Mr. Raider Football

Stan Smith did what he typically does on autumn afternoons when Southern Oregon University has home football games. He sat in the stands on the home side and watched his beloved Raiders.

Halftime was about to run its course last Saturday when the SOU players returned to the field.

The next thing Smith knew, a player, one he'd befriended the past couple years, veered from formation, headed across the track, up the steps and into the stands. Linebacker Daniel Breaux got to Smith, the 88-year-old patriarch of Raider football, and knelt to give him a hug and say a few words.

Smith, a World War II veteran and one of two remaining starters from the Raiders' last undefeated team in 1946, isn't one to mince words.

"They had dedicated the game or something to me," he said Friday in his Medford living room. "S—-, I couldn't even hear it. I didn't know what the hell was going on. The damn kid comes running up the steps and the second half is about to kick off."

Told of Smith's reaction over the phone as the team holed up Friday in a Davenport, Iowa, hotel awaiting today's NAIA playoff game against St. Ambrose, Breaux, a decorated linebacker, howled in laughter.

It was Stan being Stan, said the sophomore from Greenfield, Calif.

After his playing days, Smith coached at high schools from Cave Junction to Baker City, but for years he made his mark as a Rogue Valley restaurant owner and cook. He started the Raider Golf Tournament in 1990, and it's become the university's biggest fundraising event. He was on the Raider board of directors for years, served on coaching search committees, purchased equipment for the football team and generally, in step with his late wife, Tommie, has given of himself whenever possible.

So when SOU coach Craig Howard learned before last week's game against Montana Tech that Smith will have surgery next month to remove an aneurysm, it weighed heavily on him.

Howard often calls Smith "Mr. Raider Football."

Smith coached Gary Mires at Baker City, and Mires was Howard's high school coach at Grants Pass. The three remain deeply connected.

"He is the most loyal alumni I've ever seen," said Howard.

The coach was emotional when he informed the Raider players of Smith's condition before the game and dedicated the contest to him. Breaux's gesture was strictly his own, catching even Howard by surprise.

"I just told him thank you and we're doing this for him," said Breaux. "Stan is a big part of where our team is and all the success we've had. He's one of ours. He's a Raider and he bleeds Raider red."

To what end? His doctor wanted to do the procedure sooner, but Smith — aware of the risks — asked that it be moved back until after football season.

He doesn't want to miss a moment of SOU's exhilarating ride.

The Raiders are ranked 10th in the country and have won six straight games on the strength of a dizzying offense.

It's a far cry from Smith's days in the game. His coaching playbook would look "pretty conservative" next to the Raiders', he said.

Smith recalled a Baker High team reunion and a conversation with a former running back.

"He said, 'Well damn it, coach, we only had six plays,' and I said, 'Well, that's not true. We had 12 ... six right and six left.'"

It wasn't much different when Smith played.

At Medford High, his coach was Bill Bowerman, who would later gain fame as the University of Oregon track coach.

Smith recalled running sprints his junior year in front of Bowerman. The coach was impressed by his speed and agility for a big man — in college he played at 6-foot-1 1/2, 225 pounds — and suggested he might try out at fullback his senior year.

That year never came.

Smith went to war in August 1942, joining the Navy. His ship mostly convoyed from the Panama Canal throughout the Atlantic.

Upon his return, he joined a number of other war veterans at what was then Southern Oregon College of Education. The school was on the verge of closing because of low enrollment, but when the war ended, the number of students rose from 42 to more than 500.

A by-product was the resurrection of the football team. It had been suspended in 1939 after back-to-back winless seasons, then was shut down a year later when the war siphoned its male enrollment.

Football wouldn't return until the soldiers did, and that was in 1946. The team was about 30 strong, said Smith, and "we were like brothers, you know?"

Most of them lived in veteran housing, and they quickly regained their football acumen.

Al Simpson was the coach. He took over the Medford High team when Bowerman enlisted, winning state in 1944. When Bowerman returned, Simpson was out of a job and SOCE needed a coach.

He ran a 6-2 defense — "Hell, it was real simple," said Smith — and the T-formation offense, as opposed to the single wing favored by most teams.

Smith was a tackle on both sides of the ball. At the time, if you played one position on offense, there was a correlating position on defense, he said. Quarterbacks also played safety, fullbacks and centers were the linebackers, halfbacks were the defense backs.

"It was automatic," said Smith. "Apparently you had some skill that had a connection with offense and defense."

The Red Raiders, as they were dubbed then, went 8-0, coming from behind four times and claiming the inaugural Pear Bowl. Two of the victories were over the Oregon and Oregon State junior varsity teams, which included seniors and some players who saw varsity action, said Smith.

SOCE won its first seven games the next year for a 15-game winning streak but finished 1947 with a 7-2 mark.

During Smith's career, from 1946-49, SOCE was 25-9-1 and captured three Far West Conference titles.

The success was unexpected by some.

Smith told of Simpson walking down an Ashland street before the season started when a man approached. He told the coach he'd seen a couple players drinking beer at the Elks Club, adding, "I don't think you've got a chance with those guys."

Simpson's response?

"Well, I know fella, but it's really difficult to tell a bunch of guys who spent two or three years in a foxhole they can't drink a beer."

"I thought that was classic," said Smith. "Every day was like liberty."

It's a different time, of course, but one thing is constant: Smith's affection for Raider football.

He's weathered bad seasons. This is only the second winning campaign since 2003.

"I've had quite an interest in the program and many times I've been disappointed," he said. "Not disgruntled, really, just wishing they could do better, you know, something to be proud of. It is very satisfying and fun for me to enjoy the success they're having."

How long it will last is anyone's guess.

Based on recent conversations with Howard, Smith said the Frontier Conference title the Raiders claimed in their first year in the league doesn't seem to be enough.

"He's not satisfied," said Smith. "He wants to win the national championship."

Regardless of how it ends, there's no doubt a big piece of this season belongs to "Mr. Raider Football."

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or e-mail

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