Coach Mike Riley thinks coordinator is the best in the conference
CORVALLIS - If not for that fateful phone call a decade ago, Mark Banker wouldn't have ended up at Oregon State.
The call was from John Robinson, then Southern Cal's esteemed head coach. And Banker, temporarily out of the coaching business and antennae high, figured it was a prank.
'Hello, Mark. This is John Robinson calling.'
'Yeah, sure. Who is this? This isn't a good time to play around.'
'Uh … Mark, this is John Robinson, the USC coach.'
After Banker became convinced it really was the legendary Robinson, they spoke for 2 1/2 hours, after which Banker accepted a coaching position at SC.
As a graduate assistant.
At age 40.
But that's where Banker - now Oregon State's defensive coordinator - was in his career after being let go with the entire staff at the University of Hawaii after just one season.
The Springfield (Mass.) College graduate had turned to serving as a strength and conditioning coach for high school athletes and working for an all-sports recruiting agency. He was about to accept a job coaching at either a junior college or a Division III school.
Then Robinson came calling, 'and I wound up being a glorified GA,' says Banker, who had spent 14 seasons at Cal State Northridge, a dozen as defensive coordinator, before taking the Hawaii job.
Banker coached linebackers and caught the eye of SC's offensive coordinator at the time, a fellow named Mike Riley.
'John treated Mark with the respect of a regular coach,' says Riley, now Oregon State's head coach. 'He wasn't a GA, getting coffee for the other coaches.
'I'm looking at this guy and watching his work ethic. And he had been a coordinator for so many years, but he doesn't bat an eye and does whatever is expected of him. I thought by the time I left USC, he was the best defensive coach on the staff. I've been impressed ever since.'
Banker moved with Riley to Oregon State as secondary coach when Riley took the head job in 1997 and has been with him ever since except in 2002, when Riley - after being fired as coach of the San Diego Chargers - served as assistant head coach for the New Orleans Saints.
'I think he's the best defensive coordinator in the Pac-10,' Riley says.
More than a few observers would have disputed that after Oregon State's first four games this season. The defense was shoddy in lopsided losses to Boise State and California. At that point, though, came a transformation that helped lift the Beavers to seven wins in their next eight games, third place in the Pac-10 and a berth in the Dec. 29 Sun Bowl against Missouri.
It sticks in Banker's craw a little that people credit a move to using a nickel package - for the first time under Riley at Oregon State - and blame the defensive coordinator for waiting so long.
Banker contends Oregon State's base defense is basically a nickel, with outside linebacker Derrick Doggett capable of both pass coverage and the blitz. He says before this season, the Beavers' personnel in the secondary was too thin to go to the nickel. And he claims the nickel, while confusing opposing offenses at times, hasn't been a major benefit.
'The sole reason for the transformation is the players,' Banker contends. 'Our tackling was atrocious early in the season. Against Washington State (OSU's fifth game), it was a different energy on the field. Our defensive coaches coached the same way. The players practiced the same way - they had always given 100 percent. But something happened on that day that was different. It was almost like, 'Oh, we get it.' And they haven't stopped since.'
Larger aspirations noted
Riley works with offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and assistant head coach Jay Locey in spearheading the Oregon State offense. Banker has the autonomy to handle the defense.
'It's the ultimate,' Banker says. 'It's great to have somebody who knows and cares and, at the same time, leaves you alone. You couldn't ask for more.'
Riley considers Banker a great teacher and a quality human being.
'Your players recognize good people,' Riley says. 'Mark is good people, a family man. All those things that are important in the world, that's who he is.'
Banker, 50, has aspirations of becoming a Division I head coach or a coordinator again in the NFL. For now, he is content to run an OSU defense that is regarded as one of the best in the Pac-10 - and should be better next season. It's worth, he believes, much more than a nickel.