Mike Riley's wild coaching ride has Oregon State cruising up the BCS standings

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  • Bud Riley
    American football coach

In a football life come full circle, it's fitting that Mike Riley employs a child's mode of transportation to go to work.

The Oregon State coach rides a 10-year-old bike to the Beavers football offices every day. It's about a 10-minute ride from his home on the outskirts of Corvallis to campus – the same campus where an adolescent Mike Riley roamed 45 years earlier as the son of an assistant coach.

While Bud Riley worked as the Oregon State defensive coordinator, son Mike and his teenage friends finagled their way into every athletic facility to have fun. They played basketball, hit baseballs, watched track meets – and of course they hung out at the football complex, too, such as it was in those modest days.

"The campus was our playground," Riley said.

But after graduating from Corvallis High School, the man who would become the winningest football coach in Oregon State history set off on a football sojourn that would last 26 years. The game took him everywhere before finally luring him back home.

Riley played at Alabama under Bear Bryant. Then he coached at the NAIA and NCAA Division III, II and I levels. There were two separate stints coaching in the Canadian Football League, and one in San Antonio with the World League of American Football.

Even when Riley returned to Oregon State in 1997, it didn't last. After two seasons back in Corvallis, he left for the final frontier: the National Football League.

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He was fired after three seasons as head coach of the San Diego Chargers, then went to New Orleans as an assistant to Jim Haslett. It was there, while Riley lived in an apartment in the Warehouse District, that Haslett suggested Riley look into buying a bike and riding it to the Saints facility.

That's the same bike he rides today, in his 10th – and possibly most rewarding – year in Act II as head coach at Oregon State.

"My wife [Dee] and I have enjoyed every place we've lived," said Riley, who has been married for 32 years. "But we're extremely thankful to get a second chance at Oregon State. We decided if we could make it work here, this would be our last stop.

"Whenever I've had the opportunity, I've tried to extend my contract [which currently runs through 2019]. If you're happy, stay happy."

It's hard not to be happy right now. A year after a dismal 3-9 season, the Beavers are a shocking 5-0 and eighth in the first BCS Rankings. Take care of business as a solid home favorite Saturday night against Utah and they'll head into the second half of their schedule as the most unlikely national championship contender still standing.

"I had a good vibe about this team through spring ball, summer and fall camp," Riley said. "But it was still a mystery until we played."

It took a week longer than expected to play, when the opening walkover against Nicholls State was canceled because Hurricane Isaac was bearing down on the Nicholls campus. When Oregon State finally opened by stunning No. 13 Wisconsin, Riley had his answer.

"That was huge for this group," he said.

The Beavers followed up that 10-7 triumph by going to L.A. and upsetting No. 19 UCLA. Since then there has been a three-point victory over Arizona that gave Riley a school-record 75 career victories, a 13-point win over Washington State and an 18-point win at BYU.

In that game, backup quarterback Cody Vaz saw his first action in two years and starred while replacing injured starter Sean Mannion. The standard operating procedure so far has been this: Someone will step up on any given Saturday – and not necessarily the guys who did it last Saturday.

"We haven't dominated at all," Riley said. "But what we've done is we've complemented each other. We've had games where the offense was good and the defense struggled, and then games where the defense was good and the offense struggled. Experience and development have been the two main ingredients."

Riley's own experiences as a football lifer have led him to the somewhat contradictory conclusion that there's more to life than football. Growing up watching his dad teach history and coach multiple sports in high school, Mike never envisioned himself doing anything but being a coach himself.

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Yet he's a coach with perspective. He tries to implement fun activities for the players into the schedule, from water balloon fights to smacking tennis balls out of the stadium. And in a stance that would mortify many of his peers, Oregon State practices are open. To the media and anyone else who wants to drop by.

Of the teams in the BCS Top 10, the only other one with open practices to media is USC – and if you've been following the news at all, you know how fond Lane Kiffin is of that arrangement, which he inherited with the job. Kiffin has been at war with the Los Angeles beat writers much of the season.

To be sure, Corvallis isn't Los Angeles – or even Tuscaloosa. Riley's practices come with a standard group of codgers – a former Oregon State basketball coach, a former Montana football coach, a former colleague of his dad's.

"We're an outpost here," Riley said. "I can look around and know most of the people there. If someone is scouting us, it's pretty easy to tell."

The only modern hazard of open practices has been observers tweeting injuries on a couple of occasions before practice ended and the coaches could inform the parents of the injured players. But that hasn't been enough to suffuse Riley with Sabanesque Paranoia. He's fine with working at a lower-wattage job that allows him the ability to be a normal human from time to time.

"My wife can drop by the office for lunch," he said. "Our two grown children live right here in town. Four of five of my coaches are riding their bikes to work. I love that environment.

"We're all football junkies and we love it, but we can have a life with our families, too. I really like this place for that."

Mike Riley likes Corvallis so much that he never plans to leave it again as a coach. He's been all over the football map and learned that you can go home again. With satisfying results.

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