Former Chargers head coach Mike Riley has figured out who he is

Do you remember Mike Riley, Chargers head coach from 1999 through 2001? His was a short, dismal captaincy, compiling a record of 14-34 and a .292 winning percentage. I wrote at the time: “Lashed to the mast of his ship, Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard seeks a new head coach. ‘He’s going to be darn good,’ Beathard said, speaking of his prospective fourth head coach in four years.

“The favorite candidate appears to be Mike Riley, a sophomore Pac-10 head coach out of Oregon State. The top-dog Beaver had a 3-8 season in 1997, then drove his team to the mountaintop and a 5-6 record in 1998!”

Riley got the Chargers job. I thought it was a setup at the time. Still do. Beathard wanted a pliable head coach a lot more than he wanted a good one. Riley was in over his head and discarded after three years. Put another log on the fire and get ready for Martyball.

But Riley, now 57, didn’t take the usual route, which is to assistant-coach your way into Social Security, although it started out that way. After the Chargers, he hired on as assistant coach for New Orleans.

One year later, Riley’s life changed in an improbable way. Dennis Erickson, who succeeded Riley as Oregon State head coach, abandoned his position just as Riley had and began a disastrous two-year run coaching the San Francisco 49ers. OSU offered Riley his old job.

It’s not often you get to go home after you’ve left it for a big, big job in the big city and then failed there. The rule is, you don’t go home and get the same good job you left. But, he did.

And Corvallis is Riley’s hometown; it’s where he grew up. Even more, his father was an assistant football coach at Oregon State. Even more, Riley was the quarterback for the Corvallis High School Spartans. Even more still, he led his team to the state finals twice, winning the title in 1970. Local, local, local.

Riley enrolled into Alabama after high school, played for Bear Bryant, was cornerback on Alabama’s 1973 UPI (Coaches’ Poll) National Championship team. Graduated, went directly to coaching, worked in the fields as a graduate assistant at Cal and Whitworth University (Spokane), defensive coordinator at Linfield College (McMinnville, Oregon), and then on to Winnipeg, Oregon State, San Diego Chargers, New Orleans, and back to Oregon State.

He won two Grey Cups while in Canada, but other than that, his head-coaching record was 8-14 at Oregon State I and 13-34 at San Diego. He started Oregon State II in 2003 and has coached seven seasons. How’s it going?

Well, Riley has figured out who he is — a college head coach, where he belongs, Corvallis, and the rest is gravy. Oregon State is ranked #24 in the current Associated Press top 25 poll. OSU football opens 2010 with three non-conference games, two against nationally ranked teams (#6 and #3) that have a good shot at winning the national championship.

Later on come Cal, UCLA, USC, Stanford, and #11 ranked Oregon. Versus.com says Oregon State has the fourth toughest schedule in college football, as does Covers.com.

Let’s take a moment and consider recruiting. Oregon State has never gotten the cream of the crop, although it’s hard to understand why. After all, Corvallis is off the freeway grid, tucked away in western Oregon, and is the county seat of Benton County. All of Benton County has a population of 55,000, which, coincidentally, is the population of La Mesa. Of course, this urban center is a magnet for 18-year-old boys in prime physical condition. Nothing like a game of bingo on Friday night to sow those wild oats. Besides bingo, Corvallis is cold, wet, drizzly, and eternally overcast from October to June, which fits nicely into the school year. This must be why Riley’s teams have been to six bowls in seven years and won five of them.

According to the most recent (2008–’09 school year) U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics report, Oregon State spent $12.52 million on football, good for ninth place in the Pac-10.

San Diego State spent $9.86 million on football operations, fourth highest among non-automatic qualifying BCS schools and close to double what Boise State spent. Here’s the takeaway: SDSU football made a profit of $2.07 million. No wonder they’re satisfied putting the same crappy product on the field year after year after year.

To see how it’s done, tune into ESPN on Saturday. Oregon State begins its season playing #6 TCU. Game time is 4:45 PST.

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