ASHLAND ' Imagine being Roy McNeal in the spring of 1927.
You have just arrived in the tiny town of Ashland after accepting the position of athletic director and coach at the new teacher's college.
It's a quaint little place, with a few stores, a railroad depot, and a lot of farmland. A good place to raise a family. Start a new life.
Once you make your way to the new campus on the southern end of town, you realize there is only one building surrounded by 18 acres of meadows and madrone trees. There is no athletic facility, no playing field of any kind. Heck, there is not even a hint of a football program.
Now, if you're Roy McNeal, you think to yourself no sweat. After all, you started a successful athletic program at Albany College in 1917. You did the same at Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., in the mid-1920s.
But Southern Oregon State Normal School, which opened the doors of a newly constructed campus in 1926, is a two-year school specifically geared toward teaching. Not a lot of men are looking to become teachers in 1927, which means the majority of the approximately 350 students are female.
The school's president, Julius A. Churchill, is looking for ways to increase enrollment at the brand new school. He had seen firsthand the benefits of having athletic teams at a Normal School. The Normal School in Monmouth had its enrollment nearly double in just over two years, thanks to athletics.
Churchill originally hired former Ashland High coach Walter Hughes to coach basketball, baseball, and track teams in the winter and spring of 1927. But Hughes left at the end of April, so the president got in contact with McNeal.
Churchill's orders to the 31-year-old coach were direct when he hired him in May: He wanted a football program established by the fall.
It was not going to be easy, even to the confident McNeal. With women outnumbering men nearly 3-to-1 and a scant budget set aside for athletics, the new athletic director would have to improvise.
So the first thing McNeal did was direct his efforts toward providing something approximating a football field.
He managed to convince a highway construction crew working on the old Siskiyou Highway to spend a few extra hours into the evening breaking up and leveling a field site across from the school with their heavy equipment.
It took several evenings, but once the crew was finished, the end result was a field of dirt and granite with a definite slope from end to end.
With the field nearly serviceable, Churchill and McNeal attacked other pressing issues: equipment, a schedule, and dressing facilities.
McNeal ordered 22 football uniforms, complete with vermilion and sand-colored sweaters, leather helmets, pants, and cleats.
Churchill and McNeal also designed plans for a dressing room and showers.
The building we plan will not be elaborate, but comfortable, Churchill told the school newspaper in 1927. We will have a stove to keep it comfortably warm, showers, and a couple of rub-down tables.
The building turned out to be a modest 8-by-30 foot shack.
That was 75 years ago.
The sloped granite field and the rickety dressing facility are long gone, replaced by a beautiful modern stadium and a playing surface so crisp, it has been called one of the best small college playing fields in the Pacific Northwest.
Southern Oregon football does not have a storied history.
There are no national championship banners, little tradition, and very few legends.
Most of its history has been either lost or ignored in the annals of time. In fact, the program has played second fiddle in its own school to more successful sports like wrestling and basketball.
But to look back on the program that predated McNeal and the 1927 season, the story reads like a Greek tragedy: some triumphs, many more setbacks.
On a cold snowy day on Feb. 24, 1896, a football game was played.
One could make the claim that the contest was the first football game at Southern Oregon.
Student John Berry promoted the contest, which took several months to finally be played on the field behind the old railroad district.
Berry hung posters across town, he recruited players from the Normal School and set up an opposition, which consisted of local men who called themselves the Ashland Athletic Club.
Berry charged male spectators 25 cents to watch the game (women and children got to watch for free), with the winner of the game splitting the approximate $40 purse.
With more than 1,000 spectators lining the sidelines, Berry and his Normal School teammates easily came away with an 18-0 victory.
Over the next two years, SOSNS scheduled several games, mostly against area high schools.
Ashland High became the Normals' chief rival. The winner of each contest continued to split the gate purse.
In 1899, SOSNS played the University of Oregon in Grants Pass and, in front of a packed house, the bigger and clearly better Duck squad dropped the Normals, 35-0.
According to reports in local papers, Oregon didn't allow SOSNS's offense to cross midfield.
The Ducks and the Normals went at it again in 1900 in Grants Pass, and once again, Oregon won in dominating fashion, 21-0. For their trouble, the Ducks went back to Eugene after both games with a healthy purse. The Oregon media department recognizes both games in its annual football guides.
In 1900, professor C.A. Redmond decided to give athletics at SOSNS a bigger boost. Redmond organized an athletic association that would control all athletic endeavors at the Normal School.
Redmond, who in turn became the school's first athletic director, drafted a constitution that had SOSNS playing for the honor of the school and pride of winning. Gate revenue would no longer be split amongst the winning team. Instead, it would go into a general fund that, in turn, helped build the school's first gymnasium in 1903.
Over the next eight years, the Southern Oregon football team languished.
The small budget didn't allow the team to venture far from Ashland, so the Normals continued to compete against the local high schools.
Between 1905 and 1908, SOSNS played against just Ashland High. Scores of the games were rarely recorded.
SOSNS's first football program ended when the school was closed down in 1909.
Nearly two decades would pass before it was resurrected.
Twenty-five players showed up for the first day of practice on Sept. 26, 1927.
Roy McNeal quickly scheduled three games: The opener was against the Humboldt teachers from Arcata, Calif., followed by Albany College (later Lewis & Clark) and concluding with Oregon Normal School in Monmouth (later Western Oregon).
An epidemic of infantile paralysis whipped through the Arcata area the week leading up to SOSNS's first game, forcing the postponement of the Oct. 15 contest against the Humboldt teachers.
SOSNS won its first game against Albany College on Nov. 5, 1927, 21-0. The Normals defeated Humboldt, 31-0, and Oregon Normal, 19-12, to complete the season 3-0.
Tragedy afflicted the Normals in 1928.
Max Newsom, a freshman defensive back from Milton-Freewater, collapsed on the field during the first quarter of the season-opener against the Oregon State junior varsity after making a vicious tackle. He died later that night due to a cerebral hemorrhage.
To this day, Newsom's death remains the only on-field football tragedy in the school's history.
At about the same time, Clyde Hines arrived on the scene.
Hines, who turned down a scholarship offer to play football at the University of Hawaii, was a sensational athlete from Baker High. He was recruited to the Normal School by Churchill, a former superintendent in the Baker school district.
Lore has it that Hines could throw a football 100 yards.
He was also the first and only African American enrolled at SOSNS at the time.
While Hines was accepted by his teammates and peers at Southern Oregon and by the Ashland community, he was not always welcome in other towns.
McNeal had to call motels and restaurants ahead of time and let them know there was an African American on the team. Some had no problems. But others, like the town of Monmouth, did.
SOSNS had to stay in a motel nearly 20 miles out of town when it played in Monmouth. It was treated so rudely by the businesses and the school, that McNeal canceled all future athletic endeavors with Oregon Monmouth. The two schools did not play each other for the next two seasons.
McNeal stepped down as athletic director and coach following the 1931 season.
Fed up with budget shortfalls and the constant strains of running the athletic program and coaching four sports, McNeal instead took over as head of the geography department.
A young Howard Hobson was hired to replace McNeal. Hobson, who was just 25 at the time, was hired in the summer of 1932.
He was a standout basketball player at the University of Oregon and was considered one of the top prep basketball coaches in the state at Benson Tech.
Hobson, who made his debut as a football coach in the fall of 1932, knew very little about the sport.
He must have purchased a good book or something because he didn't know a lick about football, Cliff McLean, a former coach in the Medford school district, said several years ago in an interview. McLean played for Hobson at Benson Tech and Southern Oregon.
To make up for his lack of knowledge, Hobson's offense centered around an assortment of trick plays.
Despite the creativity on the gridiron, Hobson's love was for basketball.
Eventually, he directed his full attention ' and athletic budget ' to that sport and football began to slide into obscurity. Hobson recruited primarily for the basketball team and even convinced top athletes to stay away from the football field.
the time Hobson left in 1935 to coach basketball at the University of Oregon, football was staggering.
Jean Eberhart, another hoops guru, was hired in the spring of 1935 to replace Hobson. He tried to revamp the football program but eventually gave up.
Under Eberhart, who was renowned nationally for creating the crow's nest officiating ' having an official perched atop each basket as opposed to running on the court ' the school constructed a gymnasium for the basketball team.
After back-to-back winless seasons in 1937 and 1938, the school decided to suspend the football program indefinitely in 1939.
It was officially dropped in 1940 after World War II drained the college of its male enrollment.
New Southern Oregon president Elmo Stevenson took that post with strict orders in 1945: Raise enrollment in one year or the college would be closed.
Stevenson was well aware of the problems that haunted Southern Oregon College of Education, as it was now called, and with one year to solve the dilemmas, any hope of keeping the school open was bleak at best.
Stevenson pounded the pavement promoting the school in hopes of somehow increasing enrollment.
I have never seen someone work as hard as Elmo did that year, Arthur Kreisman said recently. Kreisman was in his first year as a history professor in 1945. His work ethic was contagious. He was going to do whatever it took to save the school.
Unbeknownst to Stevenson, he had a meal ticket.
When World War II ended in May 1945 and the men came home, enrollment at the college went from 42 students to more than 500 in one year.
To accommodate the increase, Stevenson decided to enhance the athletic department. He hired Hal Bishop as the athletic director and together they named former Southern Oregon football player Al Simpson the coach.
Simpson, who led Medford High to a state title in 1944, had the daunting task of rebuilding a program that had been dormant for seven years.
It didn't help matters when Simpson welcomed a motley crew of World War II veterans ' many of whom hadn't seen a football field in more than two years ' to the first day of practice in 1946.
We were just a bunch of guys home from the war looking to have a good time, Stan Smith, then a tackle, said recently. When I look back on it, we were just the same as other guys coming home from the war.
The team earned the nickname side-hill wampus because it practiced on a sloped field behind the school.
Not many people gave the new Southern Oregon football team much of a chance.
But the gritty SOCE squad pulled off four come-from-behind victories during the season and finished with an 8-0 record, culminating with a victory in the inaugural Pear Bowl.
The team earned the moniker Red Raiders, thanks to Kreisman, who doubled as the sports information director.
I originally called them the Red Raiders of the Rogue Valley, said Kreisman. But the local sports editors didn't like that. They said they couldn't fit it into a headline, so it was shortened to Red Raiders.
The Red Raiders won 15 straight games between 1946 and 1947, the nation's longest winning streak west of the Mississippi at the time.
SOCE compiled a 25-9-1 record between 1946 and 1949 and won three Far West Conference Championships during the run.
Simpson coached at Southern Oregon through the 1950 season.
He was replaced by Bill Abbey, a former quarterback at the University of Oregon. At 24, Abbey remains the youngest head coach in the history of the program. He lasted just one year and left Southern Oregon following the 1951 season after being drafted by the Army during the Korean War.
The Southern Oregon football program faced plenty of adversities during the early 1950s.
The team had a minuscule football budget and could not hire a football coach. So professor Alex Petersen volunteered his services until the school could find a suitable replacement.
President Stevenson, who strove to make SOCE a stronger academic school, considered dropping the teetering football program, which had won just three games between 1950 and 1951.
Despite attracting just 13 players to the first day of practice in 1952, Petersen's teams persevered. The Red Raiders managed eight victories in Petersen's three-year reign as coach.
The 1955 edition of Southern Oregon football didn't stand a chance.
How could it?
After all, the squad had just two starters back from a team that finished 2-5 in 1954 and featured 19 freshmen and sophomores in the starting lineup. The team had versatile quarterback Bill Seymour but little else in terms of skill players.
Enter Al Akins.
After spending three years as a fullback in the NFL, Akins knew a thing or two about throwing the football.
He knew with the right kind of quarterback, the passing game could be lethal.
With Seymour at the helm, the first-year Raider coach dumped the old fashioned Split-T offense, which SOCE had been using since 1946, to an innovative pro-set pass offense.
The move paid off.
Despite its youth, Southern Oregon beat Portland State in its first conference game.
Utilizing a short passing game, similar to Bill Walsh's West Coast offense, the Red Raiders beat Oregon Tech and Oregon College of Education to win a share of the Oregon Collegiate Conference crown.
Seymour became the first quarterback in school history to pass for more than 500 yards in a season. He led the OCC with 888 yards.
In the 1960s, Southern Oregon was decimating opposing defenses with its high-powered passing offense.
The Red Raiders dominated the OCC through the air, thanks to the offense designed by Akins. The Red Raider coach was also fortunate to have quality quarterbacks.
The 1960s could easily be considered one of the most successful decades in terms of statistics in Southern Oregon football history.
The Red Raider offense practically rewrote every offensive statistic in the OCC and school history between 1960 and 1965.
Doug Olsen was the first Red Raider quarterback to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season when he passed for 1,377 yards in 1961.
Olsen threw for 1,657 in 1962 in leading the Red Raiders (8-1) to the OCC title.
Olsen's favorite target, receiver Howard Hartman, finished among the national leaders in 1961 and 1962 by pulling in 106 receptions for 1,375 yards in those two seasons.
The combination of Olsen and Hartman could have very easily gone down as the best pass-catching duo in school history if it weren't for Danny Miles and Spike Gordon.
Miles, who helped Medford High to a state title in 1962, was one of the top baseball players in the state coming out of high school. In fact, he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers.
Miles elected to go to college and enrolled at Oregon State. But a toboggan accident in the winter of 1963 postponed his baseball career in Corvallis. Instead, he enrolled at SOC and tried his hand at football.
It took the freshman quarterback exactly one game to leave his mark. In the 1964 season-opener against Whitworth, not one of Miles' 28 pass attempts that day hit the ground.
The aptly named Little General set a school record with 25 completions (he threw three interceptions in the first half) for an .893 completion percentage, which stood as an all-college record until 1982 when Brigham Young's Steve Young broke the mark.
Miles' best season was 1965 when he passed for 2,118 yards.
Gordon, who was on the receiving end of many of Miles' passes during the course of his four-year career, became Southern Oregon's first first-team All-American in 1965.
Akins stepped down as head coach following the 1969 season.
During his 15-year reign, the Raiders won or shared seven OCC titles. He remains the winningest coach in school history with a 71-62-3 record.
Larry Kramer was not only big at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, he was also intense.
A bad combination if you were to ever feel his wrath.
The former All-American offensive lineman at the University of Nebraska and a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings seemed like the perfect choice to replace Akins as the head football coach at Southern Oregon in 1970. One problem: He wasn't very popular with the players.
Kramer ran practice with intimidation and instilled fear into his players.
Quite a contrast to the laid-back Akins.
Kramer changed the school colors to the same scarlet and cream of his alma mater. He also changed the offense from Akins' innovative passing attack to the triple-option wishbone offense the Cornhuskers used.
Despite his impressive background, Kramer lasted just two lackluster years at Southern Oregon.
The school tabbed Scott Johnson to rebuild the program in 1972.
The odds were stacked against Johnson, but he somehow persevered and made Southern Oregon respectable in the grueling Evergreen Conference, where his teams lost 15 games in eight seasons by a touchdown or less.
Johnson's best team was in 1975, when the Red Raiders, buoyed by the return of Akins as the offensive coordinator, set eight school records.
Johnson resigned as coach following the 1979 season.
Chuck Mills' arrival in 1980 as a coach and athletic director gave a program that had not won a conference title in more than 15 years renewed hope.
Mills had an extensive coaching background. He was an assistant for the Kansas City Chiefs when they played the Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl. He was also the head coach at Wake Forest and Utah State during the 1970s.
Mills made an immediate impact.
He dropped the red from the nickname and from jerseys, opting for black and gray-clad uniforms. He also dropped the longtime Indian logo that had been in use since the 1950s.
Mills also created the Raider Athletic Association, mostly to raise funds for a new football stadium.
On the field, however, Mills' teams started slowly, winning just three games in his first season.
But by 1983, the same year that Raider Stadium was erected, Mills was leading the Raiders to their best finish in school history. At 9-2, Southern Oregon was a shoo-in for its first-ever appearance in the national playoffs after winning the NAIA District II title.
But the athletic department failed to submit an eligibility form to the NAIA office before Oct. 15.
The eligibility report was routine and ensured players competing had enough credits and were enrolled in the proper classes. But someone in the athletic department made a grave mistake and missed the deadline by about nine days.
The embarrassment carried over into the next season when it was determined that quarterback Jeff Seay, who transferred from Oregon State, had used up his eligibility. The Raiders, who made several appeals, were forced to forfeit all of the wins that Seay participated in.
Mills tried to put the embarrassing issues behind him, but it was not easy. The Raider coach had his detractors, and many longtime supporters began to lose faith in the program.
Mills took his football team to Japan at the end of the 1985 season. He was revered as a coach by the Japanese people because he'd been taking his football teams there since the early 1970s.
In fact, Mills was so big in Japan, they named their top trophy ' the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy ' after him. To this day, the top Japanese college player receives the prestigious Mills Trophy.
In December, he took SOSC to Kobe, Japan, to play Kwansei Gakuin University. The Raiders won, 49-24.
In 1986, Kwansei became the first Japanese football team to play on American soil. Southern Oregon won that game as well, 21-17.
1987, Mills, who loved the running game so much his offense was designated Ground Chuck, guided his team into the national playoffs.
The Raiders rode the broad shoulders of running back Craig Henderson to their first postseason victory in school history, 21-14 over Central Washington. Southern Oregon lost in the national quarterfinals the next week to Mesa State.
Mills stepped down following the 1988 season to accept the athletic director's post at the Coast Guard Academy.
The college hired an energetic young coach named Jim Palazzolo to replace him.
Jim Palazzolo was a brilliant salesman.
Not just to prospective players, but to the whole community. There was no bigger Raider fan than the coach himself, who made sure to sign each personal letter with Go Raiders.
He worked hard to accumulate support for the program and to bring in the best athletes. The 32-year-old also had a brilliant offensive mind, which was particularly evident in 1990.
With athletic quarterback David Searle running Palazzolo's wide-open, option-oriented offense, the Raiders galloped to the Mount Hood League title and just missed making the national playoffs.
The Raiders achieved their highest national ranking in school history under Palazzolo's third in 1991, but a late-season collapse prevented another MHL title.
His pass-happy, triple-option offense produced gaudy numbers over the next five seasons but only a handful of victories.
The Raiders ranked among the national leaders for total offense in five of his seven seasons.
Palazzolo stepped down following the 1995 season to pursue other business ventures.
The college named Ashland High coach Jim Nagel as the head coach in the winter, but the Grizzlies' guru wanted to coach his son for two seasons.
So SOSC named longtime assistant and former player Jeff Olson the interim head coach.
When Nagel decided against the coaching arrangement before the start of the 1998 season, the school dropped the interim title, making Olson the head man.
The shy, likable Olson immediately transformed Southern Oregon University, as it was now called, into a highly respected program.
His 1997 team led the Columbia Football Association in 11 of 22 stat categories and had the leading rusher in All-American Griff Yates, who rushed for a school-record 1,713 yards.
Yates, perhaps Southern Oregon's most prominent football player, was almost single-handedly responsible for SOU's resurgence between 1997 and 1999.
The three-time All-American rushed for 4,559 yards, scored more than 60 touchdowns, and nearly carried the Raiders into the national playoffs in 1999.
He completed his career as a holder of 28 school, league, and regional records.
The Raiders are coming off one of their most successful seasons in school history.
The 2001 club established team records for touchdowns scored (66), total yardage (4,565), and points (474), finishing one point off the Northwest small-college mark for scoring average per game (43.1).
Tailback Dusty McGrorty became the school's sixth straight 1,000-yard rusher and set a team record with 22 rushing touchdowns, while quarterback Travis Mari tossed a school-record 24 touchdown passes.
SOU equaled the school mark for most wins in a season in posting a 9-2 record and came within three points of advancing to the national semifinals.
Football is once again in the forefront at Southern Oregon.
Talks of cutting the program are now a thing of the past.
The chatter nowadays is about winning championships and achieving national prominence.
If you were Roy McNeal, even you would have to feel pretty good about that.