To hear his friends and colleagues tell it, there was just something about Barney Riggs that left you at ease.

To hear his friends and colleagues tell it, there was just something about Barney Riggs that left you at ease.

From as far back as his junior high school days in Ashland to his later work as a teacher and coach at Hedrick Junior High in Medford and all times in between, Riggs set himself apart with a gentle nature and uplifting personality.

It's those cherished memories that came up time and again Tuesday as friends spoke of Riggs, who passed away Sunday morning at age 81. Riggs had been hospitalized recently after undergoing surgery for a broken hip.

"He was a great, great person ... everybody's friend," said Stan Smith. "I don't know anyone who didn't like Barney. He always had a smile on his face."

Riggs graduated from Ashland High in 1944, leading the school to the state championship in basketball over Medford High as a senior to complement all-conference accolades as team captain and halfback in football.

Riggs was also a standout in baseball, and played the sousaphone in the school band, according to longtime friend and teammate Winne Roberson.

"When you were going through school back then, the only thing to do in town was turn out for football, basketball, baseball and track," said the 82-year-old Roberson, who became fast friends with Riggs at age 13. "I think the thing that he contributed most was that he was such a good influence on everybody that participated. It just all rubbed off him. He had a lot to do with the outcome of games because Barney instilled in us that, 'By golly, we can win this game.'"

After serving honorably in the U.S. Navy, Riggs returned to the area and helped lead the 1946 Southern Oregon University football team to its only undefeated full season in school history. Smith and Roberson joined Riggs as teammates on the "hillside wumpas," which went 8-0 and won the Far West Conference championship under coach Al Simpson.

"I've seen Barney break loose and get into the secondary and he'd look like a bull looking for a matador," recalled Smith of their playing days. "He'd change direction and go over and take somebody head on."

With the stocky fullback bearing down on them time after time, Smith said the defense often had quite a challenge on their hands.

"They didn't want anything to do with him after a while," added Smith. "He was a really, really tough football player."

Composed of World War II veterans who played both sides of the ball, the Red Raiders allowed only two touchdowns against their Far West Conference competition en route to the school's first conference title. Riggs was part of a T-formation offense that outscored opponents 176-42, including a 12-7 victory over an Oregon JV team that featured future NFL Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin.

Riggs was later inducted into the SOU Hall of Fame in 1994 for football.

After college, Riggs and his wife Shirley remained in the Rogue Valley to raise their own family, but it was the countless others he mentored as a teacher and coach for 26 years — 21 at Hedrick — who may have benefited the most by his presence.

Riggs was a teacher and coach in Talent, Medford and Central Point, and made quite a name for himself over the years as a basketball and football official.

"He was my role model as a young man," said Tom Perdue, dating his first interaction with Riggs back to when he was an athlete at Eagle Point High in 1959. "I thought if I could grow up and impact kids the way he impacted me and be even half the man Barney Riggs was — and I tried to do that as a teacher and coach and as a basketball official for 30 years — then I could consider myself a success."

Perdue said Riggs' demeanor on the floor and the way he related to young people was truly something special.

"You knew you were going to get a great game from Barney Riggs and it was going to be fun," said Perdue, who later developed their relationship through a shared passion for hunting and fishing. "If he called a foul on you, you knew it was fair. I just can't say enough about him."

Besides the lives he touched at Hedrick, Riggs was also instrumental in joining Lee Ragsdale in choosing cardinal and gold as the colors for the athletic uniforms at the "new" school in 1955. Riggs was inducted into the Medford Sports Hall of Fame in 1985.

"If you go back and talk to some of the many people that he impacted, it could've been called Barney Riggs Junior High," Perdue said of Hedrick. "He was that kind of a man."

Riggs was preceded in death by his wife Shirley and is survived by sons Steve and Scott Riggs and daughters Teresa Snyder, LeeAnn Cox and Hollie Riggs and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A celebration of life ceremony will be held at the Elks Lodge in Medford at 2 p.m. on Friday.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com