North Medford football coach Mike Mitchell directs practice on Wednesday. Mitchell and the Black Tornado take on Tigard in a state quarterfinal game tonight.

Tornado Turnaround

There's no denying that a fresh wind has blown through the North Medford football program this season.

When your program hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2005 — and went winless only two years ago — it's hard not to be somewhat sullen over your state of affairs.

But as the Black Tornado sits 10-1 entering tonight's Class 6A football state quarterfinals clash in Tigard, optimism reigns supreme and the big question is exactly how the once-proud program has been able to accomplish such a remarkable turnaround.

Second-year head coach Mike Mitchell will tell you there are a number of variables that have made it all possible, and one doesn't really stand out among the rest.

His players and coaching staff will politely disagree.

"To go from the lowest of lows to where we are now is really remarkable," says North Medford assistant coach Tom Powell, who has been on staff since 2005. "And I'll come out and say it, it's all coach Mitchell. It really is. He's brought together a good staff and we have a blast and he treats us all really well."

That sounds about right to junior quarterback Troy Fowler, who sings the same tune when pinpointing how the Black Tornado has gone from the cellar to Southwest Conference champions in short order.

"I think he's been all the difference," Fowler insists. "He's a stepping stone for everything and sets up everything we are. He's done this so many times, he knows what he's doing. Everything that's happened is based off him because he just puts you on the right road."

North Medford's 10 wins are by far the most since reaching the state quarterfinals in 2005, and topped only in recent history by a 2003 campaign that saw the Tornado finish 12-2 and runner-up, coincidentally, to Tigard.

"We're certainly ahead of where I might have thought we'd be in our second year," Mitchell says in all humility. "Ten straight wins in any league is good and we're real pleased with the efforts these kids have made. It's put us in a situation where we have a real opportunity here, but it's also going to be a real challenge (tonight) against Tigard."

When Mitchell came to North Medford in the spring of 2012 from Sandpoint, Idaho, he had 39 years of coaching experience at the high school and college levels and had no delusions over the task at hand. During his introduction as the Black Tornado's fifth head coach since 2003, he didn't mince words.

"This isn't going to be easy — I'm not stupid, I've been around — but I know it can be done," he said then of restoring faith in a program that owns seven state titles but only one gained since Medford split into two high schools in 1986.

Having coached in the Rogue Valley at Grants Pass and Hidden Valley high schools, among a host of other stops, Mitchell knew all too well the tradition and expectations among the Black Tornado faithful. He also knew he was stepping in at a time of the program's greatest dysfunction after a winless 2010 campaign that included discord among the coaching staff and the resignation of the head coach with two regular season and one play-in game still remaining.

"I think if you look at my coaching history," says Mitchell, "this is kinda what I've done. I've gone to programs and gotten them turned around."

This year's squad secured the ninth conference championship in Mitchell's high school tenure, and he previously guided Hidden Valley (1978) and Sandpoint (2009) to runner-up showings in their respective state championships.

"I think the real formula is I try to come in and find out what was wrong and fix it," Mitchell says of his process. "They had a staff torn away by disloyalty and it really hurt the kids. In interviews with every coach I had, we talked about loyalty and what it would take and how, for us, that it might take some time and patience."

And patience is exactly what Mitchell has shown, along with a quiet, confident demeanor.

"Mike brings a lot of confidence to the team," says Powell, who is joined by Curtis Stout as the only holdovers from the previous regime. "From Day 1 once we finally got going he's never talked about the past and what's happened, it's just always moving forward. And when he talks to the kids, there's no real lectures or fire 'em up speeches, it's just real and honest and sincere and confident."

It's a relaxed approach Fowler says he and his teammates definitely appreciate. When they practice, they have fun. When they play, they feel prepared for the situation — and that starts with Mitchell and continues through a veteran staff of coaches he's put together that also includes defensive coordinator Chris Kincaid, offensive line coach Jim Figoni, defensive line coach Jacob Palaniuk, receivers coach Doug Elam and running backs coach Dave Patstone.

"The turnaround is also because of the coaches that coach Mitchell brought in," adds Fowler. "He knows how to find guys that know how to coach and fit his style of coaching. We just haven't had a style of coach like this before and it's obviously really benefitting us. It's always loose but also when it's time to go, we go. There's no question about that."

Mitchell's laid-back style is also tireless, according to Fowler, and Powell says it just goes to show there's different ways to win.

"It's a loose way of doing it but that's not to say there's no discipline because guys do the right thing at the right time," says Powell. "And there's no fear. There really isn't any fear in what we're doing. He lets playmakers make plays."

"He really renewed my interest in football and coaching because I'm having fun, too," adds Powell. "And it's not just the winning, it really isn't. It's everything."

Mitchell finds himself just as happy these days, but is far from ready to take any bows. As he first heard former Northwestern coach Gary Barnett say, "I've never seen a jockey carry a horse across the finish line."

"I'm really happy with my staff and I couldn't be happier with the job these coaches have done," says Mitchell. "For the first time in my coaching career I have a staff without an ounce of drama and they all know their roles and they're doing an incredible job."

"And when you talk about the kids," he adds, "I just can't say enough about the dedication they've put into it. These guys have learned what hard work will do for you, and that's the lesson you want them to learn most of all anyway. The kids really wanted this to happen and have worked hard for it and deserve all that's come to them."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488,, or

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