(Arizona plays host this week to 18th-ranked Oregon State, which is 2-0 and looking to bounce back from two consecutive losing seasons. Coach Mike Riley didn’t suddenly become a bad coach in those two years; here is a profile of him from USA Today, our Gannett partner, that ran late last week.)
By Jeffrey Martin, USA TODAY Sports
CORVALLIS, Ore. — Etched on a small block on Mike Riley’s desk is a quotation: “That which we manifest is before us.” It’s from Garth Stein’s book “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” and it obviously resonates with the Oregon State football coach.
He grew up here. He won a state title as a quarterback at Corvallis High. After leaving for four years in the NFL in the late 1990s — including a stint as head coach of the San Diego Chargers — he was re-hired to coach the hometown Beavers in 2003. He’s resisted opportunities to leave again.
In the ever-changing Pac-12, which features four new head coaches this year, Riley has the longest tenure, in his 12th season.
Riley, 59, appreciates his life at Oregon State.
“This is something bigger than a team or a game,” he said in an interview with USA TODAY Sports. “That’s why I fight, claw and scratch to stay here. I’ve been around the block — I want to fight like heck to make this my last job, to make this place as good as it can be and win a championship.”
Win a championship? Such talk, especially following a brutal 2011 in which the Beavers finished 3-9, would normally prompt rolling of the eyes. But Riley isn’t prone to bravado.
The truth is, he doesn’t believe his team is too far away. According to senior wide receiver Markus Wheaton, Oregon State’s 10-7 upset of then-No. 13 Wisconsin on Sept. 8 at Reser Stadium wasn’t totally unexpected, but much more will be learned about the Beavers after Saturday’s Pac-12 opener at No. 19 UCLA (3-0).
Riley refuses to offer excuses for his program’s recent shortcomings. Back-to-back losing seasons?
“We should go to a bowl game every year,” he says. “We played two years in a row to go to the Rose Bowl, and that’s where we want to go. I think we can make that run from time to time. That’s our goal.”
The Beavers’ slide coincided with the rise of in-state rival Oregon, which claimed not only its third consecutive conference crown last season but also the Rose Bowl.
“Chip (Kelly) has done a great job there, and they’re good. They’re really good,” Riley says. “But we want to beat them.”
As he tends to say, it’s the cycle of life.
Oregon State (1-0) endured 26 consecutive losing seasons before Riley arrived in 1997, and the streak grew to 28 after his first two years. But his successes — six bowl games in the past nine seasons — have elevated the program to the point where a couple of seemingly substandard seasons can lead to questions about job security. His record at OSU is 73-63, and with one more victory, he’ll tie Lon Stiner as the school’s winningest coach.
Riley is paid $1.3 million a year, per 2011 figures obtained by USA TODAY Sports. Each time the Beavers reach a bowl, his contract is automatically rolled over an additional season.
“I believe Mike has eight years left on (his) contract,” Oregon State athletics director Bob De Carolis wrote in an e-mail. “I think that says how we feel about him as our coach.”
He’s doing what he set out to do. His inspiration? His father, Edward “Bud” Riley, who died Aug. 4 at age 86.
The son notes with pride how he followed in his father’s footsteps on two occasions. Bud Riley joined Oregon State as assistant in the 1960s and in the ’70s was head coach of the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, where Mike Riley did two stints, including as head coach from 1987-90.
Riley continues to cling to a coaching lesson he learned from his dad.
“He said players see through phonies,” Riley says. “When we win, I’m praised for my personality. But when we lose, I’m not tough enough. I’ve come to the belief that I’m going to be who I am. I’m going to teach our kids, coach them, and not compromise any of that.
“He taught me to be myself.”
He’s built a reputation as one of college football’s good guys, a model of decorum — Oregon State football hasn’t been hit with any major infractions under Riley — in a business that brims with scandal and controversy. Oregon State President Ed Ray, chair of the NCAA executive committee who in the aftermath of the Penn State case said every school should examine the balance between the culture of athletics and the overall academic mission, described Riley as “the real deal, very special.”
Wheaton, the team’s leading receiver, calls Riley a “father figure.” De Carolis says he’s “the right guy for our situation.”
“We’ve invested a lot of energy as that program that people have described as doing it right,” Riley says. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We don’t always get it right, but I expect us to evaluate it and get better … I think we have a great environment here.”