Lots of people take to the trails and go hiking. Then there are those adventurists who seek a different high by climbing the highest mountain they can find.
When Lee Owens set out on that kind of trek, he didn't pick up a backpack and wear the standard hiking boots. He put a football program on his shoulders and in a sure-footed manner, raised it to new heights. This might be the football equivalent of scaling Mount Everest in Rockports.
The 2012 season will mark the ninth season the AU program has been directed by Owens. When he arrived, he brought an infusion of talent, optimism and excitement. In the two years before he was named Ashland's head coach, the Eagles won a total of four games. Since he started roaming the sideline AU has won eight or more games in a season four times, advanced to the NCAA Division II playoffs twice, won the first postseason game in school history and built a new on-campus football stadium and office complex. Last year, defensive lineman Jeris Pendleton was taken in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He's the first AU player to be selected in the NFL draft since 1972. Kicker-punter Gregg Berkshire was named a first team All-American by the American Football Coaches of America.
Each year seems to produce those kind of superlatives. In 2010 defensive lineman Jamie Meder was named the GLIAC freshman of the year. Berkshire was a finalist for the Fred Mitchell Award, which goes to the top kicker in the country, regardless of division. Offensive lineman Justin Magruder played in the Cactus Bowl, the NCAA Division II all-star game.
With Owens at the helm, the Eagles have advanced to the NCAA Division II playoffs twice (2007, 2008). The school went to the postseason in consecutive years for the only time in school history. The offensive record book has been rewritten and off the gridiron, the success rate is just as impressive.
In 2009, wide receiver Nick Bellanco was a second team ESPN the Magazine Academic All-America. Bellanco became the first player at AU to receive the GLIAC's McAvoy Award, which is presented each year to the football player in the conference who excels athletically, academically and in the community. Bellanco also was recognized twice as a recipient of a GLIAC Commissioner's Award.
In 2008, the Eagles went 9-4. That team opened the NCAA playoffs with a 27-16 victory over Minnesota State, which was ranked 25th in the country. That game was played in Ashland, marking the first time a postseason game was played in the city.
How did the Eagles get to that point? They did it, in large part, with the Owens trademark, an offense that can erupt like a volcano. When it comes to offensive pyrotechnics, very few teams in the country can match the Eagles on a yearly basis.
In 2009, Ashland was 13th in the nation in pass offense (295.9 ypg.), 20th in total offense (441.69 ypg.) and 21st in scoring offense (34.77 ppg.). AU was second in the country in pass efficiency (167.77 rating). Quarterback Billy Cundiff was a first team AFCA All-America and the 2008 GLIAC player of the year. Ashland had two receivers surpass 1,000 yards and one of those wideouts, Bellanco, tied the school single-season record for receptions. For the second consecutive year, Ashland had a player recognized as a first team All-America.
In 2007, AU made its first postseason journey under Owens. That team led the nation in fewest turnovers (nine). The Eagles were fourth in the nation in total offense (528.2 ypg.) and pass efficiency (166.09), sixth in scoring (44.0 ppg.), 11th in passing offense (290.9 ypg.) and 16th in rush offense (237.3 ypg.). The Eagles were 8-1 in the regular season and were invited to the playoffs for the first time since 1997. AU lost in the first round of the postseason, 40-24 at Central Washington. Center Vince Cashdollar was recognized as a first team All-America and played in the Cactus Bowl.
Owens is the 14th head coach in school history. He came to Ashland in December, 2003. It did not take him long to reverse the Eagles’ fortunes. In 2005, AU was a fixture in the regional rankings and barely missed advancing to the NCAA Division II playoffs for the third time in school history. Owens' work was not overlooked as he was named the 2005 GLIAC coach of the year.
The 2005 season was when the Eagles (9-2) really began to take off under Owens. That season, AU was second in the nation in scoring defense and seventh in total defense. The Eagles featured tailback Jason Schwalm, who set school single-season and single-game rushing records. Safety Devin Conwell was the GLIAC defensive back of the year and honored as an All-America. Schwalm and offensive lineman Blake Dickson were also cited as All-Americas. Five Ashland players were honored as first team all-conference selections.
AU’s two losses came by a total of seven points and both came to nationally-ranked teams. The Eagles ended the season with a six-game winning streak.
In 2006, AU (4-6) lost to three nationally-ranked teams. That trio included national champion Grand Valley State – the Lakers won a back-and-forth battle from AU, 30-24. Even though the Eagles finished below .500, a number of underclassmen played prominent roles and gained valuable experience. Everything came together in 2007 when the Eagles were ranked 22nd nationally and become one of the country’s most exciting – and improved - teams.
As a head coach on the high school and college levels, Owens has a 184-126-2 record. He came to Ashland from the University of Akron, where he coached from 1995-2003. Owens’ record as a college head coach is 95-94. His record at AU is 55-33.
At every stop of his career, Owens’ calling card has been creative and productive offensive football. He’s a true architect when it comes to offensive football.
Owens didn’t have to be educated about Ashland University and its football program. The AU head coach is originally from nearby Mansfield, OH, and he’s a graduate of Madison High School. Owens earned his Master of Education degree from Ashland in 1981.
The Owens Era at Akron was one of the most thrilling tenures in school history. Under Owens, the Zips became a team that could reach the end zone from anywhere on the field. Owens led Akron to a 34-20 win over Marshall in 2002, Akron’s first victory ever over a Top-25 team. He was on the sidelines for one of the biggest wins in school history, a 35-29 conquest of Navy in 1999. Akron trailed in that game, 23-0. That’s the largest come-from-behind win in school history and the greatest lead lost in 121 years of Navy football.
Owens guided Akron to its first consecutive winning seasons since the school became a Division I-A member (1999-2000). In 2000, Akron won a share of the Mid-American Conference Eastern Division title. He also coached the school’s first consensus All-America, Dwight Smith, who played on the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
His last several seasons at Akron saw the Zips offense flourish to the point where in 2003 the Zips were sixth in the country in pass offense (311.3 ypg.), ninth in total offense (470.25 ypg.) and 11th in scoring (36.25 ppg.). In 2002, Akron was 28th in the nation in yards per game. Quarterback Charlie Frye rewrote the school record book for completions, attempts, passing yards, total offense and completion percentage. Frye was regarded as one of the top signal callers in the country and was picked by the Cleveland Browns in the 2005 NFL draft.
Owens’ success at Akron extended to more than just records on the field. In 2000 and 2001 the Zips led the MAC Academic Team and in 2001, the AFCA presented Akron with an academic achievement award for a graduation rate over 70 percent. In 1995 when Owens arrived on campus, the football program’s graduation rate was 17 percent. Upon Owens’ departure, Akron averaged 58 percent on the NCAA graduation report. Six members of the 2003 senior class had a grade point average that exceeded 3.0.
A quick look at the Owens resume reveals that he’s a leader among his peers. Owens has been active on the NCAA YES football staff and has served on the public relations committee for the AFCA. Today, he is a trustee with the AFCA. He was the honorary chairman for Kids News Day at Akron Children’s Hospital, a community-wide fundraising project. Owens is heavily involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). He served on the inaugural board for the First Tee Chapter of Akron – a program designed to expose disadvantaged youth to the game of golf and to prepare them for growth and leadership opportunities.
Owens came to Akron after a stint as an assistant coach at Ohio State (1992-95). While at Ohio State, Owens helped the Buckeyes to a 27-8-2 record and a Big Ten co-championship in 1993. Ohio State made appearances in the Citrus Bowl (1993, 1995) and Holiday Bowl (1994) during his stay in Columbus. Owens coached the late three-time All-America Korey Stringer and Orlando Pace, a two-time Lombardi Trophy winner who has gone on to become an All-Pro offensive lineman with the St. Louis Rams.
Owens’ OSU stint followed an ultra-successful career as a high school football coach in Ohio. His career record on the prep level is 89-32-2 in 11 seasons. He was the athletic director and head football coach at Massillon Washington High School (1988-92) where he led the Tigers to a 35-13 mark in four seasons. His Massillon teams made three consecutive appearances in the state playoffs and his 1989 and 1991 units advanced to the state semifinals. Massillon won three of four games from arch-rival McKinley. In 1991, Massillon posted a 42-14 win over McKinley and that was the Tigers’ biggest win in the series in 31 years.
While at Massillon, Owens played a major role in upgrading the school’s athletic facilities. He initiated a community-wide drive to privately fund more than $800,000 of improvements to the athletic complex at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium.
Prior to his time at Massillon, Owens spent one season at Lancaster High School (1987) where he led the Golden Gales to a 7-3 record and a spot in the state’s Top 10.
From 1983-87 Owens was the head coach at Division II Galion. His record there was 33-11-1. His 1985 Galion team won the OHSAA state championship, going 14-0. In the state championship game, Galion downed Youngstown Cardinal Mooney, 6-0. Owens was named the Associated Press Coach of the Year and was presented with the key to the city of Galion.
Before arriving at Galion, Owens was an assistant coach and the head football coach, social studies teacher and assistant principal at Crestview High School (1978-83) in Ashland. Owens spent two years as the defensive coordinator under Bill Seder, an AU graduate and a member of the school’s Hall of Fame. He became the head coach at age 24 in 1981. He guided the Cougars to a 10-0 record and a final ranking of third in the state that season.
The AU head coach got his start in coaching at Waynesfield-Goshen High School in Waynesfield, OH, in 1977.
Owens earned his bachelor of arts degree from Bluffton College in 1977.
Owens and his wife, Dianne, are the parents of four adult children – Ben, Andy, Leanne and Molly. They have two grandchildren, Benjamin Lee, who is six and Natalie, who is four.
The AU head coach was born on July 17, 1956.