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Ragsdale was a key to success of Medford

Prep Notebook

Lee Ragsdale's stint as Medford's football coach was relatively short, but his influence on Black Tornado athletics was enormous.

Ragsdale coached from 1948 through 1951, then became a school district administrator until 1966.

He later served as a department head and then dean of the School of Health and Physical Education at Portland State until retiring in 1979. Now 86, he resides in a Medford retirement home.

Ragsdale made his mark picking on -- and often beating -- larger Oregon and Washington schools, while coaching at Columbia Union in White Salmon, Wash., and Camas, Wash.

After two seasons in the upper Willamette Valley as Mount Angel Preparatory's first coach, he was offered the Medford job.

I had a chance to go to Aberdeen or Hoquiam (in southwestern Washington), but when the Medford job came up, I forgot about them, Ragsdale says. I considered the Medford job the best available anywhere on the coast because of the tradition Prink Callison, Bill Bowerman, Darwin Burgher and Al Simpson had developed.

I think tradition is very important. That's what we had in Camas. It's great to coach kids that are so dedicated.

Bowerman handpicked Ragsdale to continue Medford's football excellence when the former left to coach track and freshman football at Oregon. Ragsdale, a graduate of Baker High and Willamette University, didn't disappoint him, winning the Southern Oregon Conference championship and reaching the state semifinals his first year.

I taught physical education, but I didn't have a big load my first year, Ragsdale says. (Superintendent) E.H. Hedrick made them ease up on me.

Significantly, he groomed a young World War II veteran named Fred Spiegelberg, who was his assistant coach all four years.

We were looking for a line coach, and Phil Sarboe, who was coaching Washington State then, recommended Spieg, recalls Ragsdale. He had come back from coaching the Berlin Bears in the Army and was doing graduate work at WSU.

Ragsdale and assistant superintendent Elliott Becken journeyed to Portland to meet Spieg at the Imperial Hotel restaurant.

We were so impressed with him that we hired him on the spot, Ragsdale says.

Ragsdale's journey into coaching was a study in determination. He was not a great high school athlete. Weighing 120 pounds, he was a non-lettering football player at Baker.

The stock market crashed early in Ragsdale's senior year, and he remained in town after graduation, assisting football coach George Scott. Ragsdale also coached a junior high basketball team, whose players went on to win the Class 4A equivalent of the 1938 state championship.

In 1933, he entered Eastern Oregon Normal school in La Grande.

I asked (coach) Bob Quinn if I could turn out for football, and he said, `Sure, I take anybody,' recounts Ragsdale. I looked at their guys and there were four rangy old ends who looked pretty tough. He asked me what position I played. I said I'm a back.

`Do any passing?'

`Sure.'

`Any kicking?

`Yeah.'

What I didn't tell him was that it was all on the sandlots. But I was the second best kicker and passer on the team.

After two years, Ragsdale moved on to Willamette, where he played basketball and baseball before earning a bachelor's degree.

Then he began his coaching trek in earnest.

Times were tough and you kind of had to work your way up, Ragsdale says. There were a lot of good coaches around.

When he arrived in Medford, Ragsdale adopted Bowerman's system and formations, adding only kickoff and punting routines.

We had Rich Riggs and Jack Morris and a bunch of experienced linemen, Ragsdale says. When the linemen set up a picket, they didn't make many mistakes and almost always picked the right man to block.

His first team won eight of 10 games and advanced to the state semifinals before losing to Grants Pass, 13-6.

The Tornado beat Grants Pass, 7-6, during the regular season.

It (the regular-season win) was a pretty good trouncing, says Ragsdale, but the score didn't show it because we had two touchdowns called back. When we went over there, they were ready for raw meat. We had two or three officials' decisions that couldn't be helped and one blocked punt -- the only punt I had blocked in 16 seasons of coaching.

Medford's only other loss that season was to Nampa, Idaho, which went on to win its state championship.

A week after the Cavemen defeated Medford, they defeated Jefferson, 6-0, for the state title. It was on the way back down Highway 99 from Portland that the Grants Pass team's bus went off the road and two boys died in the resulting fire.

We took the team over for the funeral in Grants Pass, Ragsdale says. A lot of people around town said it was a good thing we didn't win the championship. But I would've taken the train -- I was planning on that. You get on the train in the evening and wake up in the morning in Portland. That was the easy way to do it, although it probably cost a little more.

The following August in the second Shrine all-star football game, Ragsdale was named an assistant coach and four Tornado players -- end Fitz Brewer, center Bill Mills, halfback Riggs and guard Chuck Romine -- appeared in the game.

In four seasons at Medford, Ragsdale compiled a 26-9-2 record before becoming the director of health, physical education and safety for the Medford School District.

Bill Bowerman introduced athletics at the lower grade levels, but it was under Ragsdale that they blossomed. Medford's 1959-60 triple-crown state champions in football, basketball and baseball were products of the system.

In the days before cable TV began draining attention away from the local high school, football crowds swelled to more than 10,000.

Bill had got them to build the (east) grandstand the year before I got here, Ragsdale says. After I got here, people decided we needed more of a stadium.

The Medford Linebackers booster club led the way in the project that is now Spiegelberg Stadium. Roughly 1,000 five-year season tickets were sold for $100 each, raising the lion's share for the west grandstand to be built without public funds.

That was a wonderful project, the way people got together and put that thing up, Ragsdale says.

In 1962, the old wooden structure was razed and the new concrete building went up.

On June 12, a bulldozer dug into one end of the grandstand.

It hit one end and the whole thing collapsed, Ragsdale recalls.

On Sept. 9, the Tornado christened the new facility with a 27-0 win over Marshfield and went on to win the state championship with an 11-0 record.

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