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Olson talks SOU football

When the four finalists hoping to become Southern Oregon's next head football coach explain to the Raiders brass this week how they plan on turning around a program that's gone 8-21 since 2008, they can speak only in hypothetical terms.

Jeff Olson, on the other hand, doesn't need to deliver a winning presentation to convince anyone that his plan will deliver. His philosophy has already passed the ultimate litmus test — he led the Raiders to the NAIA playoffs two years in a row in 2001 and '02.

And what does Olson, who coached the Raiders from '96 through '04, think the next head coach needs to do in order to turn Southern Oregon into a winner again? His answer to that question boils down to a few key points: 1. Recruit right. 2. Don't rely too heavily on junior college transfers. 3. Limit staff turnover, and "… 4. Cultivate relationships with high school coaches throughout the Rogue Valley.

Olson wasn't an immediate success when he took over the Raiders — succeeding Jim Palazzolo — 15 years ago. In Olson's first three seasons as head coach, the Raiders finished 4-5, 5-4 and 4-6, for a modest two-win improvement over the previous three seasons.

That began to change in '99, when the Raiders, led by All-American running back Griff Yates, ran off five straight wins to head into its regular season finale within striking distance of a playoff berth. They lost big at Western Oregon to miss out on the postseason, but the impressive streak kicked off a golden era that yielded two playoff wins and two national quarterfinal berths over the next three seasons.

The Raiders during that time established themselves as an offensive juggernaut, balanced and explosive, but mostly overpowering thanks to record-setting running back Dusty McGrorty and the formidable offensive linemen who cleared his path. They averaged 415 yards of total offense and 43.1 points per game in '01, and 378 and 30.4 in '02, the two most productive years, offensively, in the program's 84-year history.

The success of McGrorty and Yates — they finished ranked first and second, respectively, in career rushing yards — supports Olson's theory when it comes to recruiting at Southern Oregon. Both hailed from tiny Oregon high schools, McGrorty from Warrenton High and Yates from Coquille High.

"You've got to (look) everywhere," Olson said.

Indeed, in '04, Olson's last at SOU, 74 of the 115 players on the Raiders roster hailed from Oregon, including 11 Rogue Valley pickups. In contrast, 30 of the 93 players on SOU's '10 roster attended high school in Oregon, including eight from the Rogue Valley.

The lack of Rogue Valley recruits can be remedied, said Olson, but it must be considered a priority.

"If the local community is not behind you, it's going to be a tough sell," Olson said. "Even when you go to the local eight-man (football) schools, if they don't feel good when a person from Southern calls it's not a good thing. And I think it's vital that the head coach, not an assistant, recruits the valley and has a very good relationship, and that the coaches in the valley feel good about him."

Of course, it's impossible to field a roster made up entirely of high school recruits. Transfers fill up the rest of the spots. About those, Olson is clear: have a purpose.

"I think the person has got to have a philosophical approach going in," he said. "Do I want to build this through high school kids, or do I want a quick fix with kids who are going to be here maybe one or two years. Some people do, but I don't believe that's how you maintain success."

The right transfer at the right time, however, can turn a mediocre team into a playoff contender, a fact reinforced during the Raiders' '01 campaign. That's when quarterback Travis Mari transferred to SOU, beat out Olson's son, Elijah Jordan, to earn the starting nod, then passed for 2,401 yards while leading the Raiders to their first playoff berth in 14 years.

But, as Olson points out, those kind of success stories are rare and ultimately, a program that's after long term success must be able to recruit and develop high schoolers, "as opposed to guys that have gone to a JC or a four-year school who have been coached up in a different manner, and they come in with the expectation that they're going to play right away.

"If you're going to bring a transfer in, there's gotta be a reason why you bring him in," Olson said.

The one-and-out philosophy should also be avoided when it comes to the coaching staff. That may sound simple enough, but in fact, the Raiders have struggled in recent years retaining assistant coaches.

That wasn't the case when Olson was at the helm. Position coaches came and went, but the heart of the program remained intact: Matt Sayre, now SOU's athletics director, was the offensive coordinator for six year; Tom Powell coached for 19 years, specializing in the offensive line; Shay McClure was the defensive coordinator for three years before becoming the interim coach in 2005; and James Gravelle coached the Raiders defensive backs for nine years.

"That was probably one of the keys to the success that we had at SOU," Olson said. "I got the job in '96, and from 1997 to 2001 we had about two staff changes.

"When those guys went out recruiting, they believed more and more in what we were doing. They had a track record to sell, and I know that that was a crucial part of (the success)."

Southern Oregon's search for its next head football coach has been narrowed to four finalists, which are visiting the campus this week for final interviews. Former University of Oregon quarterback Chris Miller was interviewed Monday, Ashland High coach Charlie Hall on Wednesday, former Oregon Tech coach Craig Howard will visit today and former SOU assistant Stacy Collins rounds out the interviews Friday.

Olson is playing a small role in the search, dining with the finalists each night after the interviews are over.

Only months after stepping down as the North Medford High head coach — in part to spend more time with his family — Olson says he never considered a return to SOU.

"I love the place — I spent 24 years there," he said. "But when I stepped down as a head coach (at North Medford), there was a reason why I did it."