When Lee Owens attended the American Football Coaches Foundation’s CEO Coach of the Year Awards Ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City in November 2015, he wasn’t there for a reunion.
As head coach of Ashland University in Ohio, and 2016 president of the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), Owens attended the event to honor the award’s recipient David M. Cote, who is chairman and CEO of Honeywell Inc.
In attendance with Cote was Carl Johnson, who is president of Honeywell Industrial Safety. Johnson played football for Owens in the early 1980s, and to this day, he has a special place in Owens’ heart.
“Carl Johnson played football for me,” says Owens. “He was there with David Cote, and he talked about how he was influenced by me as a high school coach. He didn’t have a chance without football. His mom abandoned him. His stepfather beat him, and his brother died of a drug overdose. We took him in and he led us to a state championship and went on the play college football and become one of the presidents of Honeywell.
“In the game of football, when someone asks me what is my greatest accomplishment? Was it being part of a Big Ten Championship or a MAC East championship? Was it the 200 victories between coaching in college and high school? I say absolutely not. My greatest accomplishment is that young man I coached in high school, in whom I believed when nobody else did. Seeing what he’s done in his life and how he’s impacted other people in a positive way, that’s why I do it, for the opportunity to impact people in a positive way.”
Coaching For The Right Reasons
The game of football has never been more popular than it is today, and it has never been under as much attack as it is right now. For Owens, It’s important that football coaches at every level look themselves in the mirror and ask themselves, “Why do I coach?”
“I think our No. 1 responsibility as coaches is to continue to challenge our players and coaches who are part of this great game – at all levels – to coach for the right reasons,” he says. “I’ve coached for a long time, and I always want to know why the players on my team make all the sacrifices they do to play this game, because the truth is, you have to sacrifice to play this game. Hopefully, it’s for the love of the game, the passion for the sport, because they want to honor their teammates in the locker room, honor their family or honor their faith. As coaches, we want to be a positive influence and change the lives of young men and send them in the right direction.”
Owens says that fame and fortune are definitely not the right reasons to coach football at any level.
“As more money becomes part of the game, it can have the tendency to cloud the decisions we make regarding why we do what we do,” he says. “There’s more of a tendency to compromise our decision-making and we need to be careful we don’t let that happen. Particularly, those guys with the biggest platforms have to be careful they don’t let that happen.”
The reality is that there are very few professions in the U.S. that have seen compensation increases on the scale of those involved at the elite levels of football. Owens left coaching high school to work for John Cooper at Ohio State University in 1992. He says that today – a little over 20 years later – coaches are making 10 to 20 time the amount of money he did to do the same job.
“I’m not saying they don’t deserve it,” Owens is quick to point out. “They deserve it. They are making unbelievable sacrifices and it’s high risk. But that kind of money has a tendency, in my opinion, to cloud what we do and why we do it, and it may be opening the door to compromising our game.
“Those things we are most under attack for – whether it’s concussion or the misbehavior of some of our players on campus – we need to make sure that regardless of how much they pay us and how popular we become, we don’t lose our game or coach football for the wrong reasons. If we don’t keep it all in perspective – why we do what we do – that’s when the game can really face challenges. I don’t think any of us want to lose this game because of the Carl Johnsons out there. They need this game as much as anything. There aren’t many things in our culture today that can save a kid the way football can.”
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