Former University of Kansas basketball coach Ted Owens will celebrate his 90th birthday Tuesday during a backyard cookout with his wife, Michelle, and other immediate family members in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The partying will continue into the weekend, when several former Jayhawks visit for an even larger birthday bash.
Ninety years on the planet is obviously a milestone worth recognizing.
“You reach a point in your life you don’t want to be older. I’m at that point I’m just thrilled every time I can say 90 or 91,” said Owens, a former standout guard at the University of Oklahoma (1949-51) who in 19 seasons as KU coach (1964-83) led the Jayhawks to a 348-182 record, six Big Eight titles and two Final Fours.
“I’ve been truly blessed to be 90 and be able to be active and do most everything I want to,” Owens added Monday in a phone conversation with The Star. “To have so many great friends and family — and I include all those players we coached as family — so I have nothing but feelings of being blessed.”
Feeling re-energized after a pair of knee replacement surgeries that spanned the last year and a half, Owens on Monday shared what have been some of his secrets to a long, active life.
“I still every day do my exercises — 30, 40 minutes on the bike and do crunches and sit-ups and push-ups and all sorts of things,” Owens said.
“I don’t hit a golf ball as far as I did at one time. I am up past the ladies tees when I hit, so distance is not a real factor. I’ve not played in a while (because of surgeries). I’m hopeful for the fall.”
Other keys to having a fit body and mind?
“I read a lot, do crossword puzzles, try to stay active physically. I get a lot of sleep,” said Owens, who retires around 10 p.m. and awakens about 8 a.m., making up for days as a child on the family’s farm in southwest Oklahoma when he would rise at 4 a.m. to milk 15 cows before school.
“I’ve never smoked. That’s been a blessing,” Owens added. “I did smoke one time. My dad heard about it and he met me at the house with a razor strap. I never could stand the smell of smoke again. Every time I smell smoke my behind hurts,” he added with a laugh.
Owens has continued to show he’s as sharp as any current coach in America. Case in point: his recent speech on June 25 at the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame quarterly leadership luncheon in Oklahoma City.
“The speech was one of best I’ve ever heard,” wrote long-time Oklahoman sports writer/columnist Berry Tramel. “It focused on the amazing things he’s lived through in almost a century on this Earth and the invaluable lessons of sport.”
Tramel was so moved he transcribed the speech and ran it in its entirety in the Oklahoman, which let a relieved Owens know the speech was a rousing success.
“I thought, ‘These people aren’t going to want to hear what happened early in my life and so forth.’ I gave my speech with reservations and was stunned Berry said it was one of the best speeches he’s heard. And he can be tough.”
One segment of Owens’ speech at the Hall of Fame seemingly describes his sports career in a nutshell.
“I had some time to dream while I was hoeing cotton back on that farm in southwest Oklahoma (as child), but my dreams were never so great as to imagine what I have been privileged to do during my lifetime, playing college basketball for the great Hall of Fame coach Bruce Drake at OU, coaching at the University of Kansas, where James Naismith was the first coach and Phog Allen coached and promoted the game and to coach in the St. Andrews of college basketball, Allen Fieldhouse,” he said in his speech.
“I have had the great honor of coaching against the greats of college basketball: Henry Iba, Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, Bob Knight, John Wooden and Oklahoma’s own Hall of Famers, Billy Tubbs, Abe Lemons, Paul Hansen and Lou Henson, and to travel the world teaching the game that I love in Japan, China, Spain, Italy, Belgium, France, Switzerland, the Philippines, Korea, England and Israel.
“Now at 90, I pause to reflect on those experiences and ask myself, as Solomon did in the book of Ecclesiastes, what is the conclusion to it all? What have I learned and what would I pass on to others? I have learned that to experience success in any endeavor, you have to know where you are headed, your goals and your purpose. You have to have the right attitude. You have to be willing to spend all the time and energy necessary to accomplish your goals. You must be resilient when faced with obstacles. You have to master the skills of your trade and you must accumulate all the knowledge you can about your profession. And Jesus taught us that if you want to be the greatest in his kingdom, you have to be willing to serve others.
“I have learned that, even though you have done much yourself to achieve success, you must have the help of others along the way. Make sure that you let those people know how grateful you are.”
Owens wrote a book on his life released in 2013 entitled “At the Hang-Up” which remains available at amazon.com.
“I feel good I can still be sort of useful,” Owens said. “I suppose there’s nothing worse than to get old and feel like you have no value to anyone. I feel I can still be helpful in some regards and so one of the things I can do maybe is pass on some of my life experiences.”
Owens’ former players speak in reverent terms of their coach.
“The accomplishments of Ted Owens can be measured in more than just stats,” former KU standout Bud Stallworth said on Feb. 3, 2018 during a ceremony honoring Owens at Allen Fieldhouse. That ceremony was attended by 63 of Owens’ former KU players.
“Ted Owens is a class act. He always put the needs of his players above the desire to be recognized personally. And he led a moral and ethical program and nurtured a relationship with each individual player that extended far beyond graduation day,” Stallworth added.
KU coach Bill Self, who like Owens is a native Oklahoman, wrote the foreword to Owens’ book.
“Coach still lives life,” Self wrote in the book. “I’ve been on golf trips with him, have been his roommate and have had the opportunity to get to know him very well. He is so competitive. He is in great shape and we have walked probably 15 different courses together, from St. Andrews to Pebble Beach. He hates to lose and usually rigs the bets on the first tee to ensure he doesn’t. … I’m proud of you coach for becoming an author. But on the next golf trip, I’m getting strokes and please don’t feel you have to get up at 6 a.m., every morning to do your exercises. I could use the extra shut eye!
“I can only hope my impact in the world can rival Ted Owens’. He loves his family and extended family so much. I am proud to be his friend,” Self concluded.
Owens still follows KU basketball closely and is well aware of the makeup of the roster this coming season.
“It’s looking to me he has a good mix of young people and veterans,” Owens said of Self. “We’ve got great depth in the frontcourt. I’m glad he got the Iowa kid (grad transfer Isaiah Moss). It sounds like he can shoot from the outside. (Devon) Dotson is coming back at point guard. I think he’ll be a really good one. It looks like not only do we have quality players but are deeper than we’ve been. We know Bill and his staff as always will get the best out of them.”