ASHLAND — The table in Matt Sayre’s office is stacked with hardware.
Freshly polished trophies awarded to Southern Oregon University athletes at the end of last year, with a big silver football towering above the rest of the lot.
“I try to hold on to them in here as long as I can,” said Sayre, who is about midway through his fifth year as athletic director at SOU.
But the success of SOU athletes on the field isn’t what brings the most gratitude to Sayre, and it hasn’t been the focus of what Sayre has been cultivating at SOU since he took the reins of the athletic department as interim AD for the 2008 academic year.
“It’s so gratifying when I get some random person come up to me and tell me what a great group of young men and young women we have on ‘such and such’ a team,” Sayre said.
“High-level character kids,” are who Sayre has been concentrating on getting to SOU and building at SOU since he arrived.
He had a hunch that he’d see teams find success on the field and floor with a foundation like that to go off.
“That adage that sports builds character isn’t always necessarily true if it’s just left to sports. You have to have coaches that intentionally teach character within the context of the sport, so that’s really what we focused on,” he said. “I have a fantastic staff that’s bringing in great kids with high grade point averages.”
Success on the field, in the classroom, in the community, in life — it’s all interconnected in the culture Sayre has nurtured and grown at SOU.
Sayre, 45, who stood in for 18 months as interim AD prior to his appointment to the position in May 2010, put in nine years as an assistant football coach for the Raiders before walking away from coaching.
Sayre joined the coaching staff of the Raiders’ football team in 1995 as an offensive assistant. Under head coach Jeff Olson, he was named offensive coordinator to begin the 1998 season. With Sayre's hands on the offense, the team averaged nearly 400 yards and 33 points of offense each game until he walked away from the role and SOU in 2003. The team's record was 38-21 during the same span.
Hired in 2004 as the head football coach at College of the Siskiyous in Weed, Calif., he led the Screamin’ Eagles to a 5-5 record before returning to SOU the next year to regain his previous role as the football team’s offensive coordinator under head coach Shay McClure. The Raiders turned in a 1-9 record that year.
He accepted the position of assistant athletic director following that football season and went on to become associate AD before being named interim athletic director in November 2008.
“It was a point in my life where I decided that it was time to do something different. I coached for 10 years, I loved it, had a great time doing it, it was just time to do something else,” Sayre said.
When SOU opened its vacancy for athletic director in 2010, Sayre, who had seen success as interim AD, went for the job full bore.
A former student athlete himself, Sayre played quarterback at Eastern Washington University during his sophomore and junior collegiate season before transferring to Western Washington University, where he started under center during his junior and senior years. He graduated from WWU in 1992 with Bachelor of Arts in English and earned a Masters from SOU in 2001.
He went overseas in 1993 to serve as a player/coach for the Graz Giants of the Austrian Football League. He was named MVP in 1995, when the team won the national championship.
Sayre landed at SOU after following through on the recommendation of a friend in Austria.
“Under his leadership we've had unparalleled success on the field and court and in the classroom,” said Bobby Heiken, who is in his seventh year as associate athletic director at SOU. “Matt came in as AD with a department where moral was below horrible. ... Relationships within the department, across campus and in the community are 100 percent better than before he was AD.”
In 2010, Sayer helped save the Raiders’ football program by getting it into the Frontier Conference, which would have meant the end of football at SOU had it not happened.
“The national championship was pretty validating concerning the decisions we made about football, what to do with them and then getting into the Frontier Conference and where that led us,” Sayre said.
Seeing new turf installed at Raider stadium, the rejuvenation of campus and community support for SOU athletics, and last fall’s powerhouse display of athleticism by SOU’s teams have all been accomplished under Sayre’s leadership.
Next up, a complete overhaul of McNeal Pavilion set to begin this year, as well as the additions of men’s soccer and women’s wrestling.
“I feel like we’re having a positive effect on the student-athlete experience,” he said.
Reach freelance reporter Sam Wheeler at email@example.com.