Bill Singler’s last day as a certified teacher in the Medford School District will be Thursday as he enters retirement, and there’s no telling whether his final game as head coach of the South Medford football team will be Saturday under the state championship spotlight in Corvallis.

The details for each of those issues will be fully resolved at a later date although, rest assured, Singler, who turns 65 on Dec. 27, has no current plans to fully step away from either of the roles that have brought him so much joy and fulfillment since returning to his hometown following a vagabond college coaching career.

What is paramount now for Singler and his program is enjoying a journey that has all involved in rare territory.

And, oh my, what a journey it has been for someone who cut his teeth as an athlete in Medford and continues to give back to that same community in any way he can today.

“Honestly I feel as comfortable now and as relaxed as I ever have in the 20 years of this program,” says Singler, “because I feel like the process and the journey has been all I could ask for.”

Born Competitor

Bill Singler was never the biggest or strongest athlete on the football field or the basketball court, but he may have been the most tenacious.

Such a trait helped him earn all-state honors in both sports as a junior and senior at Medford High. He played on the 1969 state championship team in football and on the 1970 squad that lost in the title game, and went on to become a three-year letterman as a wide receiver at Stanford University.

Singler also holds the single-game scoring record for Medford High — the city split into North Medford and South Medford high schools for the 1986-87 school year — after netting 43 points against Ashland High on March 5, 1971. In the 98-59 victory, played before the 3-point line was a fixture, Singler was 18-for-27 from the field and 7-for-9 from the free-throw line.

That love of competition is what drew Singler into coaching once his playing career was done.

Instead of leaning on a psychology degree that had him volunteering as a juvenile counselor, he didn’t hesitate when he got a call to serve as a volunteer receivers coach at Long Beach State in 1977, where he laughingly points out he didn’t make a dime.

“Once you’re in the arena, whether as a player or coach, there’s something fascinating about it and something compelling about working with kids and working with coaches,” says Singler. “The X-and-O part of it, trying to translate your knowledge and trying to get kids to do things on the field to be competitive and to win, those things are very exciting. There’s nothing like getting kids to do things when they think that it’s all lost and there’s not a chance you can do that. There’s a lot of rewards working with kids, and I’ve certainly never looked back.”

While he may not have looked back, he certainly found himself turning an eye homeward after a host of coaching stints in 20 years that included assistant roles at Cincinnati, Kansas State, Long Beach State, Oregon Tech, Oregon State, Rutgers, Southern Oregon and Stanford. He also served three years as head coach at Pacific University.

When the South Medford position opened after Larry Walker stepped away following the 1997 campaign, Singler was one of 47 applicants, eight of whom were granted interviews. He talked about taking his time to build the Panther program the right way, and he most definitely made it clear that he was in it for the long haul.

The search committee obviously liked what they heard, and what they could envision for a Singler-led program.

“I knew coming into the program that we had a lot of work to do but I was really looking forward to the challenge,” recalls Singler.

The Early Years

South Medford won only one game in each of Singler’s first two seasons as initial numbers remained an issue.

“Those first few years were a big-time challenge,” says Jason Bauer, who is the only assistant coach to have served every season with Singler. “I remember we could barely field a JV team. I think we played three or four games and we had like 17-18 kids, but we had a pretty good freshman group coming up.”

Adds Singler: “We had to have some fortune along the way and in the third year we got that fortune. A guy named Boomer Marshall showed up on campus with his classmates and it was a very talented class.”

It was Marshall who helped guide the Panthers to their turning point in 2000 as South Medford won at Grants Pass to secure their first trip to the state playoffs under Singler (Walker previously had the Panthers in the playoffs in seven of his 12 years — to the quarterfinals on three occasions — but nothing since 1994).

“That was a huge turning stone for our program,” says Singler. “To win a big road game, to get in the playoffs and to prove not only to ourselves but to South Medford and the Medford community that, you know what, we’re going to build a football program here and we were going to be proud doing it.”

A conference title followed in 2002 and ever since then, South Medford has been able to pride itself on being a competitive program that has been able to withstand a few dips along the way. The Panthers have earned five conference titles overall, including the past two in the Southwest Conference.

Behind the Scenes

Singler would love to credit his program’s success to all the hard-working assistant coaches, devoted and talented players and support at the administration and community levels he’s enjoyed over the years, but the head man in charge has put the biggest indelible mark on South Medford.

And he’s done it in a simple way, with Bill simply being Bill.

“I’ve been around a lot of coaches and he’s about as sincere as it gets,” says Panthers defensive coordinator Chris Parnell, in his fourth year on staff and 30th year in coaching. “The kids always know where they stand with Bill and the kids love him. He might say some stuff sometimes but, you know what, the kids love him.”

Singler is admittedly far from perfect but he has grown to understand the right balance in which to lead.

“I just try to be who I am and try to bring the best I have each day,” says Singler. “You have to do that in life. I’ve worked here for 20 years but I haven’t felt great every day for 20 years. I haven’t been on my best every day but I’ve tried to bring my best, and I think kids recognize that.”

“To get kids to respond to you in today’s world,” he adds, “you have to kind of talk their language and you can’t be bigger than they are or think that you’re bigger than they are. You have to get down and dirty with them, you’ve got to laugh with them, you’ve got to cry with them, you’ve got to put your arm around them, you’ve got to slap them on the rear end if they deserve that. You just have to be real, and if you are real with kids, they will respond to you.”

That has most definitely been the case over the years.

“There’s nothing like it,” South senior Jaylin Parnell says of having Singler as his head coach. “He cares more about us than we’ll ever know. That guy will do anything for us. He’s not just your friend but he’s a good mentor, too.”

That rings true for senior quarterback Robbie Patterson, too.

“(Former Panther) Ryan Benson said it best, Bill is the guy you want coaching you,” says Patterson. “He gets you in the right stuff and he runs the program right way. He treats you like a man and treats this program like a college program. He definitely brings out the best in everyone and he’s the mastermind behind everything so without him we wouldn’t be here.”

And while the X’s and O’s part of football definitely is a keen attribute for Singler — Chris Parnell says he’s happy to not have to try and counter Singler as he did when he was at Crater and North Medford — it’s the ability to foster a meaningful relationship with his staff and players that is the coach’s top quality.

“He’s a great teacher of the game,” says Bauer. “When I came in I thought I knew a lot of football, and I knew very little. It’s been amazing. I know he’s tutored a lot of coaches, myself being one of those, and I feel blessed because I understand the offensive game so much better and the game of football so much better, and that’s obviously one of the reasons why he’s been so successful.”

“But while the X’s and O’s are one of his biggest attributes, for sure,” adds Bauer, “he has the biggest heart I think I’ve seen and a lot of people don’t see that in him. He can be very hard on players at times but he also knows how to love them up. He absolutely loves these kids and a lot of people don’t see that. They hear his coaching gruff voice and sometimes you’ll hear him on the radio over on the headsets, but he really truly does love his players and his kids in his classroom and I think that’s helped him build a special bond with all of them through the years.”

Changing Ways

Another top attribute for Singler has been his willingness for change.

Whether it’s adopting a no-huddle offense or something geared more for ball control, being open to a frenzied locker room with blaring music following games or even in-game music for practice, Singler has not been one to stick his feet in cement and not budge.

“I’ve changed a lot, especially in the last two or three years,” says Singler. “You can’t be old-school and coach new-school. You have to adapt. I never was a total old-school coach but I learned a lot of old-school ways. But I’ve learned to adapt to new-school things that are out there.”

“We’ve changed our mode of operation around here because life has changed and kids have changed a little bit,” he adds. “You have to kind of adapt to the culture that’s going on or else you’re going to get passed by, and I didn’t want to get passed by if I still wanted to be in the profession.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is Singler’s focus on his true goal.

“I’ve never talked about personally winning the state championship or bust,” says the coach. “That’s never come out of my mouth. When I first got the job, my biggest challenge was trying to develop a competitive program where we could compete and make rivalry mean something in the North-South game because it was not a rivalry with North winning most of the games when we first took the job over.”

“I’ve never really put the onus on saying I have to win a state championship to have fulfillment in my career,” adds Singler. “I am so fulfilled as a football coach here at South I can’t stand it because we have built a program with integrity with our own kids. I’m proud of the program that we’ve built and I’m proud for everybody that we can all enjoy a moment to get a chance to play for the state championship, which I didn’t know if that was really attainable at South Medford in football. I just felt like if we kept plugging along, good things would happen.”

Home Advantage

Through it all, though, Singler says his biggest win may have come back in 1987 when he met his future wife Leah at Kansas State.

“I think in this business to do it right, there has to be a lot of things behind the scenes that get done,” he says. “I think having a supportive wife and a wife that understands football and football coaching and the dichotomy of it all, it’s very important. I hit a home run when I married Leah. I knew she knew athletics because she had worked as a (sports information director) at Kansas State where I met her back in 1987 but I didn’t know I hit the grand slam. And I’ve certainly hit the grand slam with Leah.”

Following Leah Singler through a week would make any person’s head spin. From dropping off supplies after shopping for the coaching staff or whomever to organizing team events and fostering a family atmosphere through relationships with all the players and their parents, she’s a whirlwind of activity.

“She is such a giving person, she has her mother’s traits through and through,” says Bill Singler. “They’ll give the skin off their back to do everything for other people besides themselves. You’ve seen Leah work tireless hours at South in a lot of different ways, whether it’s in our football program, whether it’s with the Booster Club or selling South Medford apparel every Wednesday at South during lunch hour or coordinating the AAU program for boys basketball, it’s unbelievable.

“And she’s working a full-time job on top of it and at different times trying to monitor a husband that’s not totally in control and two boys (Mitch and Jack),” he adds in praise. “She’s got a lot of strength and she’s got a huge heart, and our program would not be the same without her. She’s a huge part of our program and we would not be where we are without her.”

The Future

Saturday marks a special day for Singler and his Panther program, and bringing a championship back to Medford for the first time since North Medford won in 1993 — the Black Tornado also finished as runner-up in 2000 and 2003 — would be particularly satisfying.

“This community takes a lot of pride in their football and in sports in general,” says Singler. “We’re excited to represent South Medford. We’re excited for the school, we’re excited for the South Medford fan base and our student body and we’re excited for our team. Everybody has a hand in this. This hasn’t just been a deal where you can just put your finger on one thing that’s helped us get there. Everybody has had a hand in this thing and we certainly want people to be recognized for that and enjoy it.”

His impending retirement as a teacher is more of a case of beating a deadline to ensure benefits aren’t lost, not because he’s worn out from the work. He plans to return in January as a classified employee to finish out the school year, and quite probably would be interested in putting himself back in the substitute pool to maintain his opportunity to help kids.

As for football, other notable head coaches like North Medford’s Rod Rumrey and Roseburg’s Thurman Bell went on to coach their teams after being retired, and Singler certainly isn’t eager to give that role up anytime soon.

“We’ll just talk about what’s best for the program and go from there probably in January,” says Singler. “I really want to still coach. I feel healthy enough to coach and this is who I am. I’m a coach, I’m not a fisherman or a hunter. And if you play too much golf, you get worse.”

“There’s a lot of things to talk about and put on the table later on and we’ll certainly do that,” he adds, “but I want to stay involved with kids so I’m going to stay involved with coaching somehow, and hopefully it’s still here at South Medford in some capacity.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry