Despite the soggy weather, spirits were high at the Rogue Valley International Airport Saturday as hundreds of fans, friends and family members of the Southern Oregon University Raiders football team packed into the terminal's lobby to welcome home the newly minted 2014 NAIA national championship team, fresh from its 55-31 victory Friday over Marian University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Terri Knox and family members of defensive coach Berk Brown were among the dozens gathered just before noon at the runway's commerce gate off Crater Lake Highway, braving chilly temperatures and drizzly conditions waiting for the team's chartered plane to arrive.
"Can you imagine? Going from basically no program four years ago to a national championship," she said, adding with a grin, "You gotta admit, defensive coaching really won the day."
Eric Baird, interim director of the SOU Foundation, was among about a half-dozen university staff and faculty who also braved the weather that morning to welcome home a team that had done what would have been unthinkable less than a decade ago.
"The Rogue River Room was filled with students (on Friday)," Baird said. "It was a great emotion."
Despite it being the team's first time in a national championship game, Baird said, the university community didn't have many doubts about how their team would perform. "I think hopes were pretty high all around going into it," he said, eliciting nods from fellow university staff and faculty gathered around him.
Eventually, the growing crowd was forced to relocate indoors by airport security. By 1:10 p.m., increasingly antsy supporters, many clad in Raider red, were crowded around the arrivals entrance at the airport's security checkpoint. As the first player turned the corner into the crowd's line of sight, the gathered throng broke into a chant of "SOU! SOU! SOU!," growing increasingly louder until the championship plaque itself finally appeared, prompting a wave of cheers.
For many gathered at the airport Saturday, the team members were not family, fellow students or co-workers. The Raiders were simply their hometown football team. Medford resident Ben Adee, his wife and two sons fell into the category . Adee and his 4-year-old son Cole sported SOU jerseys over long-sleeve University of Oregon T-shirts.
"It's SOU first — that's why it's on top," he said laughing. "Whatever Oregon does this year may be second-best, as far as I'm concerned."
Adee said that after watching Raider football for years, he considered head coach Craig Howard's four-year overhaul of the once-struggling program nothing short of magical.
"When you get a coach who can make things work like Howard can, it's a special, special thing," he said.
The return of the victorious team meant more to few people gathered that afternoon than 90-year-old Stan Smith, better known as "Mr. Raider Football."
Smith, a World War II veteran of the U.S. Navy who played in the Raiders only undefeated season in 1946, has been one of SOU athletics most die-hard supporters over the past decades. He wasn't able to make the trip to Florida for the game, but earned a surprise shout-out from Raiders quarterback and NAIA player of the year Austin Dodge during a sideline post-game interview with ESPN.
"It's the greatest part of my life," said Smith, who at times had tears in his eyes as players posed for photos with him and the trophy. "It's one of the best things I've experienced."
Looking around the gathered mass of fans, while Dodge crouched nearby signing footballs and autographs, Smith smiled. "They're great kids," he said.
Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.