Learning `Life Skills' on the Football Field

`WIN at all costs" may seem to dominate the sports world, but high school football coach Jim Nagel says winning is a product of the program, if it's done right. "But even if it isn't," he says, "you're not going to sacrifice the qualities that I believe are important for coaches to adhere to for the sake of winning. I think you can do both."

Out of the mouth of unproven coaches, that might have a hollow ring. But Mr. Nagel has led Ashland High School, one of the smallest of 78 schools in Oregon's top competitive classification, to become state champions two of the last three years. The school had never even been to the state playoffs when Nagel arrived in 1983, but now the Grizzlies are a fixture there, with seven straight appearances. With three games left in the regular season, the team is 7-0, including an exhibition game in Japan. (See r elated story.)

Nagel says this success is an outgrowth of putting the highest priority on developing "life skills" in his young players, such as goal-setting and self-discipline. He expects them to support and respect one another; he aims to teach them to dedicate themselves to learning and demonstrating what it takes to be successful - on and off the field.

Nagel and his six assistants also have built a program that is well known for teaching sound fundamentals, as well as for its intricate offensive and defensive plays.

Former Ashland players, such as Chad Cota at the University of Oregon, Ian Lombard at Princeton University, and Jordan Krueger at Weber State in Utah, say they had a distinct advantage over their new classmates in their knowledge of the game. Lombard went so far as to say that Ashland's offense is far more complicated than Princeton's is.

University of Oregon head coach Rich Brooks says Nagel may even be the best coach in the state. "Any time a guy ... continues to win, go to state championship games, and do the things that Coach Nagel has done," Brooks says, "it's a tribute to his technical knowledge as well as to his motivational skills."

Coach Phil Moss of the College of the Siskiyous in northern California has such respect for Ashland's program that he has eight of its graduates on his squad. He even runs some of Ashland's offensive plays.

Nagel says that a key ingredient of this level of excellence is discipline. Discipline is stressed in virtually all football programs, but Nagel and his staff have a different way of viewing it.

"Discipline isn't the `Yes, sir!' the `No, sir!' " Nagel says. "As I define discipline to my players, it's doing the right thing, every time, time after time." Southern Californian Nagel came to Ashland after seven years of coaching at the college level (including San Francisco State and San Jose State) to apply for a head coach position at Southern Oregon State. He missed that job, but his wife was so enamored of Ashland that she encouraged him to apply for the high school post.

A quiet and humble man, Nagel says he's "not a rah-rah kind of guy." He prefers to call plays from a perch in the press box rather than exhort his players from the sidelines. In two weeks of practices that this reporter observed, Nagel never raised his voice, never berated or intimidated his players, never used profanity. He expects the same of his players.

When a mistake is made, the rebuke is gentle, many times accompanied by encouragement and instruction. In discussing how to handle a player who has made a mistake, Nagel says, "He knows he made a mistake. Nobody has to tell him that. And the last thing he needs is to have somebody else get down on his case so he feels even worse about himself than he already did."

Defensive coordinator Jerry Wolfram can recall only one serious infraction in his eight years here, when a player was suspended during the playoffs for drinking alcohol.

WHAT is Nagel's satisfaction in coaching? "Doing something that's important for kids," he says. "Teaching some life skills that I have learned in football, and that I've put to use in my life." Besides goal-setting and self-discipline, these include perseverance, dedication, making sacrifices, and visualization. (After brief meetings with the coaches, the rest of the Grizzlies' pre-game preparation is spent in total silence with the lights out, so the players can focus on their performance.)

Goal-setting is at the center of the program, according to Nagel. At the end of each school year, the coach sits down with each of his 70 players and has him set three football and three academic goals for himself.

Then the player lists the obstacles that might keep him from reaching those goals and the action required to overcome those obstacles. Nagel and the other coaches periodically check each player's progress.

Former player Ian Lombard says, "It's really helped me [at Princeton] to be able to look two or three years down the road and see where I want to be and what I need to do to get there."

Lombard also values the "family atmosphere" that has developed in the Ashland program. "It meant a lot to me as a player, and it means even more afterward. I really love Princeton football ... , but you can't beat the experience I had at Ashland."

"It's kind of like a brotherhood," says senior tackle Kyle Strait.

This atmosphere is an integral part of the program, Nagel says, and it's strengthened by such things as team potluck dinners and meetings. At one such meeting during last year's playoffs, the players and coaches spontaneously shared the care and support they felt for one another. All said later that the meeting was a major factor in their winning the state championship over bigger, favored opponents.

"I get a lot of friendship and love from 70 guys out of this program," says senior Jason Stranberg. "The respect that everybody on this team has for each other is what I've gotten most out of this."

Although eight offensive starters and six from the defense were lost from last year's team through graduation, Ashland is still ranked No. 1 in the state. They play Mazama High School, from Klamath Falls, Ore., tonight.

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