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Beavers want a perception promotion

7/25/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

While I wouldn't yet rate it a conspiracy, I've gotten about five notes like the following since I ranked Oregon State sixth on my Pac-10 Media Poll ballot:

"I'm sorry, Ted. It's not that I wish to subject you to ridicule for your opinions, I just look at it more as a learning opportunity for someone who lives in Scottsdale to get a closer look at the Beavers. I'm talking about what we'll agree to call your 'reasons' for ranking OSU 6th in the conference."

What followed, of course, was a lengthy explanation of the Beavers awesomeness that I was missing (and this wasn't another note from Kenny in Corvallis, who used 500 words to explain the same to me in a mailbag item this week).

Now, my opinion wasn't completely cracked. This week's media poll also ranked the Beavers sixth. Many reporters, just as I did, saw eight new starters on defense (no matter the experience level of backups), questions on the offensive line and unresolved issues at QB.

The larger issue here, though, is a phenomenon called "Fan Expectation and Emotional Transformation." Or FEET.

Beavers fans no longer want to be seen as the "Scrappy Little Program That Can." They want to be perceived as the "Perennial Contender That Does."

And if you flip open the Oregon State media guide, Sports Information Director Steve Fenk has made a nice list of evidence that supports the case for a reclassification.

Consider:

  • Which Pac-10 team is third only to USC and California in wins over the previous six season? Yep, Oregon State, with 47. [Editor's note: This originally stated the Beavers had the second-most wins behind USC. As a comment below states, California has 50 wins over the previous six seasons.]

  • The Beavers have played in seven bowl games in the last nine years and have won their last four.

  • The Beavers have been ranked in the final AP top 25 the past two seasons. In 2000, they ended up fourth.

  • Three former Beavers played in the 2008 NFL Pro Bowl: T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chad Johnson and Derek Anderson. (Steven Jackson, remember, was hurt).

  • The program has produced 16 NFL draft picks over the last six seasons.

That's some hard evidence that a program is ready to take off the perception training wheels, maybe get a preseason ranking every once in a while, and see the term "reload" instead of "rebuild" consistently applied to it.

OSU coach Mike Riley, tanned and chipper after his annual Texas vacation, nodded eagerly when asked about the changes within his program's fanbase.

"Oh, yeah, they want more and that's fine with me, too," he said. "I think it's neat. There was none of that 10, 11 years ago."

That's because 11 years ago -- Riley's first year as head coach in 1997 (his first tenure) -- the Beavers finished at the bottom Pac-10 for the eighth consecutive year.

This was the losingest of losing programs for a loooong time.

But Beavers fans feel it's time to officially bury that bumbling past. Heck, in 1997, the iPod didn't even exist.

Riley is fine with the FEET and the application for a perception promotion, but he also doesn't want the program to take on a new identity.

"I want us to be that consistent [top-25] team, but I never want to lose the mentality of fighting and improving, because frankly our program is like that in general," he said. "Not many of our players are four- or five-star recruits. But we have some five-star players. Our program, to me, is one about development and growth and getting better."

That's the extraordinary thing about the recent success. Oregon State has not broken through as a recruiting power. Almost annually, the Beavers recruiting class ranks in the bottom third of the conference.

Yet, a few years later, the NFL comes calling.

Riley and his staff have an uncanny eye for hidden talent. And then they coach 'em up.

Of course, ambition and hubris can be a dangerous thing. It can lead to what my friend Stewart Mandel of SI.com once called "Auburn-Clemson Syndrome." Or ACS.

That's when a fan base develops delusions of grandeur. As Mandel wrote in 2003, it's when "a school's fans have an unrealistically high perception of their place in the football universe and therefore hold their coach to unreasonable standards."

Such as when Riley was hearing some grumbles when his Beavers went 5-6 in 2005.

Still, Beavers fans, your FEET is duly noted. Another 8- or 9- or 10-win season (maybe a win at Penn State?), and your application for perception promotion is sure to be accepted by the larger college football universe.

Not that I'm changing my 2008 prediction just yet.