- Associated Press - Saturday, November 19, 2016

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - The game was simpler when Jeep Rice, Ray Bradley and Tom Ramage began coaching. Juneau football was run out of the beds of pickup trucks, Adair Kennedy Field was known as the Gravel Bowl and an offense’s iterations could be broken down into two options: run right or run left.

Since the trio began coaching in the early ‘80s, prep football in Juneau has grown from a backyard game to a 12-month program featuring highly-specialized athletes running multiple option offenses, reported the Juneau Empire (https://bit.ly/2fy1VLG).

With Ramage retiring this year after his last season heading Thunder Mountain High School’s offensive unit, the trio’s century of combined football knowledge has left the field for good.

Rice, Bradley and Ramage had been there when football became a high school sport. Their legacies live on through the players, coaches and teachers they impacted during the past 30 years.

On a Wednesday morning at Adair Kennedy, the three got together to talk about their careers and Juneau’s development as a football town. The consensus: though excellence on the field was always a motivator, teaching life skills and developing young people kept them returning to the field, Friday after rainy Friday.

“It’s always been a fantastic environment with the community and the kids, and that’s, you know, why we kept doing it for so many years. We didn’t do it to make money,” Ramage said. “None of us got rich coaching football.”

“It was for the love of the game, the players,” Bradley said.

Before Juneau-Douglas High School had a football program, Rice, Bradley and Ramage coached Juneau’s original club team, a high-school-age incarnation of the Juneau Youth Football League.

The team practiced at Adair Kennedy Field, then just a dirt patch filled with dense glacial silt and freckled with rocks, shale and the occasional glass shard.

“We’d line up the kids at the back of the end zone and have them walk down the field an arm apart picking up rocks, glass, shale,” Rice said.

The unforgiving venue toughened Juneau’s early players and allowed a certain home field advantage.

“You had to love football to come out here and make a flying tackle or a diving catch in sideways rain and get scraped up,” Rice said. “Players here in Juneau are a little bit special in that regard.”

In 1989, coaches and parents from the club program - then almost 10 years old - approached the Juneau School Board with a proposal to include football with JDHS athletics. They wanted to require a little bit more from their athletes off the field.

“That changed the rules so kids had to have good grades and couldn’t drink and that crap,” Ramage said. “That’s what we were going for. We wanted it to be a legitimate high school sport.”

The team was sanctioned but independent; they technically couldn’t compete for a state championship. Dave Haney was the original head coach of the Crimson Bears in ‘89 and ‘90 and Rice was the defensive coordinator.

Bradley started his coaching career in Fairbanks with his son’s youth teams in 1978. He moved to Juneau in ‘82 and took an open division team in JYFL in ‘83.

Bradley and Rice coached against each other in those early years.

“We didn’t like it,” Rice said of coaching opposite Bradley, who’s opinion differed. “Well, I thought it was fine, I won.”

“I don’t remember it that way,” Rice said.

When JDHS became a sanctioned team, Rice and Bradley joined forces, with Rice coaching “wherever there was need, offensive coordinator, special teams,” and Bradley helping out on defense, taking the coordinator position for some of the early years.

Bradley remembers Rice - 10 years his senior - helping him mature as a coach.

“Jeep really helped me. When you’re young coaching you have a lot of ego and you think you have to win at all costs, but you have a journey and you learn. What I learned was that it was better to teach life skills and get young men - and women, we coached women, too - ready for life,” Bradley said.

Ramage moved to Juneau in ‘84. He was the first offensive coordinator under coach Haney during JDHS’ inaugural 1990 season.

Bradley, Rice and Ramage coached together at JDHS from 1990 until 2005, when beloved JDHS head coach Reilly Richey passed away from liver cancer.

By then Ramage, who sounds Rice’s “football nerd alert,” had developed a unique offensive philosophy. With Richey’s passing, he thought it was time to test his coaching ability in the Lower 48.

He found a job in the Bay Area with football powerhouse De La Salle, a private catholic school then enjoying several undefeated seasons.

“I wanted to go down south and challenge myself to see if I was as good as I thought I was, honestly,” Ramage said. “It was a great, great quest for my career, I really enjoyed it. I got to coaching some fantastic, nationally ranked programs.”

But Ramage always knew he’d come back to Alaska. After leaving De La Salle, the heating and ventilation worker got a job offer in Fairbanks, and worked with the football program at North Pole High School.

By then, Thunder Mountain High School was preparing for its second football season, and they needed a coach.

Ramage got a call from Rice.

“He (Rice) said, ‘Hey I am probably going to take over this program in Juneau, do you want to come play?’ so to speak,” Ramage remembers. “Coming back was great. It was kind of like getting the band back together. We had coached together all those years and then we hadn’t.”

Rice was the second head coach at Thunder Mountain.

Rice, Bradley and Ramage were always private sector guys, and couldn’t keep in touch with the players the way a teacher could. When current Falcons head coach Randy Quinto got hired at Thunder Mountain, the trio was happy to pass the torch to the younger coach.

Riding off into the sunset and the elephant in the room

Bradley and Rice ended their careers at Thunder Mountain last year. Ramage stayed on for another year but suffered a stroke, and decided to call it quits after helping the Falcons to a banner 2016 season.

Football is a much different game now, both on the field and off.

“When I first came here in the ‘80s, there was still a single wing, I thought one guy running kind of almost a legitimate Notre Dame box from the 40s,” Ramage said. “This year we ran a five-way RPO (Run/Pass Offense). The technical aspect of the game, the skill aspect that’s demanded from the athletes is huge now. It was very much a backyard game when we first started doing this.”

“When we coached,” Bradley said. “It was ‘OK, football starts in three, four weeks, let’s go get ready.’ Now, it’s a 12-month program.”

Athletes are “bigger, faster and stronger” now, but the coaches say work ethic has slipped, though they don’t blame players.

“One of my favorite coaches, John Wooden, said kids don’t change, culture does,” Ramage said.

The trio has coached several JDHS and TMHS coaches over the years, including Rick Sjoroos, Eddie Brakes, Quinto and Jeff Hedges.

They’re particularly proud of leaving that legacy.

“I was kind of bummed out about retiring, you know, honestly, I am going to miss it. But, that kind of helps the pain a little bit to know that those guys we taught are going to carry on a little bit of us,” Ramage said.

They’re also proud of the impact they’ve had on the community.

“It was a lot of years of coaching, we figured out we probably helped over a thousand. We had teachers, policemen,” Bradley said, who also joked that it’s fun to have had kids ask him how good their dads were.

“All of us have coached second-, third-generation kids in town. It’s kind of cool to be around to see that,” Ramage said. “You have to understand what a payoff as a coach that is, to see these guys get married, get a job. Got a kid, great kid, raised them well.”

Though they’ve left Juneau football better than they started it, all three see some tough choices on the horizon for prep football in Juneau. Ramage, for one, thinks coach Quinto has the momentum, work ethic and coaching staff to keep the momentum going at Thunder Mountain, but all that may not be enough.

“The elephant in the room is money. Are we going to meld together, JD and TM and with the numbers the way they are?” he said. “Can the community continue support two teams? What happens when they combine the teams, at that point you have two different head coaches at two different schools. I know you will have kids that will play and will not play. I don’t have those answers. . His (Quinto’s) biggest obstacle is not him or his coaching staff or even Soldotna, it’s money.”

Both JDHS and Thunder Mountain have dropped their JV programs, which has hurt both team’s development.

“Financially, on paper, (a merger) kind of makes sense.” Ramage said. “If that’s your goal,” Rice interjected. “And that’s the golden ticket right there. If finance is your goal. Jeep is right. We help a lot of kids, keep them off the streets, out of jail, coach the ethics that Ray is talking about, and that’s how we reach them as coaches, more so than Xs and Os, and that’s our goal. We want them to be good citizens.”

___

Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, https://www.juneauempire.com

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