CORVALLIS -- It was about 2 p.m. on Wednesday, with students gathering in the Oregon State student union quad for an appearance on the Ellen Degeneres Show, that a lanky, 6-foot-1 kid strode up to Wayne Tinkle and stuck out his hand. "I've got a jump shot," he said. "Lemme know when tryouts are."
You've got to appreciate his candor and confidence. Perhaps this potential walk-on's college basketball dreams are a bit unrealistic, but he can at least recognize the obvious: Right now, the new men's basketball coach at Oregon State needs all the help he can get.
Sixteen days after OSU announced Craig Robinson had been relieved of his duties -- a surprising move considering it was early May -- the Beavers introduced Tinkle as the new guy in charge. Tinkle, the head coach at Montana last season, promptly told fans what they've been wanting to hear: "We're gonna make Oregon State basketball relevant again."
He has his work cut out for him.
The Beavers haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 1990. They're located in an agricultural town that's not known for diversity or accessibility. And they've been plagued with the title of "little brother" by their rival 40 miles down the road.
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Tinkle isn't fazed by any of it. To people who say this is one of the hardest jobs in college basketball, Tinkle says, "Tell me where there's an easy job. All we see is opportunity."
The 48-year-old Tinkle, who is 6-foot-11, is the patriarch of an impressive basketball family, brims with confidence and enthusiasm. After a slew of one-on-one interviews and marketing spots Wednesday morning, he headed over to the quad, where he passed out Amp energy drinks -- he's "amped" to be in Corvallis, just to be clear -- shook hands and smiled for photos. He chatted up OSU freshman wide receiver Jordan Villamin, saying he likes to watch football games from the sidelines ("I get really into it," he explains. "I'm, like, head-butting guys on the sideline after a big special teams play. But I never get in the coaches' way.") As Benny Beaver posed for Instagram pictures, Tinkle turned to a group of giggling freshmen and inquired, "You guys wanna take some selfies?" The Oregon State mascot might have been more popular and recognizable -- "Who's that tall guy?" asked one puzzled student as she hurried by with her friend -- but Tinkle was happy to introduce himself and chat with potential fans, all of whom are desperate for basketball success.
"Thank goodness he's good at this," said one person from Oregon State marketing, who gestured to the crowd gathering around Tinkle. "Because Craig had this going on."
That much is true: Although Robinson did not produce on the court -- he went 93-104 in six seasons -- he was charismatic and good with boosters. But at a school fighting for relevance in an emerging Pac-12 conference, that wasn't enough. One month after releasing a statement of support in favor of Robinson, Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis reversed course, announcing on May 5 that it was time for a "fresh start." While rumors swirled that the Beavers were in talks with former UCLA head coach Ben Howland and current Arizona assistant and former Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire, Tinkle sat quietly in Missoula, Mont., his home for the last 13 years, and studied OSU. As he compiled a 158-91 record the last eight seasons as Grizzlies' head coach, including three NCAA tournament appearances, Tinkle had other opportunities to leave. At one point he seriously considered Fresno State before withdrawing his name from the coaching search. This time, comforted by the knowledge that "people who work at Oregon State are still grounded," Tinkle and his wife, Lisa, felt the time was right to try something new.
"I think a lot of coaches spend too much time working on the next job," Tinkle says. "Initially, I wasn't interested. I've been very satisfied with what we had [at Montana]. We always said it would take a special place. And when we started to hear about the similarities between Missoula and Corvallis ..."
He smiles and shrugs, and it's clear: He at least had to look.
Tinkle isn't worried about all the people who reached out to say, "Do you understand how hard this job is?" He pays no mind to the comparisons of Oregon State to Washington State, where the Big Sky-to-Pac-12 jump didn't work for Ken Bone, who was fired a couple months ago. "Very different places, and different philosophies," Tinkle says. He points out that Big Sky-to-Pac-12 has worked at other schools, like Colorado, where Tad Boyle, who just finished his fifth season running the Buffaloes, made the jump after four seasons at Northern Colorado. He leans on the accomplishments of the Montana coaching tree instead, pointing out that Jud Heathcote (Michigan State), Mike Montgomery (Stanford and Cal) and Larry Krystkowiak (Utah), among others, all had successful tenures at bigger schools. And then he spreads his arms out wide and says matter-of-factly, "Other people have done it here."
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Often considered an underdog, Oregon State has experienced surprising success over the last decade in baseball (2006 and 2007 national champions), football (ranked in the Top 25 of the AP poll three of the last seven years) and gymnastics (a perennial top 10 program). This past season, the Beavers' women's basketball team completed one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college hoops, going from 10-21 in 2012-13 to 24-11 in 2013-14. All that's missing is men's basketball. That Tinkle might not be considered a "sexy" hire doesn't bug De Carolis.
"Whether it is or isn't under the radar, I think it's about, Can the guy coach and can he get kids to believe in themselves and do more than they think they can do? And I think he can," De Carolis says, adding that this is a better job than it was six years ago. Oregon State has a sparkling new practice facility, a new academic center and, as Robinson proved, recruiting big-time players to Corvallis is possible.
Also on the Beavers' side this time around: They were the only job in town. Because of Robinson's late firing, De Carolis didn't have to worry about candidates being pulled away by other jobs. The timing might have been unconventional, De Carolis acknowledges, "but we feel good about where we're going."
This is an entirely new experience for Tinkle, who had spent his whole coaching career at Montana. He arrived in Corvallis on Tuesday and was ferried by limo to campus, and spent his first few hours on the job reaffirming commitments from Chai Baker and Gary Payton II, the latter of whom is the son of former Beavers and NBA star Gary "The Glove" Payton and is affectionately known as "The Mitten." Tinkle will return to Missoula on Thursday, pack up his house and then move into a Corvallis hotel as he gets to work. The Beavers have only seven returning scholarship players, and Tinkle must hire a staff before the July evaluation period arrives. "Fortunately I've received about 200 calls, texts and emails from people who say they're 'absolutely the right person for the job.' There won't be a shortage of candidates," he says. He and Lisa still have to decide if their son Tres will join his parents in Corvallis or stay at Hellgate High in Missoula for his senior year (daughter Joslyn just returned from playing professionally in Hungary and is likely to join a WNBA team in the coming weeks; daughter Ellie is a rising junior at Gonzaga and a member of the basketball team).
Tinkle's phone has been buzzing with congratulatory texts since Monday, when De Carolis flew to Missoula to offer him the job. He's heard from coaches all over, including Krystkowiak. "He texted me and said, 'How about this for a couple former Griz?'" Tinkle says. He loves that OSU fans already seem to understand that if you can win at Montana -- where "it could be tough to get in the door [with recruits] because you're fighting this idea of covered wagons and riding horses," Tinkle says, rolling his eyes -- you can win anywhere. He could sit and gush about Oregon State for hours, talking about why he believes he can and will win in Corvallis, but he has more people to meet, more pictures to take, more hands to shake and, oh yeah, a new campus to navigate.
Much like his first full day on the job, the next few weeks are sure to be a whirlwind. "We've got an unbelievable adventure in front of us," he says.
To many, it would be a daunting adventure, but Tinkle is ready for it.