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Mike Riley likes not being 'normal'

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon State coach Mike Riley (right) gets congratulations from athletic director Bob De Carolis after the season-opening victory over Wisconsin.CORVALLIS — Name a Pac-12 football coach who isn’t a workaholic and you’ll likely have a coach who is out of a job.

But family life has to take some priority, too, if the married man wants to stay that way.

Mike Riley has both work ethic and the right perspective.

For 32 years come Dec. 22, the Oregon State coach and his wife, Dee, have made their marriage sing despite the rigors of the football coaching profession.

“Early in Mike’s coaching career, we figured out our ‘normal’ doesn’t have to be like everybody else’s ‘normal,’ ” says Dee Riley, like her husband an Alabama grad. “It can’t, and it never will. We figured out what worked best for us.”

“It’s an interesting dilemma,” Mike Riley says. “I try to teach our players about balance in life. And we as coaches have to live it, too. We have jobs and we have families.

“I always kid the players and say, ‘I have to take the garbage out Tuesday nights.’ You have to figure out what’s important and do it. Your job is important; your family is important. You have to find that mixture.”

For the past decade, that has happened for the Rileys in Corvallis. Before, there were stops in McMinnville and Winnipeg and San Antonio and Los Angeles and San Diego and New Orleans.

At first, Mike made sure to provide ample time to spend with his wife. Along the way came children Matt, now 28, and Kate, 24, and a new wrinkle to the priority list.

Riley remembers his years with the San Antonio Riders of the World League in the early ‘90s, when the kids were very young.

“After working all day, I’d go home for dinner, read books to the kids, help put them to bed, and go back to work,” he says.

The children were a little older when Riley served as offensive coordinator at Southern Cal from 1993-96.

“We used to laugh about it,” Dee says. “Our kids had the latest bedtimes of anybody in their elementary school. It’s time with the kids or no time with the kids. Our choice was time with the kids.

“That meant Mike would come home earlier than usual several nights a week and spend an hour with each kid — reading to them, praying with them before they went to bed, one-on-one, where they had their dad’s undivided attention.

“When they’re adults, the kids won’t remember that they were sleep-deprived, but they will know they had a close relationship with their dad.”

During the summers, the Rileys always enjoyed vacation time, whether at their place near San Antonio or at the Oregon Coast, “or just by spending time at home,” Riley says.

“It’s all a good thing. Other than when you are out recruiting, there’s more of a regular time schedule. It’s a little more of an 8-to-5 job than during the season. It’s not that hard to find some balance that time of year.”

The job changes were difficult on the children, who had to adjust to new friends, a new school and a new environment.

“Those things are uncomfortable,” Riley says. “When I left Oregon State (after two years to coach the San Diego Chargers) in ‘98, that was a tough one. If I were to advise anybody, I’d probably say don’t do it. The kids survived and have done well, but that was pretty difficult. That was always a big concern of mine.”

Fortunately, Riley says, he always had his wife for stability as the family’s rock.

“Dee has always been so grounded on what’s important,” he says. “If I’m missing a beat somewhere, she’s there with a reminder that this is what I need to do.”

Life is pretty serene around the Riley household these days. The kids are grown and on their own, but both are living in Corvallis. Matt, three years into marriage with his wife Lydia, is a video specialist for the OSU athletic department. Kate works at a medical office in town. Matt and Kate live in the same apartment complex in Corvallis and visit their parents often.

“We selfishly guard the moments we can have family time with the kids, even now,” Dee says. “It’s like, ‘Pinch me, they both still live in our town?’ Mike and I don’t take that for granted. We know any time a job could take either of them away. We want to enjoy them while we can.”

Dee and Kate see each other “just about every day,” Dee says, and they are in a walking group that includes several coaches’ wives that get together three days a week.

There has been an added joy for all of late in 15-month-old Eli, the son of Kate and Beaver cornerback Jovan Stevenson. Active little Eli is the apple of his grandparents’ eye.

“One of the most wonderful things ever,” Mike Riley says. “At first, it was hard to imagine being a grandfather, but all of a sudden, when that happens, he becomes the center of our life.

“He totally warms my heart whenever I see him. We’re just fortunate he’s here in town.”

“I’m smitten, that’s all I can say,” Dee says. “Every child deserves to think he’s the best little child in the whole world. Eli has lots of love around him.”

Eli sometimes accompanies his grandmother or mother to OSU football practice, where he is always eager to greet grandpa with a hug.

“At least twice a week they bring him by my office,” Mike says. “He loves the office. I have a little toy box set up for him. He knows right where it is. He is familiar with the people in the office. He has become everybody’s adopted little boy.”

After the Beavers’ victory at UCLA in September, Eli wound up in his grandpa’s embrace as he was about to meet with the media.

“I’d just gone out to see Dee like I do after every game, and all of sudden Eli’s in my arms, and then all the reporters are there to do the post-game interviews,” Mike says, smiling. “And there we were for everybody to see. He enjoyed it, I think. He liked the attention.”

Matt and Lydia, who have no children, engage in a weekly “Sunday fun day” in which they take Eli all day “so he can get to know his aunt and uncle, which is so sweet,” Dee says.

At the four-bedroom south Corvallis home in which the Rileys have lived since their return to OSU in 2003, Dee has plenty of play things for Eli, including a miniature drum set and a “Lightning McQueen” tent — which has also become a nesting place for their lovable 2-year-old boxer, Rodney. Rodney has helped salve the wounds left by the summer passing of Rudy, a shepherd/husky mix who shared a walk nightly with Mike.

Now Riley walks Rodney, but also finds time for frequent walks with his wife in the neighborhood, or if time permits, in Avery or Willamette Parks or at Bald Hill.

“It’s our time together, and it’s important,” he says.

The family dynamic has changed since the August death of Mike’s father, Bud, a long-time coach who spent many years as an assistant at Oregon State. Mike’s mother, Mary, has been at her son’s home for three weeks and will stay at least through Christmas.

Bud and Mary Riley lived in rural Kaleden, British Columbia, since his retirement in 1987. Mike and Dee hope she will make a permanent move to Corvallis, where she would also be closer to her other sons — Pete, who lives in Naselle, Wash., and Ed, who is in the Bay Area.

“It’s been something we’ve been hoping for for a long time,” Mike says. “The timing is right for Mary. Pete’s relatively close, and Ed can get up here often. We’ve all seen each other more recently than in a long period of time.”

“I’d love to,” Mary says of becoming a Corvallis resident again, “but I won’t do anything right away. They say you should wait awhile, so I will. But I should be here, because I don’t have anybody up there” in British Columbia.

One day when Riley was serving as assistant head coach with the New Orleans Saints in 2002, his wife spoke to him about the future.

“Mike always loved the Pac-10 more than anything,” Dee says. “I told him, ‘You know what is the best town in the whole Pac-10? Corvallis. I could live there forever. It’s the best place we could live in for family, for friends, for quality of life.’ “

Two weeks later, OSU coach Dennis Erickson resigned to take the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers. Two weeks after that, the Rileys were back in Corvallis. Serendipity.

“I just love our life,” Dee says as she relaxes in front of the fire at home. “I love Corvallis — the people, the schools, how far we live from Mike’s office, the downtown area, Monroe Street ... I love everything about it.”

Mike Riley’s heart is in Corvallis and with a group of players on whom he is always trying to impart life lessons.

“There is no picking and choosing what you know is important,” he says. “If you want to be a reliable person, then you have to do it all. Our players have responsibilities in football and responsibilities in school, but it is also their responsibility to do the right thing, to be a good person.

“That’s the balance they need. It’s the same way in my life. Work and family are priorities, and you have to make sure your responsibilities with both get done.”