Walking out of a Friday afternoon meeting of the Medford Linebackers club at Central Medford High School, Corey Falls can't help but grin.
"Hey, Corey Falls!" a club member yells, "When can we call you sheriff?"
"Pretty soon," Falls says with a smile. When asked directly, though, he's far from certain.
Things changed abruptly for Falls Thursday when Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters announced that he plans to retire at the end of his term and formally endorsed Falls for the seat. Barring another dramatic turn of events, it seems likely that Falls will be wearing the sheriff's badge in January.
There was a good bet it would have happened anyway, as Falls outpolled Winters 46 percent to 30 percent in the May primary. His campaign has dramatically outspent Winters', and he's been favored in multiple polls of sheriff's employees.
But Falls, Ashland's deputy police chief, is still hedging his bets. It's too late for Winters to withdraw from the race, so both names will still be on the ballot.
"A lot of people think that since the sheriff announced his retirement, it's over," said Falls, 41. "But it's not."
Falls' cautious nature befits someone who's spent his life preparing his team for the big game, both on the field and in the squad room.
A Jackson County native, he grew up in the Applegate Valley in the unincorporated community of Ruch and made a name for himself playing football for South Medford High School.
"I was a country kid," he said, somewhat bashfully. He says he still loves the outdoors, although he joked that his three children's hobbies and sports are quickly becoming his own out of necessity.
After high school, Falls went on to play football for the University of Montana, where he earned a bachelor's degree in health and human performance in 1997. He's currently finishing a doctorate in business administration.
"Student athletes have to juggle several things," he said. "It's instilled confidence in me."
He said he found his way into law enforcement while working at a YMCA after college, interacting with police officers involved in various community programs. Falls was impressed with the impact the officers had on the community and quickly embarked on a career path he's followed for almost 17 years. After stints at both the Bothell Police Department and Snohomish County Sheriff's Office in Washington state, he joined the Ashland Police Department in 2008.
During his tenure, the department has adopted several new policies, including the You Have Options program, a victim-centered response to sexual assault that gives victims options ranging from providing information to pursuing a complete investigation. He also started regular department-wide meetings across divisions to brainstorm ideas.
Listening to employees, he said, is key to mining the best ideas. "Those (ideas) don't come from the boss," he said.
From the beginning of his campaign, Falls has made it clear he wants to focus Sheriff's Office resources on local problems, pointing to forced releases from the Jackson County Jail and a lack of investigators for crimes against women and children.
"Right now, I don't think we should be going outside of Jackson County," he said Wednesday.
In primary debates with Winters this spring, Falls and fellow challenger Bob Sergi criticized the sheriff's use of contracted helicopters to conduct marijuana eradication operations in neighboring counties and in Northern California. The sheriff has defended the program, saying it's primarily funded by federal grants and contract work.
"There's this attitude that just because it's free, we should use it," Falls said. "I don't necessarily agree with that."
Falls said that he wants to build stronger relationships with all county agencies and strengthen law enforcement's work with community partners. When you police a community, he said, problems aren't always related to crime.
"A coach is always putting people in the best positions," he said. "We all need to work together."
Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.