My first relationship with Lee Owens dates back quite a few years ago for both of us, something we laughed about last week when we talked.
But where it began and now ends with his retiring as the Ashland University football coach for the past 18 seasons is one where I've been blessed to have known him as a friend.
Owens was hired by former Crestview High School football coach Bill Seder as a member of his staff, and in 1981 he became the head coach of the Cougars at the young age of 24.
Owens served as defensive coordinator under Seder, an AU graduate and a member of the school's Hall of Fame.
I was a young reporter as well at the Times-Gazette, at 23, and I think because of our close proximity in ages, it had everything to do with us quickly becoming friends.
He said when he was sitting down contemplating what he was going to say at his news conference on Friday at AU, his thoughts wandered back to those very early days in his career.
"I wanted to acknowledge folks who made this stuff possible. Obviously Bill Seder came up because he was the guy who hired me," Owens reflected. "It goes all the way back to Ashland and he was an Ashland guy who made it possible for me to come in and work at a program like Crestview."
Owens forged a 4-5-1 season at Crestview in 1981 but a season later in 1982 he led the Cougars to a spotless 10-0 record and a final ranking of third in the state.
Owens has stayed in touch with his former Crestview associates over the years.
"I really do, we were back this year for their 40th, five years ago for the 35th of that 10-0 '82 team, and the Durbins and the Kochenderfers and the Murrays and I can go on and on, but those guys, there's not that big of an age difference in us, so I've stayed in touch with their families and so on," Owens said. "I was reminded today when I was putting my remarks down, one of all of the administrators I worked for over the years, and the one who had the best insights and wisdom, was Larry Rader.
"He told me really early in my career and something that's stuck with me forever. He said, 'Coach, there's good and bad everywhere. It's what you make of it,'" Owens reflected. "It sounds simple but it's such a profound statement because we get caught up in places we go, we get bogged down by what we can't do because of what we don't have, or what's not there, instead of really building on the good that's everywhere, if you can find a way to build on. That was kind of Larry's thoughts and I've remembered that as I've taken five or six other jobs."
Owens left Crestview for Galion, where in 1985 the Tigers won the state championship, going 14-0.
Galion defeated Youngstown Cardinal Mooney 6-0 for the state title, with Owens named the Associated Press Coach of the Year.
"We had that undefeated season at Crestview with the eight shutouts and you learn about what players will do, how hard they will work, the sacrifices they'll make, and you appreciate as a young coach when you get results. It sets the tone for what you have to do in the future and gives validity to what you believe in," Owens said. "It made it possible for me to go to Galion and do something that maybe never, ever was accomplished in north central Ohio — to win a state championship, go 14-0, and beat a parochial school at the Division II level. It may have been as big of an accomplishment as there's ever been in high school football in north central Ohio."
After being at Galion from 1983-86, Owens coached Lancaster in 1987, then went to Massillon Washington from 1988-1991 before heading to The Ohio State University as an assistant coach from 1992-95 and then led the University of Akron program from 1995-2003.
Ashland University Athletics Director Bill Goldring then hired him as the head coach of the Eagles, where his record was 137-61 overall for a .692 winning percentage.
He also guided AU to six NCAA Division II playoff appearances, three D-II postseason wins and four conference championships, this year winning the Great Midwest Athletic Conference title, and three previous Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference crowns.
One of the reasons Owens came back to coach this season was because of fifth-year senior quarterback Austin Brenner, who was severely injured last season and was at the helm of the Eagles during the course of COVID.
"I'm glad we ended up winning a championship, winning a postseason game, having one of the top 4-5 teams in the history of our school, that's great that happened, but more importantly I was back because of Austin," Owens said. "If not for the indoor facility, COVID, and Austin, I would have been retired 4-5 years ago. But the right reason all the way through was because of Austin, and what he represented, the strength he showed to get back from that injury.
"And quite honestly, his faith and how he lives that every day about how he serves an awesome God. When Austin told me he was coming back he said he wanted to do something really special, and he was thinking about moving hearts, and influencing people, and he probably had a greater influence on me than anything else.
"We went through some real personal health things with family this year, and I don't know if I hadn't been around a guy every day like Austin Brenner, who lives his faith and how he handles day to day, I took from that every day to get through the season and to get through what we were dealing with at home."
And to endure through the coaching ranks as Owens has done, you also have to have the backing of your family.
Having met his wife, Dianne, back in the Crestview days when she welcomed me into their home on occasion, she has been the ultimate supporter of her husband.
"As I think back now 45 years as a coach of a football team but I've been 48 years as the assistant coach with 'Team Owens,' and that's not going to change," he chuckled. "She's not going to step down from that head coaching position.
"We've got eight children, four that she gave birth to, four they married, and 11 grandchildren, so believe me, as blessed as I've been with football, it's not close to what we have here at home. She's a really good head coach. She's got a great record."
This article originally appeared on Ashland Times Gazette: Former Ashland football coach Lee Owens looks back on career