Pac-12: Nick Barnett

Oregon State can't attract elite recruits, settles for wins instead

October, 29, 2008
10/29/08
5:13
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

USC is the nation's elite recruiting powerhouse. The Trojans have more budding NFL talent than any other team in the nation, and no one else is really even that close.

Oregon State is not a recruiting powerhouse. It typically ranks between 7th and 10th in the Pac-10 recruiting rankings and never sniffs the nation's top-25.

And yet the Beavers are the only team in the nation that has beaten USC twice since 2002.

Moreover, at the start of the season, among Pac-10 teams only USC and California had won more games over the previous six years than Oregon State (47).

The Beavers appear poised to play in their eighth bowl game over the last 10 years at season's end and they have won their last four. They finished ranked in the final AP top 25 the previous two seasons and finished fourth in 2000.

And despite stinking at attracting four- and five-star recruits, the program has produced 16 NFL draft picks over the past six seasons, including stars like T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chad Johnson, Nick Barnett and Steven Jackson.

And those pesky little Beavers are presently in control of their Rose Bowl destiny: Win out, and they meet the Granddaddy for the first time since 1965.

This is despite having the fewest returning starters from 2007 in the Pac-10 (10, including just three on defense).

The how-the-heck-does-this-happen actually isn't that complicated: Mike Riley just has a better eye for talent than most head coaches who are obsessed with recruiting rankings -- despite their protests to the contrary -- and he and his staff do a better job developing and finding the right fit for the talent they do recruit.

Want a list of nobody recruits?

How about quarterback Lyle Moevao, defensive ends Victor Butler and Slade Norris, receivers Sammie Stroughter, James Rodgers and Shane Morales and safety Al Afalava. All rated barely a blip among the recruiting services.

But ask Riley about his recruiting philosophy and he doesn't talk about some secret formula or esoteric measures. He's not some college coaching Bill James with a sabermetric advantage.

"The fit is important because we want guys who want to be here and are happy because this is not LA," Riley said. "It has to be a fit in a lot of ways even outside the football realm."

He wants guys who want to play for Oregon State. He doesn't want guys who use the Beavers as a fall-back, or who view the slow pace of Corvallis as a negative.

Riley also likes players who performed at a high level in high school ("Past performance is a great predictor," Riley says). It's clear he prefers speed over size. And he wants guys who really enjoy playing football.

Dennis Erickson, who's limping Arizona State squad visits Oregon State on Saturday, deserves plenty of credit for leading the 2000 Beavers to a victory in the Fiesta Bowl. But he readily admits he inherited a good core of talent when he took over for Riley in 1999.

"They were players like they have there now -- they were tough-nosed, hard-nosed guys," Erickson said.

Riley also might have the best coaching staff in the Pac-10.

Whatever Riley and company are doing, it works.

Consider Northwest rival Washington. Only once since 2004 did Oregon State finish ahead of the Huskies in the recruiting rankings -- Tyrone Willingham's first class in 2005 -- yet the Beavers have whipped the Huskies five games in a row -- four of those victories coming in Husky Stadium.

And now Washington is again looking for a coach.

While Riley's track record should raise some eyebrows in Seattle, he doesn't appear eager to bolt town for a few more bucks.

"I'm really thankful for my second chance," said Riley, who's Oregon State tenure was split up by an ill-fated three seasons leading the San Diego Chargers. "I'm going to hold on for dear life."

Which means that Oregon State will continue to lose in the recruiting rankings but nonetheless win games.

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