'I've never enjoyed a team more,' coach says about 9-4 Oregon State
CORVALLIS - The present, he concedes, often gets preferential treatment over the past. As he looks at it today, though, the 2006 Oregon State Beavers get front-page status in Mike Riley's emotional career scrapbook.
'In 30 years of coaching, I've never enjoyed a team more, never watched a team grow better than this one did and take on some really outstanding characteristics,' the OSU coach says. '(The players) were sharpened by adversity. You hate to go through that, but the end result should be tremendous team and life lessons.'
The Beavers, ranked 22nd by the BCS and 24th by The Associated Press going into their Dec. 29 Sun Bowl matchup with Missouri, won seven of their last eight games to finish the regular season 9-4. And Riley, listed by one preseason annual as one of 15 college football coaches on the hot seat, suddenly is a hot commodity.
Last Thursday, Riley met with Arizona State Athletic Director Lisa Love about the school's then-vacant coaching position.
'It was a very open, engaging talk with a person I've known and respected quite a while,' Riley says. 'I told her I was quite happy at Oregon State, and that I was in the midst of working out a contract extension.'
On Saturday, Riley's predecessor at OSU, Dennis Erickson, was named as the Sun Devils' coach. Riley and OSU Athletic Director Bob De Carolis say they expect an extension for Riley to be completed soon.
Riley is not impervious to the criticism laid upon him by some observers, especially after the Beavers' 2-3 start. He is nothing if not consistent with the way he handles himself and runs his program, never wavering from what he believes is in the best interest of those around him.
'I know all that stuff (criticism) is out there,' he says. 'There are a lot of careers on the line (among those on the OSU coaching staff). There is a domino effect when a coach gets fired.
'But I've always had a sense that if we go to work, we can help these kids fix whatever is wrong. I tell our players and the coaching staff that all the time, so I have to practice what I preach. I have a lot of confidence in what I do and the people around me.'
Riley took special pride in his team's performance after Oregon State's two biggest victories - Southern Cal and Oregon. After upsetting the No. 3-ranked Trojans, OSU demolished Arizona State 44-10. After beating Oregon, the eight-point-underdog Beavers became the only team to win at Hawaii this season.
'I love how, when people say it's going to be hard, when fans or the media try to talk you out of winning, our kids have persevered,' Riley says.
Team activities pay off
There are plenty of factors involved in Oregon State's turnaround - including the maturation of junior college transfers on defense and senior quarterback Matt Moore, and the implementation of a nickel package on defense.
Then there were some intangibles. Of their last seven victories, four have been achieved by a touchdown or less.
'The guys had the character to play with pressure and finish games better than I've seen a lot of teams do,' Riley says.
Assistant head coach Jay Locey, hired away from Linfield after 22 years coaching in the Wildcats' small-college dynasty, spearheaded a succession of 'team-building' activities early in the season.
There was a 'swim Olympics,' a sumo wrestling competition, movie and bowling/billiards nights. And there was a series of motivational speakers, including former coaches Ad Rutschman and Don Read.
'Those things were fun and kind of took us out of the box a little bit,' Riley says. 'Maybe it brought the kids a little closer, I don't know.
'I really have enjoyed the growth of the character of this team - on and off the field, in the classroom, in the weight room.'
Though Riley considers the 2006 recruiting class the best he has had in six years at Oregon State, he is confident the quality of incoming talent will get better.
'We're at the point now where I feel comfortable talking to any recruit,' Riley says. 'But we have to do a great job of evaluating, and you also have to know when to cut bait sometimes. If a kid's going to visit SC, Michigan and Texas and you're in there fighting hard, we're talking about the use of man-hours. Where is each coach going to put his time in? Is it on a guy we have a 5 percent chance, or a guy who is a good player with all the characteristics we want who we have a better than 50 percent chance of getting? It's about where you spend your time and making sure the players we recruit are Pac-10 players.'
Character counts most
Riley's staff might give a potential recruit the benefit of the doubt academically, but with character, he says.
'As we move along, we have a clearer picture of the kind of kid who will flourish in our program,' he says. 'I don't want to cross the line on character. There are times where we may take a guy who is a little more academically at risk. We know we will provide him with the help if he has the work ethic to succeed. But you certainly don't want too many of those guys, and we never want to compromise the character.
'But that's the beauty of continuity. That's why I want to be at Oregon State for a long time, to establish these parameters of what we do - about the classroom, the weight room, recruiting, practice habits, everything. Everybody knows what to expect. … 'If you don't do it this way, you can't be an Oregon Stater.' '
Can the Beavers draw inspiration from the baseball team and win a national championship someday? Can they get to a Rose Bowl?
'I start with wanting to go to a bowl game every year,' Riley says. 'That's a sign of success and a good thing for your program. And then, I want to make a run for a Pac-10 title. We'll do that. We'll take our run at it in time. I say that realizing the competition. Every coach in the conference has the same kind of goals.
'Talk is talk. The important thing is what you've done. We're 9-4, third place in the Pac-10, going to the Sun Bowl. We'll continue to shoot to get better. We're not going to be able to beat SC every year. We're going to go and do a very good job, though, and we will make our run at the top. I look forward to that.'