Dennis Erickson’s departure for the NFL devastated me — so much that I skipped my remaining classes that day and called in sick to my campus work study job. Luckily, my mourning didn’t last long, as Mike Riley reached out to OSU, and about a week later returned back to Corvallis.
It was comforting to have a familiar person back at the helm of the Beavers. One who built hope and excitement around the program. One who laid the foundation for Erickson to lead the program to its best season ever. One who understood and appreciated Oregon State and the community.
A few days (or maybe it was a week later, I dragged my friends to a packed Headline Cafe (now Block 15) to watch Riley’s first Joe Beaver Show appearance. Riley looked tan, rested, and ready to roll. As my group and I shook hands with him after the show, I remembered why Riley was so beloved. He was so affable and down to earth. You couldn’t help but feel this time around, he would take OSU to even greater heights.
That’s probably why I overlooked his 8-5 record in 2003 despite him inheriting one of the most talented squads in team history. I chalked it up to the players adjusting to a new coaching staff and offensive and defensive schemes. I was just happy to have him “Back in Black.” (Remember that campaign?)
A year later I would be interviewing Riley every day during Spring Ball 2004 as a reporter for the OSU Daily Barometer. As nervous as I was, he treated me like all of the other members of the media and took his time answering all my questions. I didn’t mind that he called me “Partner” because I knew he probably didn’t want to butcher my name. And I took to calling him “Riles.”
During my six years covering OSU football (Barometer, BeaverBlitz, and the Corvallis Gazette-Times), it was a blast hearing Riley share stories about his career, provide insight about the game, and preach about doing things the “right way.” But I especially enjoyed his dry humor. If you’ve ever spent time around Riles, his laugh could cheer you up on the worst of days.
Even when I wrote something about him or the team that was unfavorable, he still treated me with respect. Once, he didn’t particularly care for a column I wrote calling for him to be a more vocal and fiery leader, but he still answered my questions the next day.
That was my first real criticism of Riley. Then it was his and his staff’s insistence on starting players whose backups were better. Then his clock management. Then his inability to make a top-tier bowl. And the final straw might have been his complex offensive system and how long it takes players to be comfortable in the offense.
Despite all that, even in recent years as the grumbling about Riley became louder and more vocal, I wanted nothing more than to see Riley to get over the hump and lead the Beavers to a big bowl, especially after the heartbreak of coming so very close in 2008 and 2009. I hoped he would get that signature win to cement himself as the the greatest coach in program history.
No question about it, changes needed to be made after this season. But I didn’t expect it to be Mike Riley leaving. I was hoping he’d make some tweaks and adjustments here and there; enough to right the ship and sail off into the sunset in a few years. And while I am still shocked, sad, and even a little upset about his decision, I hope he does well at Nebraska. The big “What If?” with Riley has always been what could he do with big-time resources and recruits.
So Riles, thanks for being a class act and treating a cub reporter like a grizzled veteran. And most of all, thanks for being the perfect representative of Oregon State University and Corvallis. You are a big reason I am proud to be a Beavers fan — and I know that under that all that red, you bleed orange and black… Go Beavers! (RW)