He’s taken over a Miami University basketball program that has had eight straight losing seasons, has been to one NCAA Tournament in the past 18 years and saw attendance at Millett Hall last season drop to an announced average of 1,490 per game although, at times, the crowd looked to be almost half that size.
He has taken over a team that went 11-21 last season but had two promising young stars — twins Michael and Marcus Weathers, one the RedHawks’ leading scorer, the other the No. 2 rebounder and No. 3 scorer — and now both are gone.
On the eve of his introductory press conference in Oxford, he learned they were transferring by one of their tweets.
And yet when someone suggests to new Miami coach Jack Owens that his hands must be full now, he has to laugh:
“People will say ‘Oh Coach!’ and I say ‘If you only knew what my wife and I once had to go through.’ ”
His hands were full when they were gripping the steering wheel of the team van as he was driving his Howard Community College players back home to Big Springs, Texas in the wee hours of the morning after a game that night in Clarendon, Texas, some 280 miles away, or Uvalde, Texas (276 miles) or maybe Rosewell, New Mexico (215 miles).
And this was after he had driven the team earlier in the day from its West Texas campus and he then had coached the game, packed up the gear afterwards and gotten the players something to eat.
Your hands are full when you live with the players in the dormitory and eat the team lunches and dinners with them every day while your wife-to-be is back up north at Eastern Illinois University finishing her schooling while she tends to your young daughter.
And you certainly have your hands full when you’re 23 and have been thrust into that interim head coaching job at Howard after the veteran head coach — one of your mentors — was forced to step down and the team had to forfeit games for playing an ineligible player.
Your task, you were told, was to all but win out so you had a shot at the playoffs.
“We did,” he said with a smile.
And, by the way, you do all this for $486 a month.
So when Jack Owens, who left Purdue after the past nine seasons, six as associate head coach, says the Miami job was too good to pass up, you understand.
He sat in his office at Millett Hall on Tuesday — just a couple of hours before he’d work his new team out for the first time and on the eve of today’s Miami Team Shootout that brings 25 high school teams from Ohio and several neighboring states to campus in a showcase event — and talked about his journey here.
He said this is the right place and the right time for him.
The guy who once lived in a dorm with his players is now building a new home on a wooded acre not far from campus.
“I’ll be able to walk to work,” he said quietly.
He and his wife Kamilah now have three daughters and Alanah — the oldest, the one who lived with her mom as dad toiled in Texas — just graduated from high school and is headed on Purdue, where she’ll run track.
As for the RedHawks program, Owens talked of a return to glory, reaching out to some of the Miami greats — guys like Dayton’s Ron Harper and Wally Szczerbiak — all while targeting conference championships.
“We have the most MAC (Mid-American Conference) titles in our league with 21, so that’s a great selling point,” he said. “Seeing that, you know it can be done here.”
Long road here
“I’m the youngest of 10 kids and I’m a Jr. as well,” he said with a grin. “I just say my dad and them ran out of names and said ‘We’re just gonna name him Jack, too.’ ”
Owens grew up in Indianapolis, starred on the basketball court at Washington High School and was an AAU teammate and fellow Indiana All-Star — and now a lifelong friend — of Damon Frierson, who was Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1995 and then came to Miami where he was a two-time All-MAC selection and scored 1,644 career points.
At the same time, Owens headed to Murray State, where he played a season and then, as he explained Tuesday, became impatient with his playing time and decided to transfer. Rather than sit a season at another NCAA school he chose to “go to the first junior college that opened its doors to me.”
That was Howard Community College.
“I never stepped a foot on campus,” he said shaking his head. “They showed me a picture of the arena and I went. When I got there it was not what they had shown me, but I just wanted a chance to play.
“And it was the best thing for me. I got with a great coach … and I ended up meeting my wife there. She was on the women’s basketball team. So it was God-sent.”
After Howard, he went on to Eastern Illinois University, finished a good career and had a chance to play overseas — Germany for $30,000, he said — until he called Matt Painter, the assistant coach who had befriended him at Eastern Illinois.
“He said, ‘Jack it’s over. Go ahead and get into coaching.’ ”
Owens did, working first as a grad assistant at Eastern Illinois, then heading to Howard for a season, Barton Community College for another and one more back at Eastern Illinois. He then teamed up with Painter, who was the head coach at Southern Illinois, stayed there five seasons, and then again joined Painter, who had gone on to Purdue.
In the past 14 seasons, Owens has been part of 11 teams that made the NCAA Tournament and four that reached the Sweet 16. One of Painter’s prime recruiters, he has had a big hand in the Boilermakers’ last four recruiting classes all being rated among the nation’s top 30 by Rivals.com.
Filling the roster
When he put his new staff together Owens added Frierson not only because he would be a link to Miami hoops stars of the past who he wants involved in the program again, but, he said, because “he’ll be a quality person for our guys to be around. He’s one of the best players ever to play here. They need to see that.”
Owens said his first task has been to try to change the culture and mindset that sometimes come when you lose a lot.
With the Weathers twins gone — Michael followed former coach John Cooper to Oklahoma State and Marcus is at Duquesne — and three other returning players departed, Owens had to quickly fill his roster and added four freshmen and a junior college transfer.
Tuesday he sang the praises of returning players like 6-foot-9 senior Logan McLane, 6-7 senior forward Rod Mills and 6-6 redshirt freshman Precious Ayah, who was injured last season.
But no one impressed him more Tuesday than senior guard Abdoulaye Harouna.
“He’s a mature player, he understands,” Owens said. “He said, ‘Coach, I love the new guys and the energy and competition. I love the vision we have. I love the way we’re going now.”
He told Owens it feels like they’re going “in the right direction.”
And that’s something Owens always wanted to hear back in those old Howard days, when he gripped the wheel, tired but resolute, and drove his team four hours back home through the Texas night.
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