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Late SOU coach Howard prominent in book on small colleges

As a longtime coach at College of the Siskiyous, Phil Maas always had an appreciation for the closest four-year school with a football team, one that just so happens to sit on the other side of the California-Oregon border.

With nearly five decades of his life dedicated to coaching football, Maas has seen just about everything. And it’s a big reason why he found himself wanting to talk to somebody like Craig Howard, Southern Oregon University’s late football coach, when he decided to write a book about the game at the small college level six years ago.

“I knew more of (Howard) than I was friends with him and I was just kind of germinating the idea for the book when I reached out,” Maas recalled during a phone interview from his home in Weed, California. “His beliefs about college football are like mine and what college football should be about.”

Howard, SOU’s legendary and national championship-winning coach who passed away nearly four years ago, is among the central subjects in Maas’ book, “The Heart of Football: Why the Small College Game Matters,” which was released in August. Others with local ties include former South Medford High star and SOU All-American Matt Retzlaff and Ashland High state title-winning coach Jim Nagel, giving a wide range of examples of what small college and high school football is all about.

“There’s a whole chapter in the book about (Howard’s) beliefs about college football and what it really means,” Maas said. “I think if you read one chapter in the book, I think that chapter is the one where you get it. He talks about men of strength, honor and character, and you would understand what college football should be about.”

What Howard accomplished during his six years as head coach in Ashland is exactly what Maas wanted to put a spotlight on. In quick fashion, Howard built both a winner and a program that other coaches wanted to model theirs after.

There was success on the field, but it was about more than just wins and losses. Howard’s vision for what a program should be like involved the development of human beings on top of football players.

“When I think about small college football, I can think of no one who represents the game better than he did,” Maas writes.

“Strength, character and honor” is one of the many popular “Howardisms” that lives on in the SOU football program.

It was the backbone of the Raiders’ program from the first days that Howard took over until he passed away on Jan. 20, 2017. It’s alive today at Raider Stadium and within the SOU football team’s facilities, with Howard’s imprint on the program still very much a presence.

“I’m 26 years old, I’m eight years out of high school and I guess you could say that when I was going into Southern Oregon University my freshman year, my thought was that I was going in to play small college football,” Retzlaff said. “But, I tell you what, it turned out to be something a lot more special than small college football as it’s titled. Craig Howard built that program to where it was at its highest point going to national championships, not once but twice, and (he) really built a huge legacy there.”

Maas connected with Howard through a mutual friend: SOU athletic director Matt Sayre. Like two peas in a pod, Maas and Howard, two veteran football coaches, bonded over their common vision and appreciation for small college ball and the opportunity it presents.

“He was just like me, where he felt like (NCAA) Division I football has become so much about money and this and that, they’ve kind of lost their soul. Whereas our levels of football, we still have it because it’s all about your team,” Maas said.

Maas’ goal for the book was to give the former coaches and players he interviewed their own voice and to show why schools that aren’t at the highest level of college football still mean so much to both the sporting world and their respective communities. Telling his own story was no problem for Howard, who proudly recalls SOU’s comeback win in the 2014 NAIA national semifinals over Carroll College, a game played in a vicious snowstorm with temperatures well below zero.

“I will never forget that game,” Howard says in the book.

That national title run in 2014 was Howard’s signature moment during his short but accomplished tenure as head coach in Ashland. Howard guided the Raiders to back-to-back appearances in the NAIA championship game and finished with a 50-23 record.

“Like he told me, he was from Grants Pass and went to Linfield College, and he was so happy to return to his home stomping grounds in Southern Oregon,” Maas said. “It was like a dream come true for him, and I think he appreciated and he was so grateful for every day the kind of life he had and that he was able to be the head coach at Southern Oregon University right where he grew up. It was one of the best things of his life.”

Being a coach at the junior college level for as long as he has, Maas has seen players from all different walks of life and situations arrive on campus at Siskiyous. There are players who were overlooked and those who are just looking for an opportunity to play.

“His quote that I loved is that, ‘The big time is where you’re at.’ Wherever you’re at, you have to consider that the big time,” Maas said of Howard. “It’s a lot more about the game that you’re playing, and coach Howard was one of the best at preaching the lessons of life. These things last a lifetime.”

“Most of the kids that we get in these small college programs, they want to play, they want to play now and they want to play for the school they’re at,” Maas continued. “It’s valuable that they can play and learn the lessons of the game, and then they have that connection to the community.”

It’s also something Retzlaff and his teammates took to heart.

“During my time at Southern Oregon University, I made the big where we were at,” said Retzlaff, who has gone on to play football in Europe after finishing his SOU career in 2016. “We played UC Davis, we played Sac State, and those are Division I FCS teams — and we competed with those guys. We went on and won a national championship. Not a lot of people can say that no matter what level you’re at. Fortunately enough, we worked our butts off, we worked our tails off, and we accomplished some pretty big things while we were there.”

In Maas’ book, Retzlaff contributes a first-person account about playing for the local small college rather than a larger school elsewhere.

Retzlaff, part of SOU’s national title team in 2014, could have been a walk-on at a bigger school, but nearly a decade later, he is very happy with the decision he made.

“I took a lot of pride in it,” Retzlaff said of being a local product on the local college’s roster. “I was very proud being that Medford guy and moving a couple miles down south to Ashland and playing for Southern Oregon University. There’s a lot of history at Southern Oregon, there’s a lot of history between Craig Howard and my grandfather, Fred Spiegelberg — when Craig was playing high school football at Grants Pass, he was going up against my grandfather at Medford High.

“I felt that I was building on that tradition as I was playing for Craig Howard and for Southern Oregon University. I was very proud of our coaches and who they recruited, my teammates all in all, and I’m very proud of what we accomplished.”

It’s those kinds of stories that are the crux of what Maas wanted to bring to light.

As much as it’s about team building, the lessons Maas taught in the classroom and on the field are things he knows will pay dividends in his players’ futures.

“One of the main reasons I wrote this is that I felt like football in general, and especially the small college game, wasn’t getting any recognition for the value that the game has for its players,” Maas said. “I wrote the book because I wanted players and their parents to understand what the value of the game really is. For me, it’s not the NFL or Division I football, and like I put in the title, the heart of the game is small college football and high school football.”

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Late Southern Oregon University coach Craig Howard addresses the Raiders. He's prominent in a recent book on small college football.