Rising SONS: The History of Football at Southern Oregon University

Published August 2022

Available for purchase

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 37-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 100 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.

Until the past 20 years, Southern Oregon football does not have a storied history.

Aside from its lone national championship in 2014, the program has 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, even a couple of tragedies.