Jim Nagel thought he was done coaching football, which was fine by him.
After all, he had been teaching the game, watching film and calling plays for 35 years. The last nine tested his dedication like never before — as an assistant at Linfield, the man who led Ashland High to three state championships slept on a couch under the bleachers of Maxwell Field in the spring, and shared an apartment with other coaches during the fall season.
"Coaches are kind of crazy that way," said Nagel, 67, who has lived in Ashland for the past 30 years.
But after Linfield head coach Joseph Smith decided recently to take over play-calling duties from Nagel, Nagel in turn decided that he was done with crazy.
"That was the challenge that made the living conditions worthwhile," Nagel said, adding that he also missed being available to help out his wife around the house.
The retirement didn't last long.
When Southern Oregon University head coach Craig Howard caught wind of Nagel's availability through an SOU assistant coach, he phoned Nagel and arranged an interview. The two met at Howard's office at Bob Riehm Arena last week. It must have went well, because at the end Howard offered Nagel a job as an offensive assistant. Nagel accepted, and was on the practice field with the rest of the team on Monday afternoon.
"He's one of the best coaches around and we're just blessed to have him," Howard said.
Nagel, who coached the Grizz football team for 20 years and served as the Ashland High athletic director for 14 before stepping down following the 2004 school year, will coach the tight ends at SOU — at least initially. Howard's plan calls for Nagel to eventually coach the quarterbacks as well, one of Nagel's specialties.
Nagel was hired by Linfield prior to the 2004 season and, calling plays from the press box, immediately helped orchestrate the most prolific offense in NCAA Division III football. The Wildcats led the nation in scoring in 2004 and 2005, and quarterback Brett Elliott set a national collegiate football record with 61 touchdown passes in 2004, the year the Wildcats claimed their fourth national championship (the first three were NAIA Division II titles).
Twenty years before that magical season, Nagel had a similar impact at Ashland High. In the 10 years prior to Nagel's arrival, the Grizzlies were a combined 35-51-2. Three years later, Ashland made the playoffs for the first time in 34 years. Three years after that, in 1989, Ashland claimed the school's first-ever state football championship, beating Roseburg 24-22 at Autzen Stadium to cap a 14-0 season.
The Grizzlies earned four more state championship game appearances under Nagel, winning it all in 1991 and 1998. He coached his final game at Ashland in 2002.
Monday's practice brought back fond memories.
"The surrounding mountains were familiar, and the rain that came down was quite familiar, unfortunately," he said, "so I felt right at home."
This time, Nagel won't be taking on a reclamation project. Not by a long shot.
The Southern Oregon football team is coming off a record-breaking year, offensively. The Raiders averaged 52.8 points and 642 yards per game, including 448.8 through the air. Sophomore quarterback Austin Dodge passed for 5,076 yards and 42 touchdowns, and guided the Raiders to the postseason for the first time in 10 years. They fell in the quarterfinals — at Morningside in overtime — and were ranked fifth in the final NAIA Top 25 poll.
"I think my number one concern and goal would be to not screw up the quarterback [Dodge], he's playing so well," said Nagel, only half joking. "I've seen Dodge play and I've watched him at practice and he doesn't need a lot of coaching. …He's at the level of Brett Elliott. I would say he definitely compares."
That doesn't mean there won't be plenty of work to keep Nagel busy between now and the Raiders' 2013 season opener, Aug. 31 against Rocky Mountain. And at the top of that list is learning SOU's offense, which operates at lightning speed during games. The Raiders executed, on average, 92.5 plays per game during the 2012 season and five times ran more than 100 plays. That kind of pace requires expert knowledge of the system.
That won't be a problem for the likes of Nagel, who in three-plus decades on the gridiron has seen, coached and/or studied just about every offense ever devised. That includes SOU's offense.
"There are lots of similarities to what Southern Oregon is running and what we ran at Linfield, so it's a very easy transition to understand the concepts," Nagel said. "The challenge is that the terminology is definitely different, and that's something I'm learning, because some things that meant one thing for us (at Linfield) mean something else here."
That doesn't mean that Nagel will be taking over play-calling duties, which is handled by offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ken Fasnacht.
"At the pace they go, it would be a real challenge for me to do that my first year," Nagel said. "(Fasnacht's) done a heck of a job, so why change that.
"I see my role as, if I see something that would be a good plus I can put my two cents in. And they can always say no."