Commentary

Mike Riley has a good job, and knows it

The anti-Lane Kiffin didn't hesitate to choose Oregon State over USC

Updated: January 20, 2010, 10:59 AM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Lane Kiffin got to work as the new coach of USC immediately after his introductory news conference. His first order of business: trying to explain what new recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron did or didn't do when he called Tennessee recruits to discuss football, life and whatever else came to mind.

Kiffin might get a lot of practice with those types of chores, given the number of minor NCAA violations he chalked up in a year at Tennessee and the looming and lingering problems at USC.

[+] EnlargeKiffin
Harry How/Getty ImagesLane Kiffin had to answer questions about the rules as soon as he arrived at USC.

The Orgeron issue: whether he tried to persuade Tennessee recruits not to enroll for the spring semester until the USC staff could figure out whether there was room with the Trojans. This issue came to light less than 48 hours after Kiffin left Knoxville, and it underscored a troubling question regarding USC's decision to hire Kiffin. Why would a program that has been haunted by an ongoing NCAA investigation concerning Reggie Bush and subsequent questions about Joe McKnight hire a guy whose one year as a college coach found him constantly addressing questions of ethics and rules?

(If I were the USC president or athletic director, I would be troubled by the following statement from Orgeron: "To my knowledge, I did not knowingly break a rule." He is the recruiting director. Ignorance is not an excuse.)

And at some point over the past week, Kiffin probably found himself wondering whether he left anything important back in Tennessee. He knows he can't go back, so it probably doesn't matter anyway. His departure was more like the fall of Saigon than the resignation of a football coach, and if he wants to go back, he probably won't have the police escort he needed to get out of Knoxville.

Meanwhile, up in Corvallis, Ore., Mike Riley is tackling his two-minute commute, enjoying the rain and having dinner with his family most nights. He's using his three-year contract extension as an opportunity to take care of his assistant coaches and their families, and he's sitting down in the living rooms of prospective recruits to tell them with sincerity that he'll be around when they're seniors, providing the university still wants him.

Understand one thing: Riley was USC's first choice, and Riley is the anti-Kiffin, someone who believes the job he's got is the best one in the country even if nobody else agrees. When USC called, he told the Trojans without hesitation that he was flattered but not interested. As he recently told the story -- the call came on a Saturday morning, and he won't reveal the identity of the caller -- you could almost hear him shrug over the phone line. He's had his moments of striving and straining for the next best job, and he's here to tell you that it's not worth the hassle.

"I've been around the block," he said Thursday in a conference call with a few reporters. "And I've repeatedly said I hope Oregon State is my last job. I think I have the best job in the country."

Riley coached in the NFL -- he was in charge of Ryan Leaf in San Diego, so any of his reflections should be viewed through that prism. To most people, the USC job would be considered far superior to the Oregon State one, but the guys Riley most admires aren't necessarily the ones you'd suspect. Instead of Pete Carroll, he mentions a longtime coach at Linfield College in Oregon. He also admires a guy named "Frosty" Westering, a great old guy who coached forever at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., and lived by the motto, "Make the big time where you are."

[+] EnlargeMike Riley
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesPlayers should have no doubt about who will be on the Oregon State sideline in future years.

There's a lot to be said for that. Riley has one of the most feverish offensive minds in football, and he's churned out entertaining and winning teams for the better part of a decade at a place that attracts five-star recruits only when they're wearing visiting colors. He's happy with that, and happy to live in the community where he grew up and his father coached. Hey, USC is a great job -- just not for him.

There is no trace of defensiveness in his voice when he says, "I'm happy, and this is a great place for my family and me. I'm very happy with my life, and I came to the conclusion a long time ago: If you're happy, stay happy."

There are fewer entanglements this way. There's something to be said for feeling good enough about your decisions to take questions at a news conference, something Kiffin couldn't bring himself to do when he issued a brief statement in a university building in Knoxville and ran out a step ahead of the pitchforks. With a police escort.

They're at different stages in life -- Riley is 56, Kiffin 34 -- and nothing really connects them except a profession and a job that one accepted and the other politely declined.

"I have found it's very important that you develop a trust within the program," Riley said. "The most important trust is between the staff and the team, and we try to live by that. If loyalty and trust are qualities you want to pass along to the people around you, you have to live them."

He asked that nobody read anything into that. He professed to be speaking only for himself. Sadly, in the current climate in college football, he very well might have been.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown cowrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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