Mike Riley finds sweet spot at Oregon State
Mike Riley keeps a 40-year-old photo depicting his dad running drills on the practice fields at Oregon State. The shot was framed and presented to Bud Riley by the 1972 Beavers defense.
The image reminds Mike who inspired him to become a coach 37 years ago, but the image is incomplete because it captures just one facet of a man so thoroughly dedicated to his commitments that his son wanted nothing more than to emulate him.
“When I was in fourth or fifth grade in Moscow, Idaho, we had a little bitty side yard that was just big enough for home plate and the pitchers mound,” Mike said. “I’d sit by the door with my glove on because I couldn’t wait for him to get home so I could play catch with my dad.”
On most of the days Bud Riley walked through the door, he was tired from a long day of work as an assistant coach at Idaho.
“But he never turned me down,” Mike said. “He loved his job and he loved football, but he was a great husband and a great father. He tried to do it all and somehow he found that balance in life that is really hard to achieve.”
Balance might have been Bud Riley’s greatest lesson to his son. It helped Mike resist other job offers during an unprecedented run of success from 2006 to 2009 in which the Beavers won 33 regular-season and three bowl games. It helped Mike weather criticism and questions about his ability to lead the program following 5-7 and 3-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011. And it helped Mike absorb the devastating blow of Bud’s death in August, at age 86, after a lengthy illness.
“My dad and I used to have so much fun talking about the games, and I do miss that,” Riley said. “But I get to walk these same practice fields that he did, so I still value every day.”
Maybe that’s why it’s so gratifying to see Riley back on top after Oregon State opened the season with consecutive victories over No. 13 Wisconsin and No. 19 UCLA to rise to No. 18 in the latest AP poll. Maybe that’s why so many people who have met or talked to the man – coaches, players, fans and media – are quietly rooting for even more success in Corvallis.
It’s rare to find a person so grounded, so humble and so likeable. It’s rare to meet a man so perfectly at peace with the life he has built.
“The sad part of our profession is that if you use the word ‘content’ to describe a coach, people assume the guy is settling and not trying to improve any more,” said Mark Banker, Beavers defensive coordinator and Riley's longtime Riley friend. “But when Mike says he’s content, he can say it and truly mean it. What he wants is to build a program, not his resume.”
Riley has jumped at his share of opportunities. He coached in the Canadian Football League against his dad and won a pair of Grey Cups with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Two years into his first tenure at Oregon State, in 1998, he left for a shot at the bigtime, signing a five-year deal to coach the San Diego Chargers for about $750,000 a year.
But after he was fired following three seasons and a 14-34 record, he spent a year as an assistant with New Orleans, and a lot of time soul searching. He was offered the Alabama job in December of 2002 after Dennis Franchione left for Texas A&M. Rivley was also under consideration for the UCLA job, but when Dennis Erickson left Corvallis in 2003 to coach the San Francisco 49ers, Riley returned to his roots and never gave in to temptation again.
“To be at a place that has meaning from your past is special,” said Riley, who won a state championship as a quarterback at Corvallis High. “I’ve been coming to these locker rooms, riding on these buses and walking these sidelines since I was a kid and my dad was coaching here. It’s so good to have this job, and I made it clear to my family and coaches that if I can -- if they’ll let me -- I want to make it my last job.”
Virtually every coach who’s ever taken over a college program has uttered similar words, but when Riley says it you actually believe it, because he defies every coaching stereotype with an old-fashioned gentleman’s charm.
“He doesn’t ride around in a golf cart, talking fast and talking loud,” Banker said. “He doesn’t announce himself and beat his chest and say, ‘look at me.’”
When Riley and Banker recruited current Chicago Bears cornerback Brandon Hardin at a summer high school showcase in Hawaii, Hardin had never met a college coach in his life.
“I had in my mind that all college coaches were strict, with these big, deep voices. I figured they were all guys that liked to yell a lot,” Hardin said. “Here comes Coach Riley, and he’s the last thing I expect a college coach to be. He was very calm, collected and soft-spoken. It just seemed to be his nature.”
Riley’s Corvallis calling card is his ability to foster a family atmosphere. The notion sounds clichéd and exaggerated until you hear the anecdotes of daily life.
After wins, Hardin said Riley would literally lead the team in rounds of ‘hip-hip- hoorays’ in the locker room.
“As a freshman, I thought it was almost silly,” Hardin said. “Then you start to realize it may be a little old fashioned, but it reflects the tradition of the place.”
When the team has training meals, Riley invites the families of the team to visit, and he encourages the coaches’ wives to drop by the office during the day.
“I’ve been in places where they treated it as place of business and nobody else was welcome. It’s torture,” Banker said. “It’s like going down in the submarine and you’re not allowed to come up for air.”
If this life of Riley sounds too idyllic to be true, the coach acknowledges that small-town existence is not for everyone. But at 59, Riley has sampled enough experiences to know with utter certainty that this is where he belongs.
Oregon State weathered 26 consecutive losing seasons before Riley arrived in 1997, but with a win Saturday at Arizona, he will pass Lon Stiner and become the school’s all-time winningest coach with 75 victories. He signed a three-contract extension ($1.3 million per year) in 2010 that will keep him in Corvallis through the 2019 season, and every time the Beavers reach a bowl, his contract automatically rolls over for an additional season.
“He’s very much the same guy whether we’re winning or losing,” Banker said. “He’s always tinkering with something -- even during all the good stretches. We’ve changed the way we practiced, the interaction between the offense and defense, the time of day we practice. He’s driving me crazy with all that (stuff), but he’s always trying to find a way to get better.”
Oregon State wasn’t expected to do much this season. In the preseason media poll, the Beavers were picked sixth in the six-team Pac-12 North, garnering more votes than only Colorado in the entire conference. Yet, in spite of the team’s stunning 2-0 start that has the Oregon State media relations staff inundated with interview requests, Riley is maintaining the same down-home approach he always has.
After the team upset UCLA in Pasadena last weekend, Riley delayed the team’s charter flight so he could treat his players to In-N-Out Burger, a legendary California fast food chain.
“I haven’t spoken with him since June when I left,” said former safety Lance Mitchell, who graduated last year. “But that’s OK. With Coach Riley, when you talk to him, it’s like you’ve been around him all along. You just pick up right where you left off.”
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