A humble man had everything he wanted in a peaceful town. Why did he give it up?


CORVALLIS — Mike Riley’s favorite piece of his hometown is a two-lane ribbon that curls through evergreens and mossy oaks, splitting creeks and rolling over speed bumps.

There’s a little bit of everything on Brooklane Drive: century-old farmhouses and brand-new acreages; a cemetery and an old turkey farm; a shop for eco-friendly cars and an organic apple orchard (winter hours Saturday and Sunday 10 to 3).

This was Riley’s mile-and-a-half road to work, from his two-story home on the town’s south edge to the double-deck stadium on campus.

It’s a road Riley preferred to navigate with his 13-year-old bicycle.

He bought it when he was a New Orleans Saints assistant coach. Sunday mornings, he rode from his apartment to the Superdome and parked the bike in the custodian’s room. After the game, he beat the traffic home.

A few months later, Riley moved to Corvallis for the third time. He vowed to make it his last job. He purchased a 3,800-square-foot house overlooking the wetlands. He cleaned up the bike.

“I like cruisers because they’re pretty low-maintenance, right? There’s no gears. I don’t have to do much except make sure there’s air in the tires.”

Corvallis is a bicycle town, he says. Just as it was in the ’60s. You can count the hills on one hand. And it’s just a few miles from one end of town to the other.

Riley could wake at dawn, eat his oatmeal and catch a peek of snow-capped Mount Jefferson. Tell his wife he loves her and roll his bike out of the breezeway.

During his 10-minute ride, he thought about his 8:50 a.m. team meeting. What he was gonna say to motivate one of college football’s biggest underdogs.

He crossed Highway 34 and pedaled into campus, where students turned their heads walking to class — Hey, there’s Coach. Those who love Oregon State University say it feels like one big family. And Riley was the patriarch. The unofficial mayor of this Pac-12 outpost.

Outsiders used to ask him, why stay? Don’t you know there are easier jobs? Don’t you know you could win championships somewhere else?

Riley thought about walking the same sideline as his dad did. He thought about surrounding himself with childhood friends. He came up with this motto: “If you’re happy, stay happy.”

By the time he left the football office after midnight, campus was quiet.

“There would be some funny rides because coaches work funny hours. You’re riding down Brooklane and you’ve got to have a light with you to make sure you don’t run into any deer or anything like that. At night when it’s cloudy and there’s no moon, it can get dark in there.

“My wife always worried about me, you know. It seemed like the question would come up every week: Did you wear your helmet? And I hated wearing a helmet.”

The last time Riley was in Corvallis, he drove down Brooklane and thought about those mornings and those nights and the bike.

“I liked that little drive down that little country road. ... It was comfortable.”

Oregon State's Reser Stadium (formerly known as Parker Stadium) seats about 45,000. It was Riley's home away from home. (Credit: Ethan Erickson)

At top, a look at Corvallis in heart of the Willamette Valley. (Credit: BassettStudios.com)


A winding road


In the 1840s, pioneers gave up everything they knew. They tramped across the Great Plains, climbed the Rocky Mountains and weaved through the Cascades. Their promised land: the Willamette Valley.

Mike Riley knew the history. The past few years, he liked to take his only grandson downtown and show him the river. They crossed the street, walked into their favorite sports bar — Flat Tail Brewing — and before they sat down, the cook was making Eli’s mac and cheese. Grandpa preferred the tamales — extra green sauce, please — and a German lager. He called the waitress by her nickname.

On a recent winter night, the coach is 2,000 miles away and a thick fog stifles Corvallis. You could throw a football down First Street and not see it land.

Flat Tail’s still kickin’, though. Four men Riley’s age — retired or getting close — finish dinner beneath a framed ticket of the 2008 Oregon State-USC game.

They reminisce over Riley’s remarkable run. They analyze his decline. They wonder if he’ll win enough at Nebraska. But there’s a bigger mystery they can’t solve: why he left.

Ron Perry, a retired professor, met Riley down the street at a farmers market. Beautiful day.

“He doesn’t know me from a bar of soap,” Perry says. But Riley introduced himself and struck up a conversation.

Now how do you square that image with the front-page photo of Riley boarding a private plane for Nebraska?

“He’s not a Learjet guy,” Perry says.

In an industry of foul-mouthed egomaniacs, Riley drove a Prius and toted a yoga mat. His favorite four-letter word: neat. Riley the football coach had his critics. Riley the person had only admirers.

“You’ll never hear a negative word about him,” says another retiree at the table.

And yet, on a Monday morning in December, a bad meeting and a surprise phone call changed everything. At 61, with seven years remaining on his contract and more money than he could ever spend, the local hero gave up everything he knew and cut a new trail east, trading his cruiser of a program for an Escalade.

Was it the Nike-fueled Incredible Hulk 40 miles down the road? Was it the increasing drumbeat of criticism in his ear? Was he burned out?

For the four men at Flat Tail, for the 55,000 residents of Corvallis, the answers are somewhere out there in the fog.

Maybe there are pieces of Riley even they don’t understand. That beneath the Mr. Rogers persona, there’s a son seeking his father’s pride, a will to win forged in the schoolyard, an adventurous spirit that doesn’t age.

Maybe Riley saw the future and refused to let his legacy be stained. Maybe the sense of loyalty that twice steered him home ultimately drove him away.

Before the four men pay their bill, the retired professor has a question: How’s Riley gonna ride his bike to work in Nebraska?

“He’ll have to get snow tires.”

Riley's 3-year-old grandson, Eli, was a regular visitor to the football complex.

Riley celebrates a Sun Bowl victory with his family: Matt, Dee and Kate.

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Here and throughout the story, meet the people who followed Riley the closest the past 12 years — including his wife, his right-hand man and one of his biggest critics.

Gary Beck

Longtime Riley friend, Oregon State's coordinator of support services
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Ryan Gunderson

Followed Riley to Nebraska as director of player personnel
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Pat Casey

Oregon State baseball coach, two-time national champion
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Dylan Wynn

Oregon State senior defensive end
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Best-case scenario: Bud Riley exaggerated.

Worst-case scenario: He lied.

When you’re a 22-year-old Navy veteran in need of a football team, what’s the alternative?

Mike Riley’s father had grown up in rural Alabama. In 1948, after World War II and junior college, he contacts Alabama alum Dixie Howell, head coach at the University of Idaho.

Idaho?

Bud says he’s 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, gets an invite, then hitchhikes 2,300 miles. Oh, to see Howell’s face when he sees that Bud is 5-foot-10, 150 pounds.

Bud Riley had a rough exterior but a soft heart. In this family portrait, he anchors the left side, with mom Mary in the middle. Their sons, from left, are Pete (the youngest), Mike (the oldest) and Ed.

Howell tries to run Bud out of Idaho, matching him against a bigger man in a tackling drill. Riley wins the battle — and a spot on the team. A few years later, he’s working in the silver mines in northern Idaho when he meets Mary.

In 1952, just before Mike is born, nearby Wallace High calls Bud to coach football. Thus begins a 34-year career with 11 stops.

Bud’s biggest coaching legacy: the boy in his shadow.

Mike follows dad to practices and games. When Bud orders jumping jacks, Mike joins the players. By the fourth grade, Bud’s an assistant at Idaho and Mike is signing his school pictures “Coach Riley.”

In February 1965, Bud gets a job at Oregon State.

Mike gets a desk at Corvallis’ Garfield Elementary. He’s skinny and quiet and wears black wide-rim glasses. The first week, his classmates call him “Frog” because, well, he looks like a frog. In the schoolyard, Riley grabs a football, cocks his left arm and fires a deep spiral.

They never call him Frog again.

Bud's father died when he was 12. "I was having a lot of problems," he said in 1980. "Had no interest in anything, really. Was just running wild. And for some reason the high school football coach took an interest in me. It certainly straightened me out. I've got a lot to repay for football for what it's done for me."

The Rileys live in a white ranch on Northwest 11th Street. Three bedrooms, one bath, 1,012 square feet — no basement.

Bud sets up a film projector in the living room and shares X’s and O’s with Mike. Sunday mornings at Parker Stadium, Bud’s ’55 Ford is alone in the parking lot. His defensive schemes are ahead of his time.

Great coaches of his era breathe fire. Bear Bryant. Vince Lombardi. Woody Hayes.

Bud doesn’t rage at referees or pressure Mike to train. He’s a gentleman. But give him a whistle, and he’ll get after it.

While in college, Mike coaches his younger brother Ed’s baseball team one summer. But knee surgery knocks Mike out of the dugout. Who steps in? The man quietly keeping the scorebook behind home plate: Bud Riley.

“It really kinda shocked a bunch of 15-year-old kids to get screamed at like that,” says Ed Riley.

Mike will be different.

Joe Paterno once mentioned that he called Bud Riley to talk about defense, specifically Riley's 4-4 scheme with its versatile linebackers.

Young Mike shadowed his dad's teams everywhere, even joining in jumping jacks. The family photo is a bit torn.

“Mayberry.”

That’s what Harold Reynolds calls Corvallis. But it’s not quite right.

Opie never rode his bike to a Pac-8 football stadium, climbed the fence and played two-hand touch. He never picked the locks at Gill Coliseum and played one-on-one in the dark. He never played home run derby in Ma Beck’s backyard, trying to dodge the maple tree in right field. He never devoted weekends to schoolyard football — at age 26!

“It was almost like you were dropped into a mythical time,” says Reynolds, the Major League Baseball analyst, seven years younger than Riley.

“This is stuff you write a movie about.”

To Mike Riley’s buddies, including the five Reynolds brothers, Corvallis isn’t just home. It’s an amusement park. They use Oregon State’s facilities for weekend pick-up games, calling timeout for 10-cent ice cream at the student union.

They never miss Beaver games. In November ’67, Oregon State — with Bud Riley coaching defensive backs — shuts out O.J. Simpson and top-ranked USC. (Just a warning, Trojans: This is going to happen again in 40 years.)

Basketball is a tougher ticket.

"I could go on about Mike Riley all day," MLB analyst Harold Reynolds says. Reynolds grew up in Corvallis, shadowing his older brothers and Riley. (Credit: AP)

Mike’s strategy: Use a stub multiple times. Take a ticket into dad’s office, put it in a Coke can and toss it out the window. One guy after another.

The most memorable night is Dec. 22, 1969. LSU beats Oregon State. Pete Maravich scores 46.

Ten days later, a new decade begins. A new era at Corvallis High. Over 16 months, Mike Riley wins state championships in football, basketball and legion baseball. He is no alpha male — “He’s so doggone polite, it’s almost embarrassing,” his high school football coach says — but he’s poised and tough.

“He was like a little pit bull,” says an older friend. “I saw some games where he just got the hell beat out of him. But he would get back up.”

His senior year, 1970, Corvallis wins the state title in its backyard: Parker Stadium.

Mike’s friends split between Oregon and Oregon State. His world is bigger. His dad’s family is in Alabama, including his uncle, the Crimson Tide baseball coach.

Harold’s strategy was bolder: Get about 100 ticketless kids at the front door. Flood the entrance. (The security guards can only grab one or two, right?). Run up the stairs. Straight to the bathroom. Stand on the toilet (shhhh!) and wait till you hear the crowd rushing in. Walk out inconspicuously and join the student section.

Riley sends his best film to Bear Bryant and earns a scholarship — he doesn’t even lie about height and weight. He’s home for Christmas his redshirt year when Alabama faces Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.

Gary Beck, his old friend, comes over toting Husker signs like “Roll Johnny Roll.” Just to tease him. At half, NU leads 28-0. Mike can’t take it. He escapes to the driveway to shoot baskets.

In four years at Alabama, Mike barely sees the field. But he meets his future wife, Dee. He crafts his career plan: teach American history and coach high school football.

His talent exceeds his ambition.

His first paid job is defensive coordinator at an NAIA college in Oregon. He helps Linfield win a national championship.

Beating old buddies is more fun, though.

At 26, he drives to Corvallis on winter weekends and plays pick-up football games at Washington Elementary.

They call it D.C. Stadium. It’s half the size of a regular field, tucked away from the street.

Two-hand touch on the receivers, tackle on the quarterback. Riley the lefty (already balding) is one of the quarterbacks, scrambling and throwing like Kenny Stabler.

The game is six on six. On a given day, as many as 10 players are former Division I athletes. They wear old jerseys. Keep stats. Slide in the mud. Argue over calls.

Harold Reynolds, soon to be the No. 2 pick in the 1980 baseball draft, doesn’t play. Too risky. He climbs on top of the school with a video camera.

Just in case they ever make a movie.

Mike, with his father standing over him, signs his scholarship papers to Alabama in 1971.


Mike Riley's universe

Mapping the key locations that helped shape Nebraska coach Mike Riley during his time in Corvallis, Oregon.

Back up a few years: 1974.

Bud Riley gets his big break: head coach of the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

The next decade shows Mike the cruelty of the business.

Bud had a beef with one Winnipeg sportswriter in particular, who criticized Riley on a post-game radio show. “He would get so upset with that fellow,” said Bud's wife, Mary. Riley made bold personnel moves early in his Winnipeg tenure. They improved the team, but Bud didn't explain his philosophy with fans and media. His lack of communication created tension.

One day, he listens to a heckler berate his dad. Mike snaps: “I’m gonna knock that guy’s teeth out.”

Bud turns the team around, but cold relationships with the media and the board of directors cost him the job.

In ’83, Bud is fired again, this time by the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, this time midseason. Mike happens to be there for the death knell. He’s an assistant coach — for the opponent. He listens as Hamilton fans hurl insults.

He waits for the stadium to clear out before he leaves his press-box chair. One of the worst weekends of his life.

Mike stomachs the hard lessons. Football at the highest levels isn’t just handling the team, it’s handling the public. Mental toughness is more important than physical toughness. Leadership is resisting outside opinions. It’s teaching players to keep their wits in crisis.

Mike is a spittin’ image of his old man. Same thin frame. Same preference for a baseball cap covering his bald head. He even stands on the sideline like his dad, one arm folded across his chest, the other at his chin. But he’s more refined.

Bud in his 20s and 30s coached high school football. At the same age, Mike coaches college and professional. His first quarterback in Canada is two weeks older than him.

Bud’s approach to teaching players goes like this: Just do it. Someday you’ll understand why.

Mike’s attitude: Here’s why we’re doing it this way, guys.

“One thing my dad did pass on to me that I appreciate probably more than anything: Be yourself, because players will see through a phony right away.

“My dad was always himself. He’d fight with anybody. He would argue. He would be tough on the field, verbally. But he did it his way. And I would like to say I’m doing it my way.”

Mike still makes tough decisions. He still gets angry — mental errors drive him crazy. But he picks his spots. When a player fumbles the ball and Riley’s assistant asks if he should punish him, Riley says no. The player feels bad enough.

In 1988, at 35 years old, Riley wows everyone back home. He wins his first of two Grey Cups as a head coach. His team: Winnipeg, the same one that fired his dad. At the trophy presentation, Riley has a message for the retired coach back in Seattle, watching on TV.

“This cup’s for you, Bud.”

Orbiting Riley

Ray Hartnett

Nebraska native living in Riley's childhood home
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Mike Riley was a reserve defensive back for Bear Bryant at Alabama, but he knew his path was coaching. At Linfield College, he helped win a national title in 1982. In Winnipeg, he was part of three championships (one as an assistant, two as a head coach).

Jump ahead several years: December 1996.

Mike Riley is 43 years old, respected offensive coordinator at USC. Oregon State calls. The head coaching job is open.

No, the Beavers haven’t won more than four games since 1971, when Bud was defensive coordinator. Yes, the average attendance is 25,000. But it’s home, Mike. And we need you.

Riley flips the culture. Late in his second year, the Beavers upset Oregon in double-overtime, their fifth win. Riley saves a piece of the turf.

Then, just as he’s breaking new ground, the San Diego Chargers call. How do you turn down an NFL job? He bolts.

He’ll regret it. San Diego’s franchise quarterback, Ryan Leaf, flops. Riley has three general managers. Meanwhile, his successor at Oregon State, Dennis Erickson, goes 11-1 with Riley’s recruits. Mike gets fired.

Riley took a risk leaving Oregon State in 1999. His three seasons in San Diego were a disaster. (Credit: AP)

That winter, 2002, he turns down Indiana because he’s a finalist for a better job. Stanford picks Buddy Teevens. Ouch. The next winter, he turns down Alabama, because he’s a finalist at UCLA. The Bruins choose Karl Dorrell. Ouch.

Riley loves an adventure, but he’s moved cities 15 times in 49 years. Maybe it’s time for stability. If there’s one place I wish we could go back to, his wife tells him, it’s Corvallis.

Two months later, he gets a phone call. Dennis Erickson is leaving for the San Francisco 49ers. Riley calls Oregon State’s athletic director.

He’s going home again. And this time, he’s not leaving.

Alabama AD Mal Moore eventually picked Washington State coach Mike Price, who was fired two months later before he coached a game.

* * *

At 8:50 a.m. during football season, Oregon State players gather in the football complex. They fiddle with their phones. They get ready for classes.

Then Mike Riley walks in. The room explodes in applause. No joke, it’s like Dave Letterman walking out for his monologue. Every day.

“It’s just showing respect to the head coach,” says defensive end Dylan Wynn. “Sometimes we kinda get obnoxious with it, not gonna lie.”

“If we ever videotaped it,” offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh says, “people would think we choreographed it.”

During fall camp, Riley hosts water-balloon fights and home run derbies with tennis rackets. Players beg him to use an expletive — just once, Coach! He doesn’t bite. “Jiminy Christmas” will have to do.

Riley wants to be the Joe Paterno of Oregon State. And from 2003 to 2009, he’s the perfect combo of ambassador and coach.

Riley's traditional hip-hip hoorays after victories are a locker-room favorite. (Credit: Karl Maasdam Photography)

As a kid, one of Mike’s summer jobs was painting the stadium. Now he’s inciting postgame mosh pits on the 50-yard line.

He breaks USC’s 27-game conference winning streak. Beaver fans storm the field. Two years later, top-ranked USC comes to Corvallis. Beaver fans storm the field again. Riley leads “Hip-hip hooray” chants in the locker room.

He wins five straight bowl games. He turns walk-ons into All-Americans. He develops recruiting pipelines. The undersized Rodgers brothers come all the way from Texas and produce 11,000 all-purpose yards.

Seven Beavers are drafted in 2009 — only USC produces more picks. Here’s the kicker: None of the seven received a scholarship offer from another Pac-10 school. Imagine what Riley would do with USC’s resources.

After the ’09 season, Pete Carroll leaves for the NFL and USC’s A.D. calls Riley. No, thanks.

“If your purpose in this is just to win games, then you’ve got to position yourself at one of the powers,” he tells a reporter. “Go to USC. Go to Alabama. You can never, ever lose the substance of football. But what we’re trying to do is build a program, leave something of substance, really develop young men. We’ve got everything we want right here to do that.”

If you’re happy, stay happy.

Riley’s salary is about $1.5 million — one-third of what Carroll made. Oregon State can’t afford a big raise. What it can do is add a year to Riley’s deal every time he makes a bowl. A lifetime contract, essentially.

Asked if he could envision leaving Corvallis, Riley mentions only one scenario:

“If they told me to.”

In 2000, the Chargers were headed for a 1-15 season when Riley interviewed for the open USC job. He wanted to return to college; the Trojans wanted him. San Diego refused to let Riley out of his contract. USC settled for an NFL reject named Pete Carroll.

Carroll, of course, won two national championships. His teams were 1-2 in Corvallis, though. In 2004 (a national title season), Reggie Bush's punt-return touchdown was the difference. In '06 and '08, the Trojans were a combined 23-3. Two of those losses came in Corvallis. In 2008, USC was coming off a 35-3 win over Ohio State. The Beavers were a 25-point underdog. They jumped ahead 21-0 on a Thursday night and held on, 27-21.

You didn't beat those vintage USC teams unless you could scheme and motivate, says Gary Beck, Beavers assistant. "Mike always gets that tag, Mr. Nice Guy, which is probably accurate. Not probably, I know it is. But I don't think he ever got credit for knowing the game of football as well as he did."

He didn't need USC's money or tradition to succeed, Riley said. That's why he turned down the Trojans in January 2010. (Credit: Motoya Nakamura/The Oregonian)

The Rose Bowl. That’s the big goal. The Beavers haven’t been there since 1965, the month before Riley first moved to Corvallis.

In 2009, for the second straight year, Riley is one win away. He falls four points short at Oregon. The Ducks go to Pasadena. The Beavers start sliding: 5-7 in 2010, 3-9 in 2011. One night, Beaver fans boo the team off the field.

Riley out-coached his peers in the 2000s. But a new TV contract empowers schools to upgrade facilities and coaching staffs. Suddenly Stanford and UCLA are contenders. Arizona and Arizona State, too.

Riley has always sold recruits on the Corvallis charm. But prospects won’t even visit. Those who do ride in on a highway flanked by wheat fields and sheep farms.

Basically, it’s Manhattan, Kansas — with trees. But unlike the Big 12, Oregon State’s peers are in major metros: Seattle, L.A., Phoenix, the Bay Area. And then there’s Oregon.

In Latin, “Corvallis” translates to “Heart of the Valley.” But the strength and speed is south, in Eugene, where Nike founder and Oregon alum Phil Knight bankrolls the Ducks.

Says Harold Reynolds: “If somebody took a drive 40 minutes down the road and walked through the facilities at the University of Oregon, they’d say, ‘What?!? This is what we’re competing against?’ ”

In July 2012, Riley flies to Spokane, Washington, then drives four hours north to Canada’s Okanagan Valley. Bud’s in the hospital. The prognosis isn’t good.

Mike asks permission for a wheelchair and some fresh air. Beautiful day. He wheels 86-year-old Bud down a big hill — not too fast! — to a pizza parlor.

They dig in. They take a little too much time talking. When they leave, Mike sees the dark clouds coming down the valley.

Uh-oh.

He starts pushing his dad faster, but this is a big hill. Here come the sprinkles. Now the drops. Now the big drops.

They pull into the hospital just before the clouds cut loose. Mike’s laughing. Bud’s laughing.

It’s the last time they see each other. A month later, dad’s gone.

If Riley takes off his headset on the sideline, he's likely mad at an official. (Credit: AP)

Oregon State's losing seasons in 2010-11 caused dissension in the fan base. (Credit: AP)

In 2012, ESPN’s “College GameDay” comes to Corvallis to feature Mr. Nice Guy.

“You can’t go home again, that’s the saying,” Riley says to the camera. “But I’m a believer that you can.”

The Beavers go 9-4. But in 2013, the downpour resumes. They lose to Eastern Washington. They get thumped by Washington, 69-27, on Senior Day.

Fans split into factions. The old guard remembers the miserable ’70s and ’80s. They stand by Riley. The new guard looks at Oregon’s success and wonders “Why not us?” They look at Riley’s pro-style offense and say it’s antiquated. They look at Riley’s contract, which stretches to 2021, and wonder if he’s lost his motivation.

They hate seeing Riley, after a loss, wearing a smile. Show some fire, they say. Drop the Jiminy Christmas crap and yell at somebody.

Riley never does, at least not publicly. What good would it do?

Players will see through a phony right away.

Kids want two things from a head coach, he says. They want to be taught football. And they want to be treated well.

“It has nothing to do with being soft. It has everything to do with doing the right thing. ... If I start compromising how I want this job to be done, then I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Here comes 2014, a season of promise. The quarterback is back. The defense is experienced. But depth has always been a problem. After a 4-1 start, the injury-prone Beavers lose five of the next six.

Thanksgiving week, Harold Reynolds returns to Corvallis and stops by the stadium. Reynolds’ son and Riley’s grandson spend an hour chasing each other across the field.

“I don’t think Mike Riley’s ever had a bad day,” Reynolds says. “At least you’re not gonna know it.”

Two days later, Oregon runs laps around the Beavers, 47-19.

Sunday night, Riley tells a Portland columnist: “We won’t do it overnight ... but there have to be changes.”

He has no idea what’s coming Monday.

Orbiting Riley

Andy Wooldridge

Longtime Beavers fan, editor of Oregon State fan website
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Riley preferred to get as much work done as possible at night, even if it meant staying in his office past midnight.

8:30 a.m. Dec. 1. The athletic director who hired Mike Riley in 2003 enters the coach’s office for their traditional end-of-season meeting.

This time the mood is dark. Some season-ticket holders want to cancel for 2015. The school can’t afford to fire Riley, even if it wanted to. But many fans want Riley to make staff changes; specifically, fire defensive coordinator Mark Banker.

According to multiple sources, A.D. Bob De Carolis seeks to reduce the length of assistants’ contracts — no more multiyear deals. He also wants to cut Riley’s contract down from seven years, eliminating the automatic rollover clause.

(De Carolis didn’t respond to an interview request. Riley declined to comment on the meeting, stating only that it was amicable and nothing surprised him. He would’ve taken the Nebraska job no matter what De Carolis had told him, he said.)

Several Riley supporters say the meeting was a turning point.

Orbiting Riley

Dee Riley

Wife of 34 years
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Says his brother, Ed: “I think when he had that meeting, he realized, well, if you don’t have the backing of the people around you, if they’re losing faith, then it’s probably better to move on.”

De Carolis leaves Riley’s office, and the head coach goes downstairs for the 9 a.m. team meeting. Typical housekeeping stuff. Finals are coming up. Study hard. We’ll get you information about offseason workouts.

By noon, Riley is headed for his first recruiting trip of the offseason, in San Francisco. He’s just past Junction City on U.S. Highway 99 — about to exit to the Eugene airport — when his phone rings. It’s Shawn Eichorst.

Says Don Reynolds, Riley's high school teammate: “They wanted to get rid of him. They didn’t want to come out and say it because his contract would preclude that, but I think it worked out the way they wanted.”

Nebraska?

They speak briefly. Then Riley calls his wife, who told him 12 years ago how much she liked Corvallis.

“One thing I know about Dee for sure is she would tell me what she thought,” Riley says.

This time, she surprises him. Let’s look into it.

The next morning, he’s in a San Francisco hotel room meeting Eichorst and Harvey Perlman.

He’s 61 years old and he’s about to embark on one more adventure. It’s not hitchhiking from Alabama to Idaho, but it’s pretty close.

On Dec. 4, the news is about to break nationally. Riley is about to say goodbye to his team. He walks out of his office of 14 years, a place he knew better than his own home, a place where, hanging on the wall, there’s a painting of Bud Riley throwing a football on the Parker Stadium turf.

Mike turns to an assistant: “Gosh, this might be the last time I’m ever in this room.”

Ten years ago, Eichorst and Paul Chryst met on a plane. Eichorst had just moved to Wisconsin; Chryst was a UW assistant. They found a connection in Riley. South Carolina had considered pursuing him before they hired Steve Spurrier, Eichorst said. Chryst had been Riley’s offensive coordinator at Oregon State.

Later, Chryst told Riley that if he ever considered leaving Oregon State, Eichorst might be a guy to work for. Now Chryst was the middle man, sharing Riley’s phone number.

Riley's daily path to work took him past the southeast end zone. (Credit: Dirk Chatelain)

Bob Welch was there at the beginning. He was on the playground, calling the new kid “Frog.”

Ever since Garfield Elementary, he’s cheered for Mike Riley. But the past two years, Welch says, Riley looked like he didn’t want to be at Oregon State.

“I don’t know how else to say that. Sometimes it would be a tough loss and, to be honest, it almost looked like he was on the verge of tears ...

“I can’t tell you what was going through Mike Riley’s mind, so I’m not saying he was disengaged. I’m saying it looked like he was disengaged.”

Recently Welch read a book called “Necessary Endings.” It’s about letting go of good things as a path to fulfillment. Two days after Christmas, Welch sits in his living room and watches the Holiday Bowl. Riley’s in the ESPN booth talking about the future. Welch notices the enthusiasm. The energy.

“That’s the Mike Riley jumping the fence at Parker Stadium in 1966.”

On Feb. 4, Riley finishes the recruiting race at Nebraska. The next morning, he flies home.

He was in Corvallis for Christmas — he had dinner at Flat Tail. He was back for New Year’s. But this trip may be the last time in a long time. On a whim, he takes a tour.

He drives by his three old schools. He drives by the house on Northwest 11th. Slowly, but not too slow. He doesn’t want anybody thinking he’s “casing the joint.” He thinks of all the basketball games in the driveway; he can’t believe the hoop is gone.

The past three months, Riley has hit all the emotional speed bumps. But on this trip, he reaches a point of peace. His daughter and grandson have visited Nebraska. His family is looking at homes in and around Lincoln — you know, he and Dee have always wanted to live in the country. The fog is lifting.

“There’s nothing to be sad about,” Riley says.

The morning after his tour of Corvallis, Feb. 8, he tells Dee he loves her. He leaves the bike in the garage and starts his rental car. He drives up Brooklane Drive, past the wetlands and the new acreages and the old farmhouses and the apple orchard.

This time, he doesn’t cross Highway 34 and roll into campus. He turns right toward I-5. Not yet, he thinks.

He approaches the overpass that rises over the Willamette River. Not yet.

He starts climbing. Now.

He turns and looks out the driver’s side window, over the evergreens, over the red brick buildings, a mile to the west. Fifty years after he first laid eyes on it — just for a few seconds — Mike Riley sees the tallest building on campus.

The stadium.

“I wanted that to be my last look at Corvallis.”

Credits

Contact Dirk Chatelain

Phone:
402-649-1461

Email:
dirk.chatelain@owh.com

Twitter:
@dirkchatelain

Web presentation:
Online editors Graham Archer, Brian Norton