Since their inception, the New York Giants have enjoyed a long, storied history in the NFL. One of their first great coaches was Steve Owen. After a stellar, but short career as a player, he was promoted to head coach where he would enjoy a 24-year-long tenure. This is his story.
The Early Years
Steve Owen was born on April 21, 1898 in Cleo Springs of the Oklahoma Territory (Oklahoma didn't become a state until 1907). Raised in the Cherokee Strip, he worked on a cattle ranch, dreaming of the day that he would fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a jockey. However, football soon came calling and he found himself starring on the football team at Phillips University in Enid. While at Phillips, he earned extra income by wrestling under the assumed name "Jack O'Brien to preserve his eligibility.
After graduation, he meandered around for a while. He served in World War I in the U.S. Army training corps but after the war, he was left with little idea of what he wanted to do. He decided to give coaching a try, going back to his alma mater to train his descendants before traveling throughout the Southwest working on oilfields. His life seemed meaningless until he got an unlikely opportunity.
After living the life of an oilman, Steve Owen knew that he wanted more for his life and signed with the Kansas City Cowboys of the National Football League in 1924. Unlike other teams, the Cowboys played all of their games on the road, giving Owen $50 per game. After the season, Owen played for the Canton Bulldogs in 1925 before being sold to the New York Giants for $500. However, once the money changed hands, that's when the formalities ended. The Giants never gave their new tackle a contract, instead operating on a handshake deal throughout his time in the Big Apple. He never even saw a contract for the entirety of his playing days, nor for his days as Big Blue's coach and not even when he was their head scout after his coaching days ended unceremoniously after 1953. When the Mara family trusted someone, that handshake was often for life.
It was the beginning of something special. In just his second year, the tackle from little-known Phillips University was named the captain of the New York Giants and led his team to the championship. He played for the Giants from 1926 through 1931 and spent a year retired before coming back in 1933. After leading the Giants to the championship game that year, Steve Owen retired for good as a player and plunged head-first into the coaching life.
Late in 1930, Owen had been tasked with coaching the Giants for the remainder of the season. Tim Mara, the Giants' owner, was impressed with his 2-0 record as well as how the team rallied around their new coach. So it was only natural that Steve Owen was given the head coaching job when he retired as a player after the 1933 season. Soon, he would become known for sticking with the basic fundamentals of football, however, his specialty was defense.
It was just his luck that he led his team to the title game in his very first year at the helm. Despite the fact that they were playing the game at home in the cavernous Polo Grounds, the Giants were heavy underdogs against the undefeated Bears. Not only were the Bears unbeaten, but they were also the defending NFL champions and were riding an 18-game winning streak. A freezing rain the night before froze the Polo Grounds and set the stage for one of the earliest upsets in the league's history. It was a chilly day, with temperatures being around nine degrees at kickoff.
Before the game, team treasurer John Mara observed the slick, icy surface of the iconic ballpark and promptly alerted Owen who then told his team. Sitting in on the last-minute team meeting was team captain Ray Flaherty. The end was reminded of similar conditions while he was in college at Gonzaga and how his team had used sneakers for much of a game for better traction. He suggested to Steve Owen that he do the same and Owen agreed. In response to Flaherty's idea, Owen sent a locker room attendant to borrow some pairs of sneakers from nearby the Manhattan College basketball team. The Bears pounced on the Giants in the early going, entering halftime ahead 13-3.
But the Giants had an ace up their sleeves. One of their players owned a sporting goods store and at halftime, the Giants sent a contingency to his store to fetch boxes of sneakers. Down by ten at the half, the Giants came out of their locker room for the second half sporting new pairs of sneakers and new attitudes for a better outcome. Confident and standing firm just enough with traction in their new kicks, the Giants roared ahead, winning 30-13 to snatch victory against one of the greatest teams of the era. Ever since that frozen day in the middle of the Great Depression, that game has been affectionately dubbed "the Sneakers Game".
Four years later, he led the Giants to another title, defeating the Green Bay Packers 23-17 in front of 48,120 in the Polo Grounds. As a result, the Giants became the first team in NFL history to win two championships since the title game first began. In total, Steve Owen led the Giants to eight of the first 14 championship games, winning twice.
After winning the 1938 championship, the Giants continued to dominate, going to the NFL Championship Game five more times, losing each time. Eventually, the losing began to put a strain on the organization. In both 1950 and 1951, they came close to winning the division but fell short against the Browns, finishing second. In 1952, the Giants again lost the division race to Cleveland but finished tied for second with the Eagles, with both teams finishing one game short of the NFL title Game. In 1953, the Giants experienced their first losing season in five years, finishing a dismal 3-9. It was time for a change.
The Giants fired him after that dismal season and moved their longtime coach into the scouting department. It was the beginning of Steve Owen's third act in the game that he loved and he would spend the remainder of his life bouncing around the NFL, college and CFL serving as either an assistant coach or a scout. He died on May 17, 1964 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame two years later.