Robbie Owens has taken over at Helix after coaching eight seasons in Grand Junction, Colo.
LA MESA Twenty-seven people, most of them members of the media, were asked to cast ballots for a preseason high school football poll. Reigning Open Division champion Helix landed 23 first-place votes.
Informed that the Highlanders open the 2016 season as the San Diego Section’s No. 1-ranked team, Robbie Owens, Helix’s new head coach, said, “I know the expectation.”
A youthful-looking 42, the personable Owens takes over for taciturn Troy Starr, who compiled an 83-18-1 record, two section titles, three runner-up finishes and a state bowl victory in eight seasons before resigning for personal reasons.
While Starr’s run was impressive, he was a continuation of the Helix football legacy.
The school that once lined up quarterback Alex Smith, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, and Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush in the same backfield has astonishingly suffered one losing season the past 40 years.
Sitting in a spartan football office, which connects to the Highlanders’ threadbare weightlifting room, Owens smiled and said, “To be honest, I feel like I won a lottery ticket.”
Owens knows San Diego and San Diego high school football.
While the head coach at Grand Junction (Colo.) High the past eight seasons, where he was 47-38-1, Owens brought his team to participate in USD football camps. Owens, his wife, and two teenage sons vacationed in San Diego the past four summers, renting beach-side homes, hours passed in the water, on the sand and sampling local restaurant cuisine.
A self-described foodie and devotee to Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” Owens made sure the family visited Ocean Beach’s Hodad’s, which Fieri ranked as the No. 1 hamburger joint in the country. Owens, too, gives the iconic restaurant decorated with license plates two greasy thumbs up.
Added Owens, “We talked a long time about wanting to retire in San Diego. We’re just starting a little early.”
Owens grew up in Shoshone, Idaho, population 1,494.
His parents divorced when he was young. He said he didn’t see his father from first through eighth grades.
Coaches were role models and by the ninth grade he knew he wanted to be a football coach.
“Football teaches you that through mental adversity, physical adversity, leave the problems off to the side and commit to something bigger than yourself,” said Owens, who teaches physical education at Helix.
Shoshone High was so small that the JV and varsity teams practiced together. When Owens was a 5-foot-8, 140-pound freshman, the varsity coach praised him, saying, “Robbie Owens is going to be a great football player some day because he works hard.”
“When he said that, it rang true,” Owens said. “I have always had that mindset of working hard and making sure you give everything you’ve got.”
Later his freshman season, Owens saw playing time on the varsity at defensive back and started one game at quarterback. He was the team’s starting quarterback his last three seasons.
Owens walked on at Boise State, didn’t play in two seasons, then transferred to Division II Colorado Mesa University, where he said he was a scrappy wide receiver who had to know the intricacies of the offense to hold off more highly recruited players.
At 5:30 a.m. the Monday after his final college game, Owens showed up at the Colorado Mesa head coach’s office, awaited the coach’s arrival, submitted a résumé, was hired and has been a football coach ever since.
Of his career path, he said, “I wasn’t going to work. I was going to football.”
The Helix football job attracted 36 applicants, including candidates from Florida and Texas. Helix Athletic Director Damon Chase said Owens was hired “because it became very clear, here was a man who was going to build relationships.”
While Starr produced winning teams, there was a feeling among some on the Helix campus that his cold, blunt personality alienated many.
“You can win an Open Division championship and state championship and people cannot have a good experience,” Chase said. “We don’t cater to the 2 percent that earn college scholarships. Our goal is that all the kids in the program have a good experience. Sometimes, that gets lost in high school sports.”
That’s not say there weren’t athletes who enjoyed playing for Starr, who still teaches P.E. at the school. Some called his old-school style “keeping it real.”
For now, there are subtle changes on the team. Owens allowed players to blast music before summer passing league games. (The Scotties posted a 36-1 record and won four of five tournaments.) Players and coaches, not just coaches, voted for team captains.
“I don’t coach out of fear,” Owens said. “I want the kids to have fun.”
“We definitely like it,” said quarterback Carson Baker, a junior who’s expected to be a major-college recruit. “If you’re loose, you play loose.”
Owens, though, has resolve. Early in Owens’ coaching career at Colorado Mesa, his father reached out to him, wanting to establish contact for the first time in nearly a decade. On multiple occasions, Owens rebuffed his father.
“I needed a father when I was younger,” he said. “I didn’t need a father at that point.”
Helix opens the season at home against Provo (Utah) Timpview High at 5 p.m. Saturday. The Thunderbirds were 11-2 last season.
With the likes of linebacker Ezekiel Noa, the reigning section Defensive Player of the Year, all-section cornerback Scott Young and all-section offensive lineman Blayke De La Rosa, the Scotties are loaded.
For his part, Owens has boned up on Helix tradition. He knows the Highlanders’ marching band takes the field before home games and with the bagpipers dressed in kilts, the sound is unlike any other.
“You know what I’m forward to the most in the first game?” Owens said. “Hearing those bagpipes.”