A funny thing happened to Terry Rasmussen on his way toward retirement as a basketball coach.
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When North Medford High officials were busy checking into Mike Mitchell for its vacant head coaching position in football, the 39-year veteran coach was doing a little investigating of his own.
Mitchell made three trips to the Medford area, snooping around here and there in those moments to learn more about why the Black Tornado hadn't been more successful on the football field in recent years.
What he learned was troubling in parts and trivial in others, but it didn't dissuade him from assuming control of a team that hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2005.
"There's a lot of things that were going on there that are not healthy if you're going to have a good program," he said Thursday upon being introduced as North Medford's new head coach.
But, as he repeatedly made evident to those on hand, Mitchell has no intention of dwelling on the past.
"One thing I promise you," he noted, "is you won't hear me talk about what happened last year again. That's not what I do."
What Mitchell has done is devise an immediate plan of action in a few areas of utmost importance, with his No. 1 priority being getting a staff in place as soon as possible to help the transition to a third head coach in three years at North.
"I think to change this we need to get some totally on-the-same-page coaching staff members, period," he said. "I've been spending all my time on that so far."
Mitchell said he's already earmarked a handful of out-of-area assistants as candidates and he also plans to meet with coaches on last year's staff to gauge their interest level — and overall compatibility — in continuing with the Tornado.
As someone who has made his name as an offensive coordinator and feels most comfortable handling tactics on that side of the ball, Mitchell's first duty will be to hire a defensive coordinator. Given the time constraints and energy needed on each side of the ball, Mitchell said separating those duties and rather than taking them both on has proven to be the best method in his years as a head coach.
While alignments will ultimately be up to the defensive coordinator, Mitchell said his plan would be to have someone capable of developing a defense that can apply pressure but also can adhere to a bend-but-don't-break philosophy when necessary.
On offense, Mitchell said he's always preferred a wide-open attack but is hesitant to say the Tornado will be running an Oregon Duck-like spread attack until he's able to see film of the players and see them on the field. As he put it Thursday, as much as he'd love to go to five wide receivers at times, it does no good to do so if you don't have the group in place that can make it happen.
"I've got to see some film to see what you guys can do," Mitchell told the players on hand. "I believe in running and passing the football with good balance, my teams have always shown that. I'm pretty proud of the fact that we had 16 games in a row of 400-plus yards when I was at Hidden Valley "… but you have to go with what you have."
Mitchell said his teams, on average, have scored about 30 points per game, but often success stems more from team unity.
"I really believe this in my coaching career, that you don't always have to have the best athletes to have a good football team," he said. "What you do have to have is the best chemistry, and you'll find we'll work really, really hard at that. That's something I believe is what makes a winning team."
Mitchell will select and supervise a staff of eight paid assistants and additional volunteer coaches and will be on staff at the high school in a capacity to be determined prior to the 2012-13 school year. While it is virtually impossible to ensure all of Mitchell's assistants will also be on staff, North Medford Athletic Director Tim Sam said the plan is to try to accommodate at least a couple to increase the continuity level in the program.
"We're committed," said Sam. "We know that's part of what we've got to do to get this program headed in the right direction."
That commitment is appreciated by Mitchell, who coached in the Rogue Valley during the Black Tornado's heyday and is determined to restore that tradition.
"They were feared at one time," he said of the Tornado. "These kids probably don't feel all that because I know it's been down a little bit, but I also know you can turn programs back around and it doesn't take forever. The school has the administration behind it and I can't help but feel there will be some parents that want to be behind this. That's what we have to do, get the train loaded with enough people and start heading in the right direction, and that's what we're going to try to do."
Freshman Troy Fowler has dreamed of playing football at North Medford High since he can remember, and the tone of Mitchell's message and everything else Fowler heard Thursday was music to his ears.
The up-and-coming quarterback helped guide the Black Tornado freshman team to an undefeated season under coach Nolan Harris and staffers Nate Mayben and Mike Mayben and admitted to being a nervous wreck as the search committee went through the process of hiring another new varsity coach.
"We're really excited," Fowler said. "We've been on our heels for a while. I want it more than anything right now and a lot of guys here have the same feeling, it's just everyone has to wake up every day willing to put the work in."
"It depends a lot on the coach, but mostly it's on the players and how much we're willing to put in," he added. "We're going to have to work as hard as we can to be successful."
Fowler said about 40 to 50 Tornado players have been attending morning workouts, but he expects that number to increase now that the players know who they'll be playing for and seek to get re-energized for next season.
Mitchell will leave on Feb. 16 to coach a professional team in Croatia — a commitment he made prior to applying for the North job and said would send the wrong message if he bowed out at this late date — and will return in June. But that commitment was of little concern to those in the North program. Had Mitchell been on staff at his former school, Sandpoint High in Idaho — instead of having resigned in December so he could go overseas — Mitchell wouldn't have been able to get out of his teaching contract until June anyway.
Part of the reason he wants to get a staff together as soon as possible is to help make up for his absence in the spring. He's already gotten help from Tom Powell, an assistant coach in the program since 2005 who served as interim head coach at the end of last season, and Harris to help keep the players on task in two main areas: offseason weight training and team recruiting.
Mitchell plans to keep tabs on everything through email, texting and teleconferences via Skype. He's already been using Skype to hold face-to-face meetings with an assistant coach in Croatia with the Zagreb Patriots and will do likewise with the Black Tornado staffers and players before he returns to guide summer camps and passing leagues.
"We have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get this turned around, and that all starts with me," said Mitchell.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry