Feature: Decade of Respectability

Aug. 8, 2007

By Sean McLean
OSU Daily Barometer

August 8, 2007

Corvallis, OR (CSTV U-WIRE) -- Entering the 1997 season, Oregon State was one of college football's worst programs. It had endured a record of 26 straight losing seasons and had just come off a lousy 2-9 campaign that ended Jerry Pettibone's tenure with the Beavers. As fall camp began, new head coach Mike Riley had a lot of work ahead of him, and it was in every aspect of the game.

This year's fall camp marks the 10-year anniversary of when the gutsy head coach first stepped onto the practice fields and began one of the biggest makeovers and turnarounds in college football history. For Riley-the former USC offensive coordinator-had to convert a group of wishbone offense players into the typical pass-happy offense that the Pac-10 is accustomed to. It was a task that was easier said than done for the Corvallis native.

'It was all about attitude, and it was one of those situations where the guys here hadn't been winning,' said Riley, who is now entering his seventh season at Oregon State. 'They weren't really happy with who they were and what they were doing, and it was all about building something positive for them. And we needed to give them a level of confidence and show them that they could succeed.'

Starting from scratch was an understatement when Riley began fall camp a decade ago. At the time, there was mediocre fan support, no indoor facility, and a run-down stadium that was the smallest in the Pac-10. He and his newly appointed coaching staff utilized what they had for recruiting, training, and academics.

'We knew if we built the team and the attitude, then they would be infectious to the community,' said defensive coordinator Mark Banker, who along with Greg Newhouse is the only assistant coach that has been at OSU since Riley began his first stint. 'We used the Valley Football Center and would also use the press box on our recruiting weekends, and would paint pictures for them, showing them what the future will bring and this is what they were going to be a part of.'

With hard work and lots of patience, Riley instilled a passing attack that Oregon State had not seen since the 'Air Express' days of the late 1980s. The hardest part for him and the coaching staff was transitioning the offensive line from run blocking almost every down to a pro-style offense.

'That was one of the biggest, hardest things to do,' Riley said. 'They had never passed blocked before. They had done a little pass blocking, but never really pass protected in a drop back, pro-style passing offense.'

As the 1997 season began, it marked a new era for the football program. Led by an athletic quarterback Tim Alexander, the Beavers won their opening game over North Texas and jumped out to a 3-2 overall record. Although the team lost its last six games, laying down a sturdy foundation was the biggest key to the year.

From there, the Beavers made a big push the following season. With a remarkable job by former offensive line coach Jim Gilstrap, the newly structured offensive line helped OSU generate their first 1,000-yard rusher in 27 years. Freshman tailback Ken Simonton rushed for 1,028 yards that season and finished off the Oregon Ducks in the famous 1998 Civil War on a 17-yard touchdown run. With a 44-41 double-overtime victory, Riley led the Beavers to their first five-win season since 1971, and the resurgence of Beaver football was beginning.

'They were improving, and with the hard work they put in, they felt really good about it,' Riley said. 'There was a level of growth in those two seasons, and we all could really feel the tide was turning after that season.'

Riley would leave for the NFL the next season, but his impact on what OSU would achieve the following years under Dennis Erickson were unfathomable. While he was gone from 1999 to 2002, the Beavers won the Fiesta Bowl, made two other bowl games, built an indoor facility, and began the Raising Reser project. All the success that was accomplished under Erickson's guidance started with the foundation that Riley laid down a few years earlier.

'It all is just a matter of getting everybody on the same page,' Banker said. 'From there, the big picture was how to go about winning and the things that make up winning.'

With the NFL lurking, Erickson left for another shot at pro football, and Riley found himself back in Corvallis in 2003. The changes in such a small amount of time were surprising, and with better circumstances than he had before, Riley continued to keep the Beavers on the winning track, having three winning seasons and three bowl wins in as many appearances.

Ten years later, the Beavers have gone from the laughing stock of college football to a bowl contender every season. And as the 2007 season approaches, Riley, now 54 and getting ready for another promising year, reflected on how he did it back in 1997 and who was there to help make it happen.

'I really think we have been blessed with two great presidents in Paul Risser and Ed Ray,' Riley said. 'They believed there was an important spot for football in college athletics, and they both were major factors. Bob DeCarolis has worked very hard to coordinate everything, and now we are vastly different. Since 1997, enrollment has gone way up as well, so I think the whole school and the athletic program has changed to the positive, and I'm just glad to be a part of it because I grew up here.'

(C) 2007 OSU Daily Barometer via CSTV U-WIRE

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