NCF Nation: Willamette Valley

Riley's ambition resides in Corvallis

April, 16, 2010
4/16/10
11:15
AM ET
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Ambition and wealth called Mike Riley on a Saturday in January and asked if he wanted to leave Oregon State and take the scepter of the nation's pre-eminent football power, the USC Trojans.

[+] EnlargeMike Riley
AP Photo/Don RyanMike Riley left Oregon State once before, and he learned that the grass is not always greener in the larger spotlight.
The pitch, one could imagine, included talk of national and Pac-10 championships. There was music ("Fight on!" and "Tribute to Troy"). And dance (Song Girls!). And money (surely more than double the million bucks Riley made annually in Corvallis).

It was a tempting offer. This was an opportunity, perhaps the last, for the 56-year-old to stand on top of the coaching mountain and see what the view looks like.

But he politely said, "No thanks."

"One thing I've learned is that if you are going to teach loyalty, you've got to live it," he said. "I told my wife that I didn't think I could look in the mirror after what I've told our team, how I've recruited here. I don't think I could leave. It wouldn't be a good picture. There was really no way I could leave."

Understand: There's nothing wrong with ambition. This is the United States of America. We like ambition here. The juvenile caterwauling when Lane Kiffin left Tennessee for USC? Yawn. Kiffin got a better job and a raise. End of story.

And yet there's something undeniably charming about a guy like Riley -- perhaps the friendliest, most accommodating guy in big-time football coaching -- saying no to La-La land to stay in the rainy Willamette Valley and continue leading his overachieving program.

Of course, you've read this before. Oregon fans are rolling their eyes. Yes, reporters sometimes get a kick out of a coach who sits down for a 15-minute interview about his football team and a wide-ranging, 45-minute chat about just about anything breaks out.

Riley himself steers the conversation toward the foundation of his loyalty to Oregon State: a hard lesson he had to learn. Ambition and wealth called from Southern California a decade ago and he said yes. Riley jilted the Beavers -- and left the small town where he grew up -- just as he was leading them out of the college football morass and became the San Diego Chargers' head coach in 1999.

He went 14-34 before being fired. I covered his last game. He was extremely polite and open with reporters asking him if he was about to be canned.

"I really appreciate Oregon State people who still come up to me and say, 'Thanks for staying.' That means a lot to me because I have left before," Riley said. "I've been around the block. I know who we are and I know the grass is not always greener. I haven't forgotten that Oregon State gave me a renewed opportunity here."

That came in 2003 when Dennis Erickson left Corvallis for an ill-fated "promotion" to the San Francisco 49ers, a decision that Erickson still offers as the worst move of a career that featured many.

Since Riley returned, the Beavers, a program that only broke a streak of 28 seasons without a winning record in 1999, have played in six bowl games and won five. He's become the program's second all-time winningest coach with 64 victories. In 2008, he won Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors after the Beavers handed USC its only loss of the season, an epic 27-21 win in Corvallis that prevented the Trojans from playing for then-coach Pete Carroll's third national title.

After USC called following Carroll's jump to the Seattle Seahawks, Riley signed a three-year contract extension with Oregon State that runs through the 2019 season. It essentially functions as a life-time deal -- "I've always fought for years more than money," he said.

He also fought for raises for his staff, which is widely regarded as one of the best in the Pac-10.

The past two seasons, Riley and his Beavers finished tied for second in the conference. This past year, the Beavers played the annual Civil War against rival Oregon with the Rose Bowl as the winner-takes-all stakes. The Beavers haven't played in a Rose Bowl since 1965.

The Ducks prevailed 37-33.

"I want to show you something," Riley says as he fires up film of that game.

The Beavers, down four, have the ball and are driving. It's a third-and-9 play from Oregon's 21-yard line in the fourth quarter. There's no sound on the video but everyone knows the din at Autzen Stadium. And that din likely is the reason that freshman offensive tackle Michael Philipp is slow out of his stance as the ball is snapped, which results in super-quick Ducks end Kenny Rowe getting a half-second head start that's impossible to overcome. Rowe swallows quarterback Sean Canfield for a sack and 6-yard loss.

Riley hits pause. "Look at that!" he says. Beavers receiver Jordan Bishop, who lined up in the slot to Canfield's left, is standing alone in the endzone, no Duck anywhere near him.

Riley is smiling, though. It's not easy to get to the Rose Bowl.

USC has been to 33 and won 24, which is 10 more victories than any other Pac-10 team has Rose Bowl appearances.

"We know the vantage point we come from here is never going to be easy," Riley said.

But then Riley starts talking about spring practices and his 2010 team and he gets excited.

He's in his element. He's content. His wealth and ambition just happen to reside in Corvallis.

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