Friday, December 13, 2002
1994 - Florida St. 18, Nebraska 16
By Alex Laracy
Though he later rewrote the Oklahoma record book and took home the Heisman Trophy, running back Steve Owens almost became known for a single failed play in the 1968 Orange Bowl.
Owens grew up in Miami, Okla., just a mile away from Mickey Mantle's hometown of Commerce. As a child, he listened to Sooner football games on the radio while working in a local shoe store. It was the days of legendary coach Bud Wilkinson and national championships, and Owens got hooked.
"That was my dream as a young boy growing up in Oklahoma, to come here to Oklahoma [University] and play football," he said recently. "It ended up being a great decision on my part."
He committed to OU in 1966 on the prodding of new coach Jim Mackenzie. Under Mackenzie's guidance, the team improved from 3-7 to 6-4, and the Sooners' future looked bright. Unfortunately, the 37-year-old coach died from a massive heart attack before the 1967 season.
Defensive backfield coach Chuck Fairbanks took over for Mackenzie and steered the team to a 10-1 record and the Big Eight title. Along the way, the Sooners picked up big road victories over Missouri and Nebraska, and their defense pitched four shutouts. By season's end, OU had climbed to No. 3 in the AP and UPI polls.
The Sooners' reward for their efforts? A date with No. 2 Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. Owens still recalls admiringly the stars of the '67 Volunteers: quarterback Dewey Warren, center Bob Johnson and "two of the best linebackers that ever played the game," Steve Kiner and Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds.
"I remember watching the Tennessee defense on film, and they were outstanding," said Owens. "They had a great football team, and very few people gave us any chance to win that football game."
But Oklahoma was pretty good, too, and proved it by taking a 19-0 lead into halftime. Quarterback Bob Warmack was sharp, hitting nine of 13 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. On the ground, Owens, Warmack and running back Ron Shotts combined for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
Tennessee woke up in the second half, returning a Warmack pass for a touchdown and adding a rushing score and field goal to pull within 19-17. After OU increased its lead to 26-17, Tennessee responded with a 77-yard drive to make the score 26-24 with 4:05 left in the game.
On the ensuing drive, the Sooners got only to their 43 before facing a fourth-and-one. With a couple minutes remaining and punter Gordon Wheeler having a superb night, a punt seemed to be the logical call. Coach Fairbanks, though, was in a gambling mood and decided to go for a game-clinching first down. The handoff went to Owens, who was stopped cold by the blitzing Kiner and Reynolds.
"I'm thinking, 'Aww, we lost the ballgame,'" said Owens.
The next few minutes were tortuous for Owens, who squirmed on the sideline as Warren and the Vol offense made their way downfield. With seven seconds left, Tennessee kicker Karl Kremser lined up for a 43-yard field goal attempt.
"I couldn't really stand to watch the field goal," said Owens. "I turned my back and looked up at the stands, and I remember the cheer of the OU crowd, which was behind us, and I realized he missed it."
Kremser's kick had sailed right, giving Oklahoma a 26-24 win. The victory, said Owens, was the perfect finish to a near-perfect season.
"It was a great experience for me," he said, "being able to play at Oklahoma my sophomore year, to be able to play on a Big Eight championship team, and to have a chance to play a great Tennessee team in the Orange Bowl. To win that game was certainly an experience that I'll remember all my life."
Greater individual glory awaited Owens, who went on to win the Heisman in 1969 and still ranks second on Oklahoma's all-time rushing list with 3,867 yards. The Detroit Lions made him the 19th pick of the 1970 draft, and he lasted five years (making one Pro Bowl appearance) before a knee injury forced him to retire in 1975.
Today, Owens lives in Norman, Okla., where he has a part in two businesses in the financial services industry. Oklahoma's Memorial Stadium is only a few miles away from his office, a pleasant reminder of his past glories on the gridiron.
"As I look back on my football career," he said, "I think all of my dreams came true."