If Mike Riley is considered a hometown hero in Corvallis, Ore., he certainly took an indirect route to earning that distinction. A younger Riley quarterbacked Corvallis High to consecutive state title games in 1969 and 1970, but when it came time to choose a college, he didn't stay local and play for the Beavers. Instead, he opted to head to Alabama. He later bounced around at numerous coaching destinations before eventually landing his current gig as Oregon State's headman before the 2003 campaign.
Now 59, Riley is content to stay put. That's true even in 2013, when he has to replace arguably his two best players from last season (wideout Markus Wheaton and cornerback Jordan Poyer), solve a quarterback controversy and replace the entire middle of his defense. Riley knows the type of kids he has are the type who will thrive in his program.
"I've got happy kids," Riley said. "They're happy kids that like to work hard. That's been the key to the program. These kids are interested in being a part of a team and being the best guy that they can be. I think that's why we can be successful here."
Yes, it's Corvallis for Riley. He's settled now, but it took him plenty of time to get back to this point. And more than a decade into his second stint at the school (he was also the head coach at Oregon State from 1997-98), he's learned the essence of this place. He knows how find the right kids and how to win. He wants to take the Beavers to the elusive Rose Bowl, a game they haven't played in since 1964.
To an outsider, it might feel as though Riley never left. Many probably forget that he coached the San Diego Chargers for three years from 1999-2001. He was reportedly offered the Alabama job in '01 (it went to Dennis Franchione) and was passed over for two jobs he probably should have gotten (Stanford in 2002, UCLA in 2003) before accepting the Oregon State position. Riley even turned down the coveted USC job in 2009 after derailing the Trojans' perfect seasons in 2006 and 2008.
But from 1975-1997, Riley's coaching history reads like standard Johnny Cash lyrics: He coached in Berkeley, Spokane, McMinnville, Oregon, Winnipeg (twice), Greeley, Colorado, San Antonio and eventually Los Angeles before landing the Oregon State job for the first time. When he returned to Corvallis after a few years in the pros, stability became his goal.
Now he's found it. Coming off a 9-4 campaign with a contract in place that will keep him until 2019, Riley is affable, even talkative -- a rare quality in an FBS head football coach.
"Oh, I just love it here," Riley said. "It's got to be the university feel, I think. The people. The fact that it's all about college. The only problem is that Corvallis can be a tough place to get to and that can be tough on recruiting sometimes."
Oregon State may be a comfortable job, but it certainly isn't an easy one. The archrival Ducks are a mainstay in the BCS, while Corvallis isn't conveniently accessible by plane. Attracting marquee national recruits to campus -- even with the promise of In-N-Out burgers -- can be an exceedingly difficult task.
But history shows Riley is unfazed. From 2006-08, his Beavers upset an undefeated top-five team each year. Since beginning his second stint, he's 5-2 in bowl games, and he has churned out 27 draft picks since he took the job. His staff's philosophy has worked: sign unheralded guys and then pick bigger recruiting battles within the conference. Oregon State maximizes its talent with Riley at the helm, and it still manages to win a few recruiting battles against schools like Washington, Stanford and Cal.
"We don't have a magic formula for finding diamonds in the rough," Riley said. "We don't go by any star system either. We take a look, find out about the kid and if we like him we recruit him."
Perhaps the staff doesn't use stars, but Riley may be downplaying his approach to targeting prospects. Take his class of 2009, for instance. That Oregon State haul eventually had seven players drafted; none were given more than three stars by any major recruiting service coming out of high school or junior college. Three of those players -- Andy Levitre, Keenan Lewis and Victor Butler -- were once two-star recruits who now have sizable NFL contracts.
Still, the best example of under-the-radar player turned superstar remains Jacquizz Rodgers, who arrived at Oregon State from suburban Houston as a three-star recruit in 2008. Even though he was relatively unknown when he first set foot on campus, "The Quizz Show" became the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman and a three-time all-conference first-team selection. He rushed for more than 3,800 yards and 46 touchdowns over three years before being drafted by the Atlanta Falcons.
Other than Boise State and TCU, Oregon State has likely turned more overlooked high schoolers into future stars than any other school. In an age so heavily reliant on recruiting services, Riley trusts his methods and his staff to compile a team.
"Evaluation really is the hard thing. And in college football it's not just the evaluation, it's recruiting them too," Riley said. "But what we have here is a good mixture of veteran coaches and young guys that help us in recruiting. We really need the veterans to help us in the evaluation part."
Riley faces several challenges heading into this season. He has to preside over a quarterback competition between two upperclassmen, junior Sean Mannion and senior Cody Vaz, that he insists will not be resolved until fall camp. He needs to determine his new second cornerback, the position previously held by Poyer. ("One of the best players to ever walk through our program," Riley said.) And while Riley has two running backs (Storm Woods and Terron Ward) who should roll up plenty of yardage, he's got another ace in redshirt freshman back Chris Brown, who dominated the spring game. A speedster from Fresno, Calif., Brown was one recruit who spurned offers from Washington and Oregon to take the field in Corvallis.
Riley acknowledges the questions marks, but he does so happily. The Beavers got off to their best start since 1907 last year, momentum he hopes to carry into this season. It may have taken him a while to figure it out, but it's clear: Riley is exactly where he belongs.