EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one in a series of stories looking at notable teams and individuals from the Rogue Valley’s past.
It was only fitting that when Oregon’s high school governing body chose to put on its first state championship for football, Medford was front and center.
That was in the fall of 1940, decades after schools began playing football and coming on the heels of remarkable success for the Tigers, which was then Medford’s mascot.
Medford earned a spate of “mythical” state championships under the guidance of ballyhooed coaches through the early part of the 20th Century, and in the initial go-round of Oregon High School Activities Association playoffs, earned a title shot against Bend.
The Tigers were a speedy, veteran bunch, and they were led by a young coach, Bill Bowerman, who had no inkling of the indelible mark he would make on American sports.
His principal concern was figuring out how to stop a powerful Bend team that had handed Medford its only loss, 19-6, in a midseason battle.
In the week before the championship, Bowerman tinkered with his defensive alignment. He motivated his players by taking them to a football movie at the Craterian Theater. He welcomed back a couple of key starters who were questionable for the game.
Yet, it was for naught.
Bend used a 10-pound-per-man size advantage and the bruising running of 195-pound fullback Jim Byers to slug out a 20-7 victory and take home the inaugural OHSAA football championship trophy. (The OHSAA became the Oregon School Activities Association in 1947.)
It certainly wasn’t the last time Medford played for the state title. The Tigers captured the crown in 1944, and five more titles followed before a second high school was opened in Medford in 1986-87.
Bowerman and his players eventually went their separate ways.
The coach, who was born in Portland and moved to Medford at age 10, was a standout football player for the Tigers under another coaching legend, Prink Callison. Bowerman later played at Oregon, and while in Eugene was introduced to track by famed coach Bill Hayward.
Bowerman earned a degree in journalism in 1935 and went into teaching. His journey returned him to Southern Oregon, where he coached football from 1935-41 at Medford and started a track and field program in 1936.
After duty in World War II, Bowerman returned to coach Medford football for two more seasons and ran his career record to 59-13-8 before heading north to Eugene in 1948, when he began coaching the Oregon track team.
During a career that stretched 24 years, he directed the Ducks to four NCAA titles, had multiple stints with the U.S. Olympic team — including as head coach for the 1972 Munich Games — and joined forces with Phil Knight to create Nike.
For all of Bowerman’s success, there was still one that got away: the first Oregon prep football crown.
Records are spotty, but at least four Southern Oregon communities played football prior to 1900.
Medford High’s first documented season, according to “75 Years of Medford Football,” a 1987 book put out by the Medford Linebackers Club, was 1907, when the school played Grants Pass twice, losing 17-0 and tying 0-0.
Athletics in schools were not widely accepted at the time.
In 1912, Medford High students petitioned the school board to lift a ban on athletic participation, saying, in part: “... a wholesome and necessary part of the life of every normal youth will be denied to your petitioners by the longer enforcement of the rule forbidding the student body to engage as such in school athletics.”
The petitioners said their loyalty to the school and interest in schoolwork would be strengthened if they could compete in sports.
“They are the golden years,” the students wrote. “Once gone, our youth is spent, and will return no more.”
Needless to say, football pressed on, not only locally, but statewide.
Schools were divided into seven athletic districts, following the model of the state debate league, and in 1918, the OHSAA was formed.
Then, as now, issues occasionally arose, according to OSAA records.
In 1915, Salem was disqualified for having an ineligible player. Its center was 22 years old.
A year later, Hood River players sought payment for their services. They wanted $2 per game or half a classroom credit because, they said, football took too much time away from studies.
Medford’s football program had marginal success until the 1920s, then coach Edwin Durno kick-started what would become a dynasty.
Durno was the University of Oregon’s first basketball All-American who, before he became a doctor and a U.S. congressman, coached the Tigers for one season. His 1922 squad went 8-1, outscoring opponents 371-36. Its lone loss was to the Oregon Agricultural College (Oregon State) rooks, and the season ledger included a 1-0 forfeit win over Albany.
Oregon football coach Shy Huntington called Durno’s team one of the strongest on the Pacific Coast.
Callison was next on the coaching tree, and crafted a 45-2-2 record in six years.
His program was dubbed the “Terror of the Twenties” and went 44 games without a loss during one stretch.
Four times the Tigers were voted the best in Oregon by sports critics, and Oregonian sports editor L.H. Gregory likened one of Callison’s teams to a Black Tornado sweeping over the field. The moniker stuck, and in 1953, Medford’s student body voted in Black Tornado as the official mascot.
Callison moved on to coach at Oregon, and in his absence, Medford toiled through one nondescript season before Darwin Burgher took over in 1930 and returned Medford to its winning ways. The Tigers were 37-5-3 the next five years, losing what was designated the state championship to Jefferson, 33-0.
OSAA records indicate mythical titles began in 1917, when Willamette University physical education director R.L. Mathews originated playoffs, but with a caveat: Only Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon teams were welcome.
Bowerman began his first stint in 1935, guiding Medford to a 7-0-1 record with a team that allowed only 20 points on the season.
Entering 1940, his teams had lost only one of their previous 21 games. Hopes were high with the state’s first sanctioned championship on the line.
The 1940 Season
Medford opened the season in typical fashion, rolling to wins over Weed, California; Corvallis and Grants Pass.
Next up was Eureka, California, an outfit not to be trifled with.
In a 1999 Mail Tribune article, just three months before his death, Bowerman sized up some of the opponents the Tigers faced: “Our toughest game every year when I was coaching was Eureka. Ashland was a big rivalry. Grants Pass was a pushover. They had the same type of people we had, worked in the woods. But I don’t think we ever had a tough game with Grants Pass.”
As it turned out, the contest against Eureka wasn’t particularly taxing, either.
The headline in the newspaper characterized it as a “sweep to an easy” win for the Tigers. The score, it said, was basketball-like, 36-25.
Ike Orr scored four touchdowns, including one on a 40-yard reverse, as Medford built a 36-6 lead through three quarters and let the reserves finish it off.
Cato Wray added a 58-yard TD run and was particularly efficient passing for that era, completing 4 of 6 for 54 yards.
Medford edged visiting Klamath Falls, 16-14, the next week on a fourth-quarter field goal before 6,500 fans, then suffered its first loss to Bend.
The Tigers ended the regular season with a 41-0 victory over Ashland, and in its lone playoff game before the final, downed The Dalles, 7-0, in the semifinals. Wray’s 19-yard pass to Louis Thurman was the difference.
Next up, Bend.
The Championship Game
As befitting a big game, there was plenty of drama in the week leading up to Medford’s rematch against Bend on Nov. 30.
And some of it related to another school in northeastern Oregon: La Grande.
La Grande had gone unbeaten and untied in the regular season, yet turned down an invitation from the OHSAA to participate in the postseason.
A statement attributed to school officials said November storms and a frozen gridiron made late-season football impossible in the Blue Mountains, and they closed their case with a title claim based on the perfect record.
A writer in Grants Pass conceded the championship to “poor La Grande.”
However, a Klamath Falls writer insisted association rules were in place, and “if the title is ever to be taken out of the mythical category, teams will have to abide by those rules and consider the association winner the official champ.”
Further intrigue surrounded when and where the game would be played.
Medford principal Leonard Mayfield negotiated a Saturday afternoon game, agitating downtown fans who would miss it because of work. Mayfield said Bend would come to Medford only if it could play during the day.
Had they not reached an accord, the site likely would have been determined by a coin flip.
The Lava Bears had a 7-1-1 record, losing 12-0 to The Dalles and, in its semifinal, tying Salem, 7-7. Bend advanced to the final at the discretion of the OHSAA.
Medford hoped for a dry field on game day to take advantage of its speed and deception.
Mail Tribune sports editor Bill Hulen, in his Sports Graphs column, wrote: “This is not meant to suggest that Bill Bowerman and his Tigers feel they CAN’T beat Bend on a wet, slippery gridiron. They know that any team can be beaten by an eleven of anywhere near comparable strength, and they know that they are definitely within shouting distance of the Lava Bears in the matter of football prowess.”
In the regular season, Bowerman used an eight-man defensive front to combat Byers, but the big back had too much room to roam once he broke through the line.
In the week before the title game, Bowerman spoke of going to a 6-2-2-1 alignment.
“We hope that a six-man line, if it receives potent help from the backers-up, will cause Byers considerable trouble,” said the coach.
In his column, Hulen wrote, stopping Byers “would be the hardest trick the Tornado ever turned.”
Bowerman left nothing to chance. He took the players to the Craterian the Thursday night before the game to watch “Knute Rockne, All-American,” which was released that year.
On game day, the weather cooperated, and two Medford starters who were in question, fullback Orr, who had a bruised calf, and left guard Claude Jones, who had a bad cold, were good to go.
Bend’s power running game was as advertised, and it mixed in “an aerial attack that flared brilliantly when touchdowns were in sight,” wrote Hulen in his game account.
Before 4,000 fans, the teams played to a 7-7 halftime deadlock, but in the third quarter, Byers scored on an 8-yard run, and the Lava Bears later added a passing touchdown for the final tally.
The Tigers’ score was a plunge from the 1 by Orr, who had one of his finest games in his Medford career. He rushed for 100 yards on 18 carries, outperforming Byers, who had 79 yards on 21 tries.
The Tigers outgained Bend by 43 yards on the ground and had a slight edge in total yards, 206-194.
However, it was Byers who was presented the inaugural championship trophy by Mayfield, the principal, and the Lava Bear star no sooner had it in his hands than he was whisked off to the dressing room on the shoulders of his jubilant teammates.
Medford’s trophy would have to come another day.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or email@example.com.