Recent turnover of Pacific-12 Conference football coaches has only accentuated how Oregon State’s Mike Riley does things.
The trio of Washington’s Steve Sarkisian, USC’s Lane Kiffin and UCLA’s Jim Mora represent the modernist buddies. Oregon’s Chip Kelly runs his top-secret and dominant program in Eugene, Ore. Mike Leach conducts things in his, at times, zany way in Pullman.
Then, there’s Riley. He prefaces most answers with a chuckle, then speaks in a down-home tone. He coaches from underneath his Oregon State ballcap with the curved bill and is renowned in coaching circles, and elsewhere, as one of the nicest folks around.
He’s the longest tenured coach in the new-look Pac-12 and has his team into the national spotlight. The seventh-ranked Beavers are undefeated (6-0 overall, 4-0 Pac-12) and visit Seattle on Saturday to play the Huskies (3-4, 1-3) at 7:15 p.m.
Riley’s coaching approach is in tune with Corvallis. He’s open and accomplishes things with continuity and calm.
When starting quarterback Sean Mannion was hurt Oct. 6 and required knee surgery, Riley told the media. When he decided Mannion would start this week against Washington, he told the media. This is not in step with what other Pac-12 programs, including Washington, do.
Most are in lockdown. Riley leaves practices and communication open to the public. Since Corvallis is the second-smallest home by population to a Pac-12 school – it has 54,674 residents, Pullman 29,913 as of 2011 – Riley said he feels its best to have the community involved. It also helps that he’s been at the school as coach since 2003, had an earlier stint from 1997-98 before going to the NFL and was already famous there. He led Corvallis High to consecutive state title games in 1969-70 as the star quarterback when his father, Bud, was an assistant at Oregon State.
“Our world is a little different than being in L.A. or the Bay Area; it’s an outpost,” Riley said. “It’s small. I know most everybody who comes to practice, so I’m not really bothered by that. If somebody’s there scouting us, they would stand out like a sore thumb.”
Riley’s sense of community around practice is an adaptation of what former USC coach John Robinson did. Robinson gave Riley his first major college job in 1993 when he hired him to be the Trojans’ offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. Robinson thought letting the public in created a sense of fun around the program and was a reflection of confidence in what was happening.
Robinson had followed Riley for some time and thought him a wonderful person and skilled teacher of football. He relies on a preferred joke to express the point: ”If you go to heaven and Mike Riley’s not there, you’re in the wrong place.”
Once he hired Riley, Robinson learned how he controlled things with subtlety. They worked on the offense together and Robinson would come up with what he calls “screwy” ideas, then would run them past Riley.
“He’d say, ‘You know, there’s a lot of merit in what you say,’ then he’d just kind of look,” Robinson said. “You’re a dumb (expletive), why the hell did you come up with this idea? And, I would say, ‘OK, forget about it.’ But, he had a way, through non-verbal code, to tell you exactly what he felt and never making you feel bad.
“I don’t think he ever made people feel bad. He could get you to do things that you might not have wanted to do, and didn’t make you feel angry or disappointed.”
Anger and disappointment were two things suddenly surrounding the Beavers’ program following last season. Riley had changed expectations after posting a winning record in six of his first seven seasons during his second stint at Oregon State. Prior, the Beavers lost. A lot. They had 28 consecutive losing seasons until Dennis Erickson took them to the Oahu Bowl with a 7-5 record in 1999.
Oregon State followed a 5-7 season in 2010 with a dismal 3-9 effort in 2011, grumbling began. Yet, Riley chose not to change his approach drastically. This year, the Beavers play more nickel and dime defensive schemes, but the base offense and defenses are the same. He chose to maintain instead of panic.
“There’s a lot of enticing things out there and when you’re not doing well, you tend to reach,” Riley said. “We just kind of stayed the course with what we do and we’re better at it this year.”
Consistency may be the crux of everything for Riley. Like many coaches, he spends time talking to players about things other than football. He did it as an assistant and does it now. Though the topics may not be sports, the comfort and belief players receive from those conversations allow football teaching points to come through easier. It also helps him lead with a steady hand.
“Some people change and coaching changes them and they become different people and get themselves distracted,” Robinson said. “Mike will be exactly the same and probably wearing the same clothes 15 years from now.”
Riley is under contract until 2019 with a special caveat: The contract will roll over an additional year for every time the team participates in a bowl game. Robinson said Oregon State, “if it was smart,” should give Riley a lifetime contract. In many respects, he’s ended up with an unofficial one, and it has turned around Beavers firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @Todd_Dybas