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Former SOU football players remember Mills fondly

It doesn’t take Kevin Moore long to remember his first impression of Chuck Mills when the aspiring college football player arrived for his recruiting trip to Southern Oregon University.

“He showed me his Super Bowl ring,” Moore recalled with a laugh, referencing the title Mills won as an administrative assistant with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1966. “That was the first thing he showed me and it showed me he knew what he was talking about. That was a great first impression and it just gave instant respect from me.

“I fell in love with his philosophy and him smoking that big cigar.”

The respect for Mills that so many players like Moore had only grew from the first meeting.

Mills left quite a mark on the SOU football program during his eight years as head coach and athletic director from 1980 to 1988. Prior to his arrival, the program was struggling and had just recorded its fourth straight losing season. But once Mills arrived on campus in Ashland, things turned around quickly as he established himself as one of the most successful — and impactful — coaches in SOU history.

Mills, who has the fourth-highest win total among coaches in SOU history, passed away Monday in Hawaii. He was 92 years old.

“Outside of my father, he single-handedly was the most important and influential person in my life,” said Mike Beagle, who was a defensive back on Mills’ SOU teams from 1981-84. “I’m going to miss him, I’m going to miss talking to him.”

Added Martin Turner, a wide receiver who first joined SOU out of high school in 1980: “I would say, outside of my grandfather and my mother, he was probably the most influential person in my life that I met. Definitely outside of my family, (Mills was) the most important person in my life that crossed paths with me. Just the ultimate mentor, that’s all I can really say.”

Mills, a native of Chicago, came to Southern Oregon after coaching at Wake Forest for five years in the mid- and late-1970s. He finished with a 48-40-1 record during his time at SOU. His 1983 team, one that finished 9-2, won the NAIA District II championship and helped Mills be named district coach of the year. Four years later, in 1987, SOU claimed its first-ever NAIA Championship Series win with a 21-14 victory over Central Washington.

“When I first got (to SOU), the whole buzz around campus was that they need to get rid of the football team because they’re a bad influence and had some guys getting into trouble,” Turner said. “That first year, those guys kind of got the vibe that they didn’t fit in and they just kind of went away. He held us together and it was very consistent. He had some unorthodox approaches to practice which are now commonplace. We never had injuries, we were always in shape. It worked for us.”

Mills’ impact on the school, as well as college football, goes well beyond just wins and losses.

He connected with his players. He was invested in their academic standing and held his players to a high standard on the field as well as off, whether they were star all-conference players or at the bottom of the depth chart.

“If you didn’t go to class, he heard about it,” Turner said. “He knew all your classes, he knew all your teachers, he knew how you were doing.”

Mills was a father figure to many, and somebody who welcomed it.

Even as his players played their last game and were preparing to go out in the world, Mills was there to help however he could.

“At one time,” said Randy Lyons, a starting offensive lineman from 1981-83, “I wanted to get a history degree and go on and do some other things, but he told me, ‘Right now, you need to graduate with a degree that you can make money at five or six years down the road to take care of your family. He was a person who would always listen.”

“He made you feel like your conversation was the most important conversation he had received,” Lyons added. “Just the fatherly advice since he didn’t have any children of his own, he wanted us to be better than when we came to Southern Oregon. A lot of times, too, it was a tough love. He would chew on you and challenge you to prove what he was saying.”

And Mills stayed connected with them long after he saw them move on.

“He remembered my (wedding) anniversary who does that?” Beagle quipped. “I’m sure it was written on a calendar because he wasn’t a big tech guy, but to get that 30-odd years later from your head coach, I just adore the man he was for all of us.”

It was the personal touch that made Mills so endearing and beloved among his players.

He wanted to win as many games as possible, but he wanted his players to be better people no matter how much time they spent in the SOU football program.

“Coach Mills told me that, ‘I can’t promise you’ll go pro, but I can promise you that you’ll get a solid education and I’ll surround you around good people.’” said Moore, a Los Angeles native and former defensive back at SOU from 1983-84 . “That’s all I pretty much needed to hear, man. It was the perfect place to grow, and coach Mills gave me that format. For that I’ll be forever grateful.”

He wasn’t just turning things around on the field after first arriving in the Rogue Valley.

Mills was responsible for SOU dropping the school’s offensive Native American mascot as well as the “Red” Raiders moniker that was first used in 1946. He also helped organize the fundraising effort that resulted in Raider Stadium getting a brand new grandstand.

According to Beagle, recent renovations made to Raider Stadium offices and training facilities was quite the source of pride for Mills.

“They made a commitment to making football important at the school,” Beagle said, adding that Mills championed for more staffing and more training resources during his time at SOU. “All those things, if you want to keep football and be competitive, I think they did the right things to really bring back the importance of it on campus.”

The stories that Mills’ former players have can fill reunions and phone calls for hours.

As much as he was a football coach, Mills also put his unique spin on things.

“On Sundays, we had walkthroughs, and if he let you walk his dogs (during that time), that was his way of saying you played well,” Lyons recalled. “I walked his two dogs one Sunday as a senior while the rest of the team was out there practicing, and that was his way of saying you did good.”

Mills is responsible for football gaining popularity in Japan after he took teams to play there from Utah State and SOU, including the 1985 Raider team that visited Kobe, Japan. A year later, the college that SOU played, Kwansei Gakuin University, became the first Japanese team to compete in the United States when it played in Ashland.

Since 1974, the top college football player in Japan has been awarded the Chuck Mills Trophy.

As The Japan Times wrote on Tuesday, Mills is considered “one of the fathers of American football in Japan.”

Mills was inducted into the SOU Sports Hall of Fame in 2019. His 1983 team was part of SOU’s 2009 Hall of Fame class.

“It was great to see him at the Hall of Fame induction because I was able to thank him and tell him how much of an influence he was,” Turner said of Mills, who is also part of the Utah State Athletics Hall of Fame.

Mills might have been their coach only for a few years, but the lessons he taught have stuck with players for the rest of their lives.

“I’ll always remember his love for others,” Beagle said. “Not necessarily himself, but love for his players and other people that were at the forefront of his life. He had that kind of selfless virtue that we need more of in our society.

“I think coach Mills exemplified that and modeled that for so many of us.”

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

Former Southern Oregon University head football coach Chuck Mills, left, and former Raiders defensive back Mike Beagle pose for a photo at Mills’ SOU Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2019.
Former Southern Oregon University head football coach Chuck Mills, right, and former Raiders wide receiver Martin Turner pose for a photo in 2009.