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The fair weather rah-rah

Fans were nervous as the 1929 high school football season was about to start.

Over the previous six years, the boys on the team, the “Tigers,” tore through the opposition so easily that soon a new nickname began to stick — “Black Tornado.” However, the name didn’t become official until March 1953.

The Medford teams had always been strong, usually able to dominate the Southern Oregon competition. But in 1923, the school board hired a new coach — a miracle worker— Prince Gary “Prink” Callisson.

Prink, 24, had just finished a two-year stint as the starting center for the University of Oregon Ducks football team.

Other than two losses in 1923 and two ties in 1924, Prink’s Medford teams won every game they ever played, compiling the best record in the state at the time — 45 games won, out of 49 played. Then, in 1929, Prink left to coach in Eugene and later would become the head coach for the Oregon Ducks.

After interviewing 20 candidates to replace Prink, the school board chose Merrill Hagen, who had just finished as captain of the Ducks team.

Fans were uneasy. Hagen was untested and he was inheriting a team in a severely “lean condition.” Medford had won the previous two state football championships, but graduation had taken all but six inexperienced players to start the 1929 season.

A Mail Tribune editorial tried to calm fears. “With the loss of its first team and its coach, Medford can’t expect to have a championship football team this year. It is too much to expect that a green team, with a new coach, can repeat the triumphs of the past few years. Medford has shown it can be a good winner. Now let’s show we can be good losers.”

After winning their first two games, it looked like there might not be anything to worry about, but then the starters began to fall. It began with Jimmy Mete, who was declared ineligible because he had violated an unnamed “technicality.” In the third game, quarterback Chuck Clay was hit, injured and out for the season. Halfback Orbin Cooksey just left, deciding a paying job made more sense than football or an education. The team’s other starting halfback, Dick Applegate, sprained an ankle and was out for a number of games.

With a succession of other injuries the season closed with Medford losing the rest of its remaining games. Fans complained and stayed away from games, and hard luck Merrill Hagen lost his job.

“Is the Medford Spirit Dead?” a Mail Tribune editorial asked. Probably written by the paper’s owner and editor, Robert Ruhl, it charged that the community had not supported the team.

“The advice we gave has not been followed,” it said. “True the season has been a very discouraging one, but no more than was to be expected. And while it has been disappointing to the fans, it has been far more disappointing to the team and its coach.

“What a contemptible spirit. To let down a team under such circumstances! Whether with a team or an individual, it’s the man who is down who needs a helping hand, not the man who is sailing on a high wave to another triumph.”

After once again calling for the community to come together for the benefit of the “boys,” he reminded them that Medford Spirit “is something more than a rah-rah affair, reserved exclusively for fair weather. It is a source of inspiration and support, even when the weather happens to be foul.”

The new coach in 1930, Darwin Burgher, brought back the Spirit. In five seasons his teams won 36 of 44 games, two state titles, and almost captured a third.

The weather was looking good again.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.