wrote about Bennie Owen, the OU football coach from 1905-26, and how he also served as the Sooner basketball and baseball coach, each for more than 10 years.
Owen also was athletic director and the fundraising impetus behind the construction of the OU Field House, the football stadium, the first OU golf course and the Student Union. I called Owen the most underrated individual in Sooner sports history, an assertion you can read here.
And then Monday, I received an email from Mike Whaley, a long-time football coach in Oklahoma who now works on staff for the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association.
Whaley delivered some astounding news. To quote Whaley: “Recently, you wrote a piece on Bennie Owen and his ‘other duties’ outside of being the head football coach at OU. When we did our 100-year thing a few years back, we researched how the OSSAA was structured early on. I have attached a part of our 100-year anniversary information. Bennie Owen actually ran what was the OSSAA between 1921 and 1925 while he was doing other things at OU. What a gig that must have been!”
Wait. What? Bennie Owen was the leader of the OSSAA while also coaching the Sooners and running an athletic department and getting a stadium built? No wonder Owen stopped coaching basketball in 1921 and baseball in 1922.
From the OSSAA archives:
“There’s something noble in the spirit of man that cries out for fairness for all. That was the impetus for a small band of men who gathered together in the early 1900s to form an organization to create rules that would provide a more level playing field for competition between schools. Mr. H.L. Hall, principal of Shawnee High School, initiated a move to organize an athletic association to aid schools in developing and administering interscholastic athletics. He was joined by Dr. H.H. Cloudman, physical director of the Oklahoma City Public Schools system. According to Hall, Cloudman’s influence was largely responsible for the initial favorable acceptance of the organization.
“Along with about 15 other schools, Hall and Cloudman, at the 1911 meeting of the Oklahoma Education Association held at Muskogee High School, established the Oklahoma High School Athletic Association. The first statewide playoff that led to a state championship was boys’ basketball in 1918. A state championship for girls was established in 1919.
“By 1921, the Association had grown to about 200 members. From the very beginning, the Board of Control dealt with eligibility issues, and several schools were suspended for violations. As a result, there was the threat of a new organization being formed, but it never materialized.
“Ben G. Owen, football coach and athletic director at the University of Oklahoma, was appointed secretary-treasurer in 1921. P.A. Wallace was elected as secretary in 1925, and DeWitt Waller of Enid was elected treasurer, where he served until the 1952-53 school year when the duties of secretary and treasurer were combined under the title of commissioner.
“On September 26, 1927, the Association moved to the Continental Building, 301 North Broadway, Oklahoma City, and Lee K. Anderson began a 40-year stint as executive secretary.”
Are you kidding me? Bennie Owen not only headed the forerunner to the OSSAA, he was the first secretary-treasurer, which was a funny term for what basically was a commissioner.
Clearly, it wasn’t a full-time job. Owen didn’t have time for a full-time job. He had about four part-time jobs, positions that today pay in the neighborhood of $10 million annually.
I have studied early-day Oklahoma high school athletics. Recruiting scandals were abundant. The populace cried out for a level playing field, same as today. And when school leaders first turned to an outside agent to lead the fledgling organization, they sought out Owen.
I don’t know what the job entailed. Maybe some coordination of the basketball championships. Perhaps some officiating oversight. Obviously some eligibility rulings. Maybe the job was meeting once a month at a board meeting, to keep things straight. Maybe it’s like the current board of regents at universities, where someone else does the work and you approve or disapprove, except for major hires.
No matter, the job was handed to Owen, at a time when high school sports were at a crossroads.
I don’t know what kind of job Owen did. I searched The Oklahoman archives but found no mentioned of Owen and the high school association. But I know what kind of reputation Owen must have had to have been recruited for such an endeavor. Impeccable.
Odds are, Owen did something right. After four years, his job was split into two, a secretary (commissioner) and a treasurer. Two years after that, the association hired Anderson, who became a legend.
Owen was quite a man. He is for all practical purposes the founding father of Sooner football and Sooner athletics. He was born in 1875 and at age 17 participated in the land run of the Cherokee Outlet in northern Oklahoma. He died in 1970, after man had walked on the Moon. And for four years, while coaching Sooner football and running the OU athletic department and building facilities that remain in use today, Owen ran the Oklahoma High School Athletic Association.
He was more than just the most underrated figure in OU athletics history. Owen is in the running for most underrated figure in state history.