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Bowerman among Medford's greats

Prep Notebook

In this centennial year of the first high school football game played in the Rogue Valley, it would be remiss to overlook past greats, some of whom remain full of tales from bygone eras.

One of those greats was Bill Bowerman, a former Medford High football player and coach who later became a world-famous track coach.

Bowerman was there when Medford football was first put on the map by coach Prink Callison. Callison built a 45-2-2 record in six seasons and had a 44-game win streak. In the final four years, the Tigers, as they were known then, went 35-0.

Callison teams won three state championships in the days before playoffs, beating Grant of Portland 24-6 in 1926, McLoughlin of Milton-Freewater 44-0 in 1927 and Benson of Portland 39-0 in 1928.

The latter was among the best teams to ever play in Southern Oregon. It averaged 36 points a game and limited opponents to 40 points the whole season. The '28 Tigers produced two NFL players: tackle Bill Morgan twice gained first-team all-pro honors playing for the New York Giants, and center Bernie Hughes played for the Chicago Cardinals.

The left end was Bill Bowerman.

Bowerman returned twice to coach Black Tornado teams, pulling stints from 1935-1941 and, after serving in World War II, from 1946-47. From there, Bowerman became a legend in the world of track and field, coaching the 1972 U.S. Olympic team and developing the shoe that launched Nike.

Bowerman's great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1830s in Wheeler County, where Bill Bowerman, 88, and his wife of 63 years, Barbara, live today.

He was born in Portland in 1911 and spent his early years in Fossil. Bowerman's father, William Jay Bowerman Sr., served as governor of Oregon for seven months, 1910-11. But the elder Bowerman left his wife and family when Bill was 2.

Young Bowerman was raised by his mother and aunts. He moved to Medford when he was 10. He was a precocious lad, and so it served him well that the late E.H. Hedrick -- another Eastern Oregon transplant -- was superintendent and Callison was a vigilant task master.

I was a mean little kid, says Bowerman, with a mischievous chuckle, during a phone interview.

He turned out for football as a 5-foot-8, 145-pound sophomore and a year younger than most of his classmates.

This was in a day when players were still eligible until they were 20. Callison wasn't one for bothering with undersized youngsters. Not when he had the likes of 6-foot-7, 250-pound Eddie Demmer around.

He kicked me off the team, put me on the JV and probably saved my life, acknowledges Bowerman.

Prink was a very tough football player himself, an all-coast center at Oregon. He was a very good coach and a tough man.

Hedrick, for whom the middle school on East Jackson Street is named, was a cow puncher turned educator.

He decided being a teacher and coach wasn't as productive as being superintendent, Bowerman says.

Bowerman's introduction to Hedrick was rather one-sided.

I got my rear kicked out of school for being a cutup, Bowerman says. I went across the street to the superintendent's office and sat in the outer office until noon. Then I heard a voice from the inner-sanctum: `Is that hell-raising kid still out there?' I'm sure my ears were waving like a donkey. Then he told Mrs. Jensen to send the little so-and-so in. I had never heard a school teacher talk like that. He dressed me down for what seemed to be a half-hour. It probably wasn't two minutes.

He told me to get back to school and he didn't want to hear any more about cutting up.

Bowerman eventually grew to 6-2 and 190 pounds and earned a starting spot his senior season.

There was a kid that was older, bigger and faster than I was, Bowerman says, but he couldn't catch the ball.

Bowerman also played basketball and edited the school newspaper.

When he left high school and arrived in Eugene, he met up with Colonel Bill Hayward, the Ducks' track coach, who turned Bowerman into a quarter-miler.

He said he thought he could help me, Bowerman says. I couldn't run fast; I was a galloper running with one leg.

Although Bowerman never became a great runner, he learned the gist of developing greatness from Hayward.

If I modeled myself after anybody, it was Bill Hayward, Bowerman says. He was a great teacher and athlete, and he was an old man.

But Bowerman wasn't planning to become a coach during his career at Oregon. When he obtained his bachelor's degree in 1934, he was bent on going to medical school.

In the meantime, he took his first coaching job at Franklin High in Portland in the fall of 1934. A year later, he returned to Medford, where he coached football and revved up what became the state's dominant track program during the next two decades.

But he wasn't the school's first choice to coach track.

They said they had somebody else in mind to coach track, Bowerman recalls. He didn't know how far around it was on a quarter-mile track.

Bowerman's football teams compiled a 69-13-8 overall record. His 1935 and 1939 teams were 7-0-1 and 8-0-1.

If a guy thinks this is a pantywaist game, he can't succeed, Bowerman says. It's tough. Kids have to like the taste of their own blood and not mind having someone else belt them.

In his Medford days, Bend beat his teams three times, Ashland and Eureka, Calif., did it twice. Nobody else beat his Tornado more than once.

Our toughest game every year when I was coaching was Eureka, recalls Bowerman. Ashland was a big rivalry. Grants Pass was a pushover. They had the same type of people we had, worked in the woods. But I don't think we ever had a tough game with Grants Pass.

Oddly enough, the first year Bowerman left, Grant Pass ended an 11-year string of losses to Medford. When he came back after the World War II, the Tornado was 2-0 against the Cavemen.

Months before he was scheduled to begin medical school World War II broke out. Because he had been involved in ROTC, he was among the first to be called into active duty.

He was placed in the 10th Mountain Division that trained in Colorado then skied about the Southern Alps.

We weren't in the early fighting or else there wouldn't have been any survivors, says Bowerman who learned to ski in the Siskiyous sans chairlifts.

Somebody asked me if I was one of the best skiers in the world, I said `No, but I have the strongest legs.'

the time the war ended, Bowerman had seen enough medical situations to dissuade him from becoming a doctor.

He returned to Medford, coached two seasons and then was hired to coach track and freshman football at Oregon.

In the next 24 years, his teams won four NCAA titles and were runner-up twice.

A tinkerer by nature, Bowerman disliked the shoes that his runners wore at Oregon. He experimented with shoes again and again. He then joined forces with one of his former athletes, Phil Knight, in a venture that grew into the world's largest athletic apparel company. But that's another story.

The Medford Linebackers honored Bowerman in the early 1970s when they built Bowerman Field on what is now the North Medford campus.

Bowerman's foundation has helped build or improve tracks at North and South high schools, St. Mary's and Hedrick and McLoughlin middle schools.

His philanthropic gestures have been marvelous, says longtime Medford Linebacker Fitz Brewer, who played for Bowerman's latter teams.

Bowerman showed his interest in giving back to this community one more time before he headed north to coach Oregon. He was insistent about finding a suitable successor.

After scouring Southwest Washington's big schools and finding no takers, Bowerman found his man. Lee Ragsdale had coached smaller Camas, Wash., High to wins over Kelso, Longview and Vancouver, then left to start a new program at Mount Angel, outside of Salem.

I was up on the hill when a car drove up and there was old Bill Bowerman, Ragsdale recalls. Among the first things Bowerman said to him, he remembers, was everywhere I went they kept talking about this fellow Ragsdale.

He put me in his car, says Ragsdale, and we went down to Medford to meet E.H. Hedrick. Bill was his own man and knew what he wanted to do.

The hunch bore out. The next year, Ragsdale coached Medford to the state semifinals.

Bowerman was still giving back to the community.

(Greg Stiles is a Mail Tribune sports writer. He can be reached at 776-4483 or at )