Basketball fans might remember Billy Owens as the coach who led east Orlando’s University High to its first district title and the only two region tournament wins in program history in 2013.
But when Oak Ridge promoted Owens from basketball assistant to head football coach in January not many knew the Pioneers had handed their struggling program over to a man who once was a Dallas Cowboy.
Owens, 54, is a rookie head football coach. But he’s coached the sport almost every year since he came to Orlando in 1991 to play for the Orlando Thunder of the World League of American Football. He previously had always been behind the scenes as an assistant in a football coaching career that started with a job as defensive backs coach for UCF in his first year in Orlando.
“I have a tight circle of friends, and they’re probably the only ones that know I’ve been coaching football the whole time I was a basketball coach,” Owens said with a chuckle on Tuesday.
The scoreboard showed Owens' debut was a smashing success in a 35-6 win over Freedom last week. But he said the Pioneers are a work in progress and there is a lot to learn. Friday night’s road game against a Sentinel Super 16 team, Lake Mary (1-0), will be a much tougher test.
“If you’re trying to build a solid program where you’re consistently among the upper tier teams, that happens because your program is solid,” Owens said. “That’s what I’m aiming for. It’s going to take time.”
Owens, who played college football and earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in business administration from the University of Pittsburgh, has put in the time himself. He has been an Orange County schools employee since he served as a substitute teacher in 1993. He went full-time as a teacher a year later.
He’s picked up a stack of ideas from his work with successful high school coaches at numerous stops. He recalls assisting at Bishop Moore, Evans, Timber Creek, Seminole, Lyman, and more recently at Agape Christian and West Oaks Academy as the right-hand man for his good friend and former Orlando Predators teammate, Victor Floyd. There might be another stop or two that didn’t come to mind when I asked Owens to run down his lengthy football resume.
He was soaking up knowledge as a player before he turned to coaching.
Owens grew up three blocks from Syracuse University and was a basketball ball boy for the Orange as a kid. He was always immersed in sports and became a three-sport high school standout for Christian Brothers Academy of DeWitt N.Y., a suburb of Syracuse. Owens earned All-State football honors as a running back, played basketball, and was an accomplished track sprinter.
In 2018 the Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper rated Owens No 7 on a list of the top 27 Christian Brothers athletes in the past 50 years.
He signed with Pitt and played some running back but mostly in the defensive secondary as a college football player. Owens totaled 194 tackles and five interceptions in his junior and senior seasons. That included 16 tackles in a 1986 game against N.C. State and a last-minute 69-yard interception return for a touchdown that iced a 10-0 win against Penn State in 1987.
Owens was a tenth-round draft pick by Dallas in 1988 and played in all 16 games that season. He was waived by Cowboys and then by the Pittsburgh Steelers but that didn’t end his pro career. Owens moved to Orlando to become the first defensive captain for the first-year Thunder and played a year later for the Montreal Machine of the same league.
He returned to Orlando in 1993 to play for the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League and later spent time with the Charlotte Rage, Connecticut Coyotes and Portland Forest Dragons all while keeping Central Florida as his home base.
Owens' playing days ended in 1998 when Portland said he’d have to report early for tryouts.
“You can’t play forever, and I always said, when they ask you to try out that means it’s probably time to hang it up,” Owens remembers.
He could have moved on to crunching numbers as an accountant. Instead he stuck with schools and sports.
Owens went after the University head football coaching position in 2009 but fate steered him toward basketball. The Cougars chose Don Stark to fill the football vacancy but asked Owens to join the staff. And when the school’s head basketball position opened that summer Owens was selected.
He spent seven seasons in that position and was able to lift the program from mediocrity to a 17-8 season in 2011-12 that was followed by the 16-13 region runner-up finish of 2012-13.
Now, he’s taking on another rebuilding job with an Oak Ridge football program that made the playoffs in 2013, 2014 and 2015 but slipped to 2-8 last season.
“I knew whoever got this job was going to have their hands full,” Owens said. “That’s definitely been the case. We’ve got talent here, but it takes more than that. What I’m trying to do is implement a culture change for the football program as a whole. It’s going to take a while. We’re in it for the long haul.”
Floyd was a basketball assistant for Owens at University. He said the challenge his friend faces now reminds him of the days when together they were able to lift the Cougars from mediocrity to a 17-8 season in 2011-12 that was followed by the 16-13 region runner-up finish of 2012-13.
“Billy is a technician when it comes to X’s and O’s,” Floyd said. “He’s really detailed with what he wants to do. I know he’s going to do a good job for Oak Ridge. Kids are going to play hard for him. He’s definitely going to get guys in the right place on the field. I think he’ll turn it around.”
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Buddy Collings at email@example.com.
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