Updated: April 17, 2014 at 8:58 am
Scott Owens walked into the Colorado College student center, and a party started. CC students waved, took turns shaking his hand and shouted encouraging words. He reigned as The King of Campus.
This was nine years ago, a few days before Owens led his team to his only journey to The Frozen Four. Today, Owens remains the same expert conversationalist he was in 2005, and he's still smart and funny and frank.
He no longer coaches hockey at his alma mater. Why?
That's the easiest answer of April.
He stopped winning.
A backlash followed Owens' still-mysterious resignation April 5. Even after the Tigers won seven of 37 games this season, a stubborn band of believers retained faith in Owens. They point to the astronomical graduation rate of his players, to four seasons of more than 25 wins, to his understanding of hockey's proper place in the complicated chemistry of an elite college campus.
Many believers wondered how the local sports columnist could dare criticize their favorite coach. One believer said I had been "beating the drums" for his dismissal.
And I've never played the drums in my life.
Let's be clear: I wanted and expected Owens to return to repair his program, which had fallen into ruin. He did not return, and we may never know the complete story of his exit.
I believe CC athletic director Ken Ralph and Owens surprised each other. After an outlandishly awful season, Ralph offered ideas how to resurrect the program, and several of those ideas offended Owens, a deceptively intense man.
Owens created an on-ice image of a calm coach who placed his emotions in prison on game nights. Off the ice, he liberated those emotions. His players saw glimpses of his fire, which was considerable. So did I. Owens is a proud, bright man with his own view of how to run a hockey program.
Ralph had ideas. Owens had other ideas. This is where the surprises arrived. Ralph and Owens discovered they no longer could work side-by-side, and crafted a deal to conclude the coach's 15-season tenure as CC's hockey professor.
Many college coaches pocket a healthy wage, and Owens was one of those coaches. For years, he earned his salary with a program that collected victories, played highly entertaining hockey, graduated players, pleased demanding CC faculty, packed World Arena and offered local sports writers a long list of positive story angles.
This season, this expertly constructed program crumbled, and the Owens era suddenly ended.
Here's the truth about sports, at any level past grade school.
Winning is required, and any coach who fails to win falls into extreme peril. This was true for Owens at CC. This is true for Troy Calhoun at Air Force.
Losing altered Owens from the most popular man on campus to a retired coach, at least for now.
The Owens loyalists wonder why I turned on him, and a few messages have been packed with anger. Without Owens, one CC alum wrote, the Tigers are doomed to drop to Division III, non-scholarship status, and this tumble from the mountaintop of college hockey will be largely my fault.
Let me explain the change that troubles the loyalists: From 2003 to 2011, I wrote about a winning CC team. In the past two seasons, I wrote about a losing CC team. Owens directed the Tigers to only 43 wins of his final 115 games.
Losing changes everything. The CC student section was virtually vacant during games while World Arena transformed from a happy weekend destination to a somber ice palace. A negative view? Sure. Accurate? Just as sure.
Ralph is searching for a new coach, and the next CC hockey leader will face stiff demands. He must find genuine students who double as hockey warriors. He must become allies with CC's lovably cantankerous faculty.
Another demand ranks at the top of the list.
This coach must win. This was, is, and always will be the truth.