ASHLAND — Ashland High athletic director Karl Kemper said "It's a great day to be a Grizzly" so much — in person, over the PA system at basketball games, on his answering machine — it became the school's unofficial catch phrase.

ASHLAND — Ashland High athletic director Karl Kemper said "It's a great day to be a Grizzly" so much — in person, over the PA system at basketball games, on his answering machine — it became the school's unofficial catch phrase.

But to those close to the athletic department, there was nothing great about Monday.

Kemper, whose affable personality and academics-first philosophy made him a popular figure among coaches and athletes alike, will leave Ashland High after eight years on the job to become the assistant principal and athletic director at Banks High School, Ashland Principal Michelle Zundel announced Monday.

A farewell party for Kemper will be held from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Ashland High small gym. Students, staff and community members are invited to attend.

The move to the Portland suburb, which comes after what turned out to be an agonizing decision for Kemper, will be a coming home party of sorts. Kemper, 46, graduated from Banks High School in 1984, coached girls basketball and baseball there through most of the 1990's, has extensive family in the area and will be working across the street from a baseball field that's named after his father, Nolan Kemper.

Kemper was first contacted about the opening at Banks High about a month ago. He said the interview panel for the position included somebody who coached him, somebody he coached alongside and somebody he coached.

He was offered the job Wednesday and accepted Thursday, but only after going back and forth on the decision countless times. He was originally given 24 hours to decide, but 23 hours and 45 minutes later he asked Banks for two more hours.

"It was emotionally grueling," said Kemper, who has three children in grades kindergarten through fourth. "I changed my mind every five minutes. I love being here and I wasn't looking to leave. But ultimately, if this is our eventual goal, the opportunity is tailor-made for us to go. And as one of my brothers said, when they pass the plate of cookies around the table and you don't take one, you don't know if it's going to get back around."

Kemper was hired to replace Jim Nagel in the spring of 2004 and led the department through an era of change that included two Oregon School Activities Association reclassifications, massive budget cuts and coaching changes that affected 14 of the school's 15 OSAA affiliated teams.

Under his watch, Ashland went from a Class 4A "big school" to a Class 5A school in a six-classification system, starting in 2006, then joined a 6A-5A hybrid league in 2010. Against pressure to play up and compete as a 6A, Kemper lobbied for the school to accept the OSAA's recommendation, arguing that that would offer the most positive experience for the school's student athletes.

Not everyone agreed — opinions were split during a town-hall meeting in 2005 — but Kemper's student-first philosophy was hard to argue with.

Later, Kemper helped install a program that raised the academic bar for athletes beyond the OSAA's standards. The program is headed up by two monitors who keep tabs on every AHS athlete.

"In the last eight years, Karl has contributed significantly to a positive culture at AHS," Zundel said in a statement. "He implemented higher expectations for scholar-athletes, created an academic support system for athletes, navigated the reclassification of leagues in the OSAA and oversaw construction of the new athletic and music facilities. We are so grateful for his dedication and relentless positivity. He will be missed."

"I think it's going to be impossible to replace him," added Ashland football coach Charlie Hall, who was hired by Kemper in 2005. "His enthusiasm and his caring about the culture of Ashland athletics is second to none."

Kemper will clean out his office at Ashland High this week but will still be working in some capacity until turning in his keys on July 31. His first day at his new job will be Aug. 1.

"I really want to thank this community," he said. "It's a magical place to raise kids. I said in the interview that there is no logical reason for me to make this move professionally. I wish I could pick this town up and move it to suburban Portland."