Charlie Ragle was multitasking, watching the Arizona-Colorado game as Cal’s team bus rolled to Husky Stadium two weeks ago. As he stared at his mobile device, UA quarterback Brandon Dawkins was knocked out with an injury.
Before Khalil Tate took his first snap, Ragle turned to a fellow Golden Bears coach and made a prediction.
“I told him … that’s going to jump-start them,” Ragle said. “I’d be lying if I said I knew he was going to go out and set the NCAA rushing record” for quarterbacks.
Few coaches know Arizona’s roster better than Ragle, who served as the Wildcats’ special teams and tight ends coach for four years before leaving for the same position at Cal.
Ragle’s connections to the state are even deeper than that. For nearly 20 years, Ragle was the ultimate Arizona Guy: head coach of a dominant Scottsdale Chaparral High School program who made the rare leap from the high school ranks to college coaching.
Saturday night, Cal will host Arizona. Ragle will coach against some of his closest friends in the profession, and a team filled with kids he helped recruit.
The 42-year-old Golden Bears assistant will try to keep it together.
“I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought from that perspective,” Ragle said. “If I did, I probably would start crying.”
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From the start, the 2016 season was the toughest of Ragle’s career.
In August, Zach Hemmila — Arizona’s starting center and one of Ragle’s Phoenix recruits — died in his sleep. The Wildcats then went 3-9 and missed a bowl game.
It was the “most miserable year of my life professionally,” Ragle said. “I hadn’t lost that many games in a long time. It was just … it was difficult.”
Arizona’s injuries affected Ragle’s special teams immensely, and the Wildcats coverage teams were made up mostly of walk-ons and untested freshmen. Josh Pollack spent the season as Arizona’s punter, placekicker and kickoff specialist, an almost unheard-of trifecta in an age of specialization.
The results were predictably bad. The Wildcats finished the season last in the Pac-12 in field position differential, which is the difference between a team’s average starting position and that of its opponents. The UA’s longest kickoff or punt return was 33 yards.
“To struggle the way we did on special teams, that hurt, that hurt me personally,” Ragle said.
“You embody that. If you’re going to be great at anything you have to go in full force, and that was extremely difficult for me to deal with. But at the end of the day you learn about who you are and adversity, and it either breaks you or makes you.
“I’m not going to let losing nine games determine who I am.”
The job offer from Cal coach Justin Wilcox, a longtime friend, intrigued Ragle for a number of reasons.
For one, the move would be a fresh start.
For another, it was a good long-term play. Ragle’s goal is to ultimately become a head coach, and the opportunity to fully control a special-teams unit for the first time should only help him. At Arizona, head coach Rich Rodriguez has the final say on most special-teams decisions. At Cal, Ragle has more authority.
“I just felt like I was at a point in my career where I needed a new challenge,” Ragle said. “I knew in the conversations that I had with Justin that I would get to come to Cal and that I would get to have the onus of the special teams on my shoulders.”
Ragle’s newfound responsibilities aren’t a knock on Rodriguez, he says.
“I loved Arizona and I loved my time there — it has nothing to do with that,” he said. “It was more, for me, Rich wants to be involved in the special teams, which he’s the head coach and that’s his connection to the team as well to coach those guys, so I understood it. It’s just my ability to put my brand on it and give myself a chance to go out and really coach.”
Many within the profession see Ragle as a future boss. He has already been linked to the opening at Northern Arizona, where Ragle’s in-state ties could be a difference maker.
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Cal was off on Saturday, so Ragle watched Arizona again. He cheered when Trevor Wood caught the first touchdown pass of his career.
It was Ragle, after all, who brought the 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound tight end to Tucson.
Wood had offers from 14 programs, including Oklahoma, Oregon, USC, UCLA and Washington, as a star at Chaparral. Ragle’s move from the high school ranks to the UA gave the Wildcats the upper hand.
“It was big. He’s family. He’s known me since I was 7 or 8 years old running around Chaparral, so he coached me there,” Wood said. “As soon as he left there, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s going to make it tough to look anywhere else.’”
Over five years, Ragle developed into one of the UA coaching staff’s best and most energetic recruiters. He helped Arizona land Wood, Pollack, linebacker DeAndre’ Miller, defensive tackle Finton Connolly, defensive end Jalen Harris and kicker Lucas Havrisik. Ragle was the point man when Arizona signed four-star offensive linemen Keenan Walker and Michael Eletise.
Ragle was at his best recruiting the Phoenix area. The UA hasn’t landed a single commitment from the Valley since his departure.
Cal hasn’t either, but Ragle is competing with his old coaching buddies for three Phoenix-area recruits: receiver Solomon Enis, offensive lineman Joey Ramos and safety Kenny Churchwell.
“His enthusiasm, his energy rubbed off on everybody,” Rodriguez said of Ragle. “You could tell he was going to be a good recruiter because he could establish relationships with the players, so he did a great job for me.”
Ragle’s boundless energy and relationship-building helped him on the recruiting trail. It certainly caught Wilcox’s eye.
“He’s got a lot of passion, a lot of energy and he cares about the team. He’s a tireless worker and he fits in really well here,” Wilcox said. “I look and judge everybody on their character. They share the same philosophy I do in coaching and what it’s all about and what it’s going to take to be successful. Charlie’s been a head coach at the high school level and he’s extremely successful. He’s done a heck of a job for us, and we’re glad to have him.”
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Ragle wants to be known for more than his ability to recruit or his ties to Arizona. That’s part of what made him leave Arizona for the opportunity at California, to show that he’s not just an Arizona Guy. He’s a coach who aspires to be the boss.
That’s part of what made Miguel Reveles, a former UA analyst, follow Ragle to Berkeley. Reveles serves as the Golden Bears’ quality control coach for special teams.
“Relationships are important to him, and he’s taken me under his wing. He’s kind of been like a big brother,” Reveles said. “He’s the kind of person who will get you to run through a wall. He always brings an energy that you want to be around, that positive energy. He’s an energetic guy, he’s a great coach.”
Ragle’s past and present will meet on Saturday, and yet much of the talk will be about the future. At 4-3, Cal is one of the Pac-12’s surprise teams this season. The Golden Bears are coming off one of their biggest wins in a decade, a nationally televised upset victory over a ranked Washington State team.
Arizona (4-2) hasn’t lost since turning the offense over to Tate two weeks ago.
“I’m going to set a booby trap for him when he gets off the bus so he can’t play in our game,” Ragle said with a laugh. “They can have him back after our game.”
The Charlie Ragle Bowl could be the start of something special for Cal, or for Arizona.
“I don’t want to just be known as — ‘that guy was a good high school coach. That guy was a good recruiter,’” Ragle added. “I want people saying that guy can coach at the college level and he’s doing it well. That’s why I took the chance.”
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