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From the archives: The Nagel era of Ashland football

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one in a series of stories looking at notable teams and individuals from the Rogue Valley’s past.

Ashland High’s field goal unit shuffled into place. The players crouched into their stances. Had a bead of sweat dropped from a forehead, it would have splashed very near the goal line, so close was a touchdown.

But on this chilled autumn day at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, all the Grizzlies needed was a field goal. Three points, a pittance, would likely buy the tiny school’s first football state championship. In the 3A classification, no less, whose brethren were the largest of Oregon schools.

The snap, the place, the kick.

Matt Wells’ thump, all of 17 yards, creased the uprights. Short on distance, long on significance, it forged a 24-22 lead over Roseburg, a vaunted opponent in its third straight attempt at winning the title.

Roseburg and Ashland were both members of the Southern Oregon Conference, which the Grizzlies won with an 8-0 record; the Indians’ lone regular-season loss was to the champs.

Roseburg, under legendary coach Thurman Bell, did not cry uncle. It had 1 minute, 5 seconds in which to retaliate. The Indians drove from their 29 to the Ashland 30 before Jamie Burke, who would go on to kick for Oregon State, hammered a 47-yard attempt — only to have it blocked by Bobby Foote.

It was Dec. 9, 1989.

Ashland, a collection of dominant linemen and speedy, Smurf-like skill players, an assemblage of brothers who had gone 53-3-3 in football since the seventh grade, was king of footballdom.

Who’d a thunk it?

The seeds of that fruitful achievement were sprinkled serendipitously in the years before, taking root not only on the playgrounds and fields of Southern Oregon elementary and middle schools, but also on faraway gridirons, where one man, in particular, wended his way toward what he hoped was a job as a head coach.

Jim Nagel showing up in Ashland was as unlikely as it was fortuitous.

Nagel took command of the Grizzlies in 1983. Not only had Ashland not won a state title, but its lone playoff appearance was way back in 1952.

Nagel needed three years to end the postseason drought, then, year after year, proved it was no fluke.

In his 20 years, Ashland captured three state championships and was twice runner-up. His teams grabbed seven SOC titles and made 16 straight playoff appearances in one of the most successful coaching stints in state history.

His record with the Grizzlies was 170-58, a winning percentage of .746 that ranks among the best in state history among coaches with more than 200 games.

In seven dynastic years, from 1987 to ‘93, Ashland was 86-9 with four title-game appearances and two other campaigns that ended in the semifinals.

The road to Ashland

Nagel had to chuckle.

He had been places, done things, even before he arrived in Ashland and piloted the Grizzlies to exhilarating heights.

Upon graduating from Long Beach State, he coached seven years of high school ball, then was the position coach for future NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg during a short stint at San Jose State. Soon after, he was the offensive coordinator at New Mexico State as it ranked among the nation’s leaders in total offense and won the Missouri Valley Conference.

Now, the 34-year-old stood at midfield, greeting an opposing coach.

Those college jobs had run their courses. A couple other options had also come up dry, leaving him in Tucson, Arizona, to take what work he could to help support his wife, Alice, and a young family.

“It was kind of funny,” Nagel, now 74 and living in Ashland, mused recently. “One year I’m coaching at New Mexico State, and I’m shaking hands with Tom Osborne at the 50-yard line because we’re playing Nebraska that year. The very next year I’m at Sunnyside Junior High School in Tucson.”

There were about 76,000 fans in Lincoln, Nebraska, to watch the Cornhuskers romp, 57-0. There were “maybe 76 total” for that Sunnyside contest, he laughs.

“But I still enjoyed it,” says Nagel. “I still had just as much fun coaching the ninth-grade kids as I ever did. But my wife said, ‘I want to get out of Tucson. I want to get to green.’”

Nagel coached in 1978 and ‘79 under Gil Krueger at New Mexico State. Year 2 wasn’t nearly as successful as the first, when the Aggies of Las Cruces claimed the MVC title and, after which, Nagel turned down an offer to join the staff at Illinois of the Big Ten because, he says, “it was bad timing.”

A year later, it was time to vamoose from Las Cruces.

Nagel had put in for two positions at colleges leading into the 1980 season. One was at then-Southern Oregon State College in Ashland, where Scott Johnson had departed after eight seasons.

Nagel was a finalist and visited the quaint town.

“I thought, this is really a neat place. My wife would love it here,” he says.

While the interview process dragged on, Nagel and Krueger had a falling out. The New Mexico State head coach wanted a commitment from his offensive coordinator, and when Nagel insisted on seeing other opportunities through, they parted ways.

“He said, ‘It sounds like you don’t want to be here,’” says Nagel, “‘so I’ll find a replacement for you.’ So I walked out the door, and I remember thinking, did I just quit or did I get fired.”

Chuck Mills got the SOSC job, and Nagel kept searching.

Arizona coach Tony Mason was in need of a quarterbacks coach, and Nagel’s resume and the impression he made in a phone interview virtually guaranteed him the post. All that was left was a formal interview and the signing of papers.

In anticipation, the Nagels arrived in the desert a couple days early and Alice found work at a hospital.

The morning of his interview, Nagel picked up the paper.

“It says, ‘Tony Mason resigns under fire for recruiting violations,’” he remembers.

There would be no interview that day.

Larry Smith became the Arizona coach and showed interest in Nagel. Ironically, says Nagel, Smith hired the man who became Illinois’ offensive coordinator a year earlier only after Nagel turned down that job.

Next up, Sunnyside.

Nagel stayed in Tucson and coached preps through 1982, then got word of an opening in Ashland, of all places, a town high on his family’s list as a destination.

Craig Hastin had guided the Grizzlies for two seasons, but when Fred Spiegelberg stepped down at Medford High, Hastin was appointed the Black Tornado coach.

Nagel and Hastin had a connection: They played football together at Long Beach State before a severe knee injury ended Nagel’s career.

Nagel committed to coming to Ashland and eventually chatted with Hastin.

“I talked to him about the job and he was upbeat,” says Nagel. “He was optimistic, but as we were talking, he started telling me what the challenges were, like playing teams three times your size, and I said, ‘Holy cow, what in the world did I get myself into.’”

The Southern Oregon Conference wasn’t known for its coaching turnover, so when four new faces popped up in the nine-team league, the 1983 Mail Tribune football preview featured all of them on the cover, hands on their knees, wearing their school’s jersey: Mazama’s Steve Everitt (81), Medford’s Hastin (33), Ashland’s Nagel (31) and Grants Pass’ Norm Musser (47).

The accompanying story said Ashlanders were proud their coach, Hastin, who was 10-8 in two seasons, would succeed the fabled Spiegelberg. But townsfolk were alternately miffed Medford stole its respected coach and a couple athletes who transferred to play for Hastin.

“Because of Hastin’s popularity in Ashland,” the story read, “Nagel, who coached Amphitheatre High (Tucson, Arizona) to a 7-1 record last year, will be under the microscope to the same degree as Hastin.”

Welcome to the Rogue Valley.

Building the foundation

Winning a state title at Ashland seemed like a pipe dream when Nagel took the reins. Cognizant of Hastin’s review, he took a deeper dive into what he had to work with.

Teams here hadn’t really discovered the weight room, he reasoned.

“That could be an advantage,” says Nagel.

Most everybody operated the I-formation or veer-option ground games.

“Nobody was really spreading things out and throwing the football,” he says. “I thought, well, that could be another option. Now, if only I can get some kids who can throw and catch, I’ll be OK. And sure enough, I found a bunch of those over the years.”

When he arrived in the summer of ‘83, he started off-season conditioning. A summer passing league followed that other schools had to emulate or take part in if they wanted to keep up. Weekend film study was routine.

In a 2002 article, Bell, the Roseburg coach, said, “Quite honestly, I’ve become a better coach because of Jim. He gave us so many different things to prepare for that it helped you against other teams. Jim was awesome for this conference.”

Nagel had no reservations about asking players to work hard. It’s what he demanded of himself while at Pius X High in Downey, California, where he himself was a bit of a Smurf.

He characterized himself as a “very mediocre” athlete who worked his tail off in the weight room, adding 30 pounds between his junior and senior years to get to 185 pounds.

A fullback/linebacker, he received postseason honors and a scholarship to Long Beach State.

If he could do it, so could these kids.

In Nagel’s first year, the Grizzlies had their second straight 4-5 season. Then they dipped to 1-8 in 1984.

Remember, it had been more than 30 years since Ashland made state. There was no instant gratification with this culture change.

“I’d be trying to pump the kids up,” says Nagel. “‘Hey, we’ve got a chance to beat these guys,’ and, ‘Hey, we can win this game.’ And the guys were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure coach.’ Then we’d go out and lose to Roseburg by seven points or 13 points or something, with opportunities to win, and the kids would come back to the locker room and go, ‘Coach, you’re right. We could’ve, we should’ve.’”

Soon, the Grizzlies did start winning. Their confidence grew, their work intensified, enthusiasm coursed through the program, the community was abuzz.

The playoff drought ended in 1985 as Ashland went 6-4 and lost in the first round.

The next season, 7-3 and a first-round exit.

Then, 12-1 and the semifinals, followed by 10-2 and the quarterfinals.

Ashland football was flying high heading into 1989. A coaching mastermind and a star-studded roster were eager to make history.

The championships begin

The headline in the football preview section was foretelling: Grizzlies’ seniors can smell state.

The story highlighted the imposing linemen, including returning starters Al Carver and Aaron Sturdevant as guards, Jonathan Stewart at center and Ian Lombard at tackle.

“Most are big, all are strong,” it said of the trench workers.

Carver did a school-record 505 pounds in the squat. All ran under 5 seconds in the 40-yard dash — in high grass, no less. The fastest was guard Travis Wallis, a track sprinter, at 4.7.

There were brains to go with the brawn.

Sturdevant was student body president, and led school government meetings an hour before classes started each morning. Carver was senior class president with designs on studying architecture or mechanical engineering. Lombard, with a 3.7 GPA, was president of the national honor society’s local chapter and was already earning college credit.

Bert Petersen was the triggerman of the offense, taking his place in a line of highly productive Ashland quarterbacks.

Chad Cota, who would evolve into one of the region’s all-time best players, and the Smurfs — Foote and Matt Wells, both about 5 1/2 feet and 140-ish pounds — were gifted targets.

When the Grizzlies went to the ground, they gave it to Dan Buchanan. The fullback, who gained 1,279 yards as senior, superstitiously wore the same Adidas T-shirt under his pads and jersey that he had since the seventh grade.

After the title win over Roseburg, he said, “It has quite a few holes in it, but I’m still wearing it.”

There was little question entering the season the Grizzlies would be formidable.

Yet, they were picked second in the SOC coaches’ preseason poll behind Roseburg. The Indians got six first-place votes, Ashland the other three. South Medford and North Medford were next.

The Grizzlies dispatched all comers, including Roseburg, 28-14.

It was the glory days of the SOC, says Nagel, and scores that year reflected it: Ashland’s average margin of victory was greater in the postseason than in the conference season.

The title showdown with Roseburg was set up by a 33-6 semifinal victory over Tigard that capped a phenomenal four-game playoff stretch by Petersen. He was 54 of 79 for 965 yards and 12 touchdowns, with only one interception.

Prior to the championship, a poll of SOC coaches overwhelmingly predicted a Roseburg win.

The Indians gave it a go in a seesaw battle that had three lead changes and one tie.

Roseburg went ahead with 5:12 to play when quarterback Pokey Fugate and receiver Todd Black hooked up on a fourth-down, 27-yard TD pass for a 22-21 advantage.

Petersen had an off day to that point, but he rallied the Grizzlies, completing four straight passes for 73 yards to get to the Roseburg 1. Two of the passes were of 29 and 28 yards to Wells.

The Grizzlies couldn’t punch it in, but Wells came through with his winning field goal.

Petersen ended up 10 of 19 for 220 yards and two scores, both to Foote. Foote had six catches for 161 yards, and Buchanan ran for 109 yards.

Moments after the game, Nagel was asked about the SOC coaches’ prediction of a Grizzlies loss.

“It was their honest opinions,” he said. “If I were an objective, unbiased person, I’m sure I would have said the same thing, that Roseburg would win. But those guys don’t know the personality of our kids like I do.”

One coach had referred to Roseburg’s plethora of “horses.”

“What happened to all those horses,” a Grizzly player yelled in the locker room.

“They got whipped by a bunch of Smurfs,” shouted another.

Nagel recalls the coaching staff gathering and trying to pinpoint how Ashland managed so much success. The answer, he says, was smoke and mirrors.

“We had this illusion that we were bigger, faster and stronger than we really were,” he says. “It worked because our own kids believed it.”

Of course, there was more to it.

“That was a talented group,” he says. “We had some really good players, and that showed the rest of the youth of the city what could be done. It kind of carried over from there.

“Then, we had so many overachievers, it was just amazing to see how hard these guys worked and scraped together and dedicated their time. Fortunately, it paid dividends with some successful years.”

There were more to come.

The end of an era

Well, it didn’t end right away, although there were a couple different times it appeared Nagel was moving on to coach the local college team.

One time, in 1989, he pulled out of consideration.

A second time, he agreed to be the Raiders’ coach a couple years in advance, but he wouldn’t take over until 1998, after his son, Erik, had finished playing for the Grizzlies. As it turned out, the terms weren’t satisfactory to him, and Nagel reneged.

He’d won another state championship in 1991, when the Grizzlies went 13-1 and defeated South Salem, 28-0, for the title.

Ashland lost the next to two state finals to Marshfield (36-21) and North Medford (27-24), respectively. Those were the only two defeats in 1992 and ‘93.

The team with the most promise that went unfulfilled, says Nagel, was his son’s team of 1997.

The Grizzlies were ranked No. 1 all season, but Tigard came to Ashland in the second round and hung a 27-22 defeat on them.

“We had probably the second best, most talented team since the ‘89 championship team,” says Nagel. “That was the most bitter loss in my coaching career.”

Then came a couple stunning turnarounds. First, Nagel nixed the Southern Oregon University move, then the 1998 Grizzlies won the third state crown out of the blue.

“Everyone was thinking this was the end of the reign,” says Nagel. Instead, he says, “a bunch of no names, kids that came out of nowhere,” added another title piece to the trophy case.

That championship was also over Roseburg, 29-23, in overtime. Jimmy Werbin found Jay Kuester with a 28-yard score for the win, finishing a 14-0 season.

Over the next four years, the Grizzlies managed only a 19-19 record, and Nagel stepped down following the 2002 campaign.

He wasn’t done coaching, however, and landed on the staffs at Linfield and Southern Oregon, helping each program to national championships. He went to Linfield because his daughter, Michelle, attended. He went to SOU at the behest of Craig Howard, the late SOU coach.

“I feel like sometimes I don’t know if I’m a very good coach,” says Nagel, “but I’m very good at being at the right place at the right time.”

Even when it was least expected.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmediacom.

Ashland players carry coach Jim Nagel off the field after winning the 1989 football state championship, the school's first title.