Multi-sport athlete. Hall of Famer. Educator, father figure, racial pioneer, and life mentor. Or just “Coach O.”
Whether it was the Northern Illinois University community or his native Detroit during a distinguished 54-year teaching career, the man who answered to all of those platitudes, Walt Owens died Sunday at age 87.
“I believe this was on his Hall of Fame plaque in the Convocation Center. In essence, it read ‘how many NIU students did Walt mentor or impact?’ I am certainly one of them,” said Rick Cerrone, former New York Yankees public relations director and current editor-in-chief of Baseball Digest magazine. “From the first time I met him in 1973, I learned something every time I talked to him. He was a treasure.”
Owens came to NIU as faculty and an assistant men's basketball coach under head man Emory Luck for three seasons, remained on John McDougal's staff for two more, then concentrated on his duties as the Huskies' head baseball coach from 1976-82 before going full-time in academics.
His major contribution to Northern Illinois hoops might have been the recruitment of the most explosive scorer in program history. In the mid-1970s, a coaching friend in Detroit insisted Owens had to see this kid in Saginaw, Mich. It turned out to be a one-man, 6-foot-5 point machine named Paul Dawkins who would operate in Chick Evans Field House as "Doctor D", score 1,736 career points, average a school-record 26.7 points per game as a senior, play for the Utah Jazz, and become an NIU Hall of Famer.
Commented NIU basketball Hall of Famer Kenny Battle (1984-86): “He was a mentor to all of us who went through NIU. He kept us on track in the classroom, on campus, after we left school. ‘Coach O’ meant a lot to people at NIU.”
Added Lisa Gilfoy, a member of the Hall of Fame 1988 Northern Illinois women’s softball team that advanced to the NCAA College World Series, on social media: "One of my favorite teachers..."
In baseball, Owens would produce 133 coaching triumphs---third-best in program history. His top Northern Illinois campaign would be a 26-12-3 mark in 1977.
"Coach O" tutored two Mid-American Conference batting champions in Clayton Armstrong (.438 average) in 1977 and Mark Boothe (.439) in 1980, plus MAC home run leader Jeff Sevenich (12) in 1980 and loop stolen base king Alvin Maynard (41) in 1979. The Owens era produced ten All-Mid-Am performers, headed by first-teamers Jay Graziano (1976), Mike Avallone (1977), and Maynard (1980).
“There’s one reason I came to Northern---and that’s Walt,” said Dr. Gordon Nuber, NIU Athletics Hall of Famer and recently retired Chicago Bears, Cubs, and Blackhawks team physician who resides in the suburbs. “I wouldn’t have been in Chicago without his guidance. He was my connection. His friendship with Emory Luck got me to NIU. I will always appreciate my time there.”
Before we forget, Nuber said that in the late 1960s at Detroit Denby High School, everybody called him “Coach O.”
Nuber, a 6-foot-7 basketball standout at Denby under Owens, lettered three years (1970-73) for Northern Illinois head coach Tom Jorgensen when Luck was his assistant. “Walt seemed to know everybody or had a story about everybody in Detroit,” Nuber added. “John Mayberry. Willie Horton. Alex Johnson. Spencer Haywood. He got me in a Michigan all-star game with all his connections.”
A three-sport star at Detroit Northwestern High School, Owens coached four sports at Denby. He led his DHS quintets to three Class A District titles and two in baseball. Owens also taught at Cass Tech and Mumford high schools, the latter where he hired Luck as a basketball assistant in 1962-63.
At Western Michigan University, Owens played basketball and ran track. As a senior in 1955, he performed on the Bronco 880-yard relay team which set a MAC record in the league championship meet. Owens earned his Bachelor of Arts (1955) and Master of Arts (1968) degrees from WMU.
Unknown for years was the fact that Owens was a pitcher / outfielder for the Detroit Stars of the Negro American League for three summers (1953-55). Advised to stay in school, he performed under an assumed name to maintain his amateur status. In two at-bats vs. the legendary Satchel Paige one game, Owens hit a single and struck out. In 1957, Owens integrated baseball in his city by joining the previously all-white Detroit Pepsi-Cola team.
On the hardwood back in the day, Owens performed against the Canadian Olympic team. As a member of the Boston Whirlwinds and a Bevo Francis teammate, “Coach O” provided the opposition vs. the Harlem Globetrotters.
In 2008, Major League Baseball honored surviving Negro League players who could not play in the big leagues due to their race. In a special draft, all 30 MLB clubs picked for a former NLB player. Owens was drafted by the Cubs.
As an emeritus NIU professor in 2011, Owens received the E.B. Henderson Award, which acknowledges those who have made outstanding contributions and development of their community for leadership in opposing racial discrimination in his profession and society. At NIU, he chaired the Presidential Commission on the Status of Minorities and served as a member of the Task Force on Racial Discrimination and Sexual Harassment. Owens was also a board member of the National Congress of Black Faculty and a member of the Illinois Committee on Black Concerns in Higher Education.
Owens is a member of the NIU athletics, the Negro League Baseball, and the Detroit Negro Slow-Pitch Softball League halls of fame. He participated in local softball until 2007.
In a series of Northern Illinois men's basketball alumni games at the turn of the century where I served as one of the head coaches, Owens helped immensely. Thanks for those substitution ideas, "Coach O." You will be missed.
Funeral arrangements are pending. Owens is survived by his wife, Jan, and four children. His oldest son, Mel, was an All-State linebacker at DeKalb High School, won All-Big Ten honors at the University of Michigan, and played nine seasons for the Los Angeles Rams.