- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Many of the same people who stood and applauded when Scott Rueck was introduced as Oregon State's new head coach nearly four years ago were gathered again this week in the loge area of Reser Football Stadium.
But instead of cheering for their pleading hope of things to come, they were there to celebration its fruition.
"We had about 400 people there," Rueck said. "It was great to experience that. There was a lot of joy in people's faces."
Oregon State is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996, preparing to take on Middle Tennessee in Seattle on Sunday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET). It's an accomplishment 18 years in the making made even more impressive considering where the Beavers were just four years ago.
Rueck arrived to a proverbial train wreck in Corvallis. It was spring 2010 when seven players and an assistant coach left the program, accusing then-coach LaVonda Wagner of emotional abuse. Wagner was fired June 1, and Rueck -- an Oregon State alum -- was brought in for the salvage operation.
Two players were on the roster when Rueck took over. The athletic director considered suspending the program for a season. Rueck talked him out of it, held open tryouts to find players, recruited athletes from other sports.
He hired two assistant coaches and waited almost a full year to hire a third.
"It was as hard as anything I've experienced," Rueck said. "It stretched me in ways I've never been stretched. It was extremely emotional, a constant gut-check, like getting up off the mat time and again."
The Beavers won nine games in Rueck's first season, more than anyone could have thought they would. The next season, Oregon State won 20 games, finished tied for fifth in the Pac-12 and went to the WNIT.
Last season, the Beavers stepped backward, went 10-21 overall and finished 10th in the Pac-12.
But an infusion of young talent like 6-foot guard Sydney Wiese from Arizona, sophomore Jamie Weisner and 6-6 Canadian Ruth Hamblin has turned one step back into a giant leap forward. The Beavers are 23-10 heading into their NCAA opener. They finished third in the Pac-12 (with a program-record 13 conference wins), put together a late-season 11-game win streak and reached the Pac-12 tournament championship game last week before falling to USC.
"I was envisioning that this could happen maybe in Year 5 or 6, but I didn't even have enough knowledge of the conference at that point to know if we could," Rueck said. "I knew my system had been successful, and I knew I needed to get a group that believed in what we were doing. But I didn't know we could attract players so quickly."
Athletic director Bob De Carolis had interviewed Rueck as a candidate for the job before he hired Wagner. Rueck hadn't yet won his first Division III championship at George Fox. In De Carolis' view, Rueck wasn't quite ready.
But Rueck came across De Carolis' radar again when he was talking with one of the local car dealers in Corvallis whose daughter played for Rueck at George Fox.
By then, Oregon State was ready for Rueck.
De Carolis admits there was no way to be entirely sure that Rueck was the right person for the job. And he knew, given the circumstances, he could ill afford to be wrong.
"When you hire people, you think you are doing the right thing, but it's such a crapshoot," De Carolis said. "There are a lot of really good coaches out there, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. This is one of the cases where it worked."
In fact, he says, Rueck has done a "remarkable" job.
"He's detail-oriented and he's been very deliberate," De Carolis said. "If I knew exactly why it's worked out so well, I'd bottle it up and put it in every program we have."
Rueck has coached postseason teams. He coached George Fox to the Division III national championship in 2009.
But he has never coached a game in the Division I NCAA tournament. And none of his players have ever played in an NCAA tournament game. He knows there will be distractions: family members, media obligations, the excitement of playing in Seattle, less than a four-hour drive from Corvallis.
"I don't know if my experiences have prepared me or not, but we will find out," Rueck said. "I know we have to play our best basketball of the season, and that I've done for a long time."
In one of the best turnarounds among Division I programs this season, fourth-year coach Scott Rueck leads Oregon State into its first NCAA tournament since 1996.