Commentary

Mike Riley leads the uphill fight

Originally Published: April 29, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Oregon State coach Mike Riley is looking to rebound from a 5-7 season, the Beavers' first losing record in five years. Here's how it's gone for him since the end of last season. We like to call it, You Think You've Had It Tough:

[+] EnlargeMike Riley
Ethan Erickson/Oregon State University Athletics With a winning season, Mike Riley will become Oregon State's all-time winningest coach.

All-American defensive tackle Stephen Paea graduated. Three-time All-Pac-10 tailback Jacquizz Rodgers left after his junior season for this weekend's NFL draft. Quizz's brother, former all-conference wideout and kick returner James Rodgers -- who had two knee surgeries to repair the MCL and ACL he tore last season -- has yet to begin to run.

Wide receiver Jordan Bishop tore a ligament in his ankle playing basketball in January. Quarterback Ryan Katz missed all live work during spring practice as he recuperated from wrist surgery. H-back Joe Halahuni, who actually made it to spring ball, injured his left shoulder and may not be ready until mid-September.

Just to top it off, it's been a cold, wet, miserable April. Spring practice, which concludes Saturday, can't conclude fast enough.

Of course, when you're Riley, every down is third-and-long. Oregon State is a little guy in a conference that keeps getting bigger. Disadvantage is as commonplace as raingear around here.

Oregon State football is the guy who lives down the street from the guy who won the lottery. Oregon used to be a regular Joe, too. The two schools used to never stray too far from one another in the basement of the league.

The University of Oregon, just a half-hour or so from Corvallis, has become the heartthrob of college football. America can't wait to see what it wears every Saturday, much less how it plays. The Ducks have benefited from the largesse of former Ducks track athlete Phil Knight, who has lavished his swooshed millions on his alma mater.

Take last summer, when the Pac-10 season preview for the media concluded after a dinner in Los Angeles. Riley booked a commercial flight for the following morning.

"Why don't you just come back with me in the private plane?" Oregon coach Chip Kelly said.

As he told the story, Riley's lean, angular face broke into a grin.

"The people who unloaded the stuff at the Eugene airport did a double take when I got off the plane after Chip," Riley said. "It was kind of funny. I like him. He's a good guy."

Riley doesn't lay awake at night, wondering why Knight couldn't have run for the Beavers.

"Thirty miles' difference," Riley said. "And back in those days, we had pretty good track, too. In the [era] Phil was competing, we had Dick Fosbury."

Oregon got the gazillionaire. Oregon State got the inventor of the Fosbury Flop.

Riley calls himself "a silver-lining guy." The only proven playmaker who has made it with all body parts intact to the spring game is wide receiver Markus Wheaton. Riley's take: "The backups have gotten a lot of good work. They're better players for it."

George Schroeder, a columnist for the Eugene Register-Guard, refers to Corvallis as Mayberry and Riley as Sheriff Taylor, which is just about perfect. Riley grew up in Corvallis, "a five-minute town."

"I know this place," Riley said. "I love it and I can recruit to it with a passion."

His dad, Bud, is a former Oregon State assistant coach. Riley quarterbacked Corvallis High to the 1970 state championship. He became head coach here, left for the NFL and came back. He said no to UCLA. He said no to Alabama, his alma mater. He is home and he couldn't be happier.

"I've learned through the years there are no greener pastures," Riley said.

[+] EnlargeJames Rodgers
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesOregon State wide receiver James Rodgers is coming off injury and hasn't run yet.

He couldn't be much more successful, either. Riley has a record of 69-54 in his 10 seasons at Oregon State (1997-98, 2003-10). If the Beavers win six games this fall, he will have more victories than any coach in the school's history. That's as good a description of the uphill nature of Oregon State football as any. Bob Stoops has won 75 games since he picked up his last dealer car.

Riley wins at Oregon State, like others haven't, because he can look at the unnoticed recruit and see the NFL player within. In an era in which the marquee programs no longer redshirt, Riley continues to swear by it. "This program is a development program," he said. "We love those redshirt years. ... We're not going to get the ready-made guy with five stars beside his name."

When those players come out the other side, Oregon State has older players playing against younger ones. And they're pretty good, too. Two years ago, the NFL drafted seven Beavers, which made Oregon State second only to USC.

When Jim Harbaugh wanted his son, Jay, to learn football, he sent his son to Oregon State to be a student assistant. NFL veteran Ray Agnew, now a player personnel guy with the St. Louis Rams, is sending his son, Malcolm, a running back, to play for the Beavers next season.

Oregon State understands what it has in Riley. He has a contract through 2019. Every time the Beavers go to a bowl game, he gets another year. As the rest of college football gives coaches three years to win, Oregon State enjoys stability.

"We're that blue-collar team that has to keep working," Riley said. "I've learned to love where we come from."

In sum, despite the injuries, despite the weather, despite the lack of continuity, Riley sees a bright future for the Beavers.

"This team is going to have to be a great 'team.'" Riley said. "People are going to have to step up. I told the team this [on Tuesday]: This team, almost to a man, has improved noticeably from last year."

Aunt Bee, he'll be late for supper.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com