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'Checked all those boxes': Inside WSU coach David Riley's decision to take the Cougs' job

Apr. 17—PULLMAN — In late March, a day before former Washington State athletics director Pat Chun left for the same job at rival Washington, David Riley got a phone call.

On the other end was his agent, who had some news for him: WSU officials were interested in bringing Riley down to campus to interview him for the men's basketball head coach opening.

The same day, March 25, Riley made the 75-minute trek to Pullman. He met with deputy athletics director Anne McCoy, who became interim AD days later, and other school brass. To Riley, then the head coach at Eastern Washington, it was clear WSU was interested in him.

"And then we went down to Mexico for five days," Riley laughed.

For the past three months, Riley and his wife, Emily, had a trip planned to Puerto Vallarta — so off they went.

During their five-day vacation, the Rileys did all kinds of things. They took an ATV ride through a rainforest. They went snorkeling. They ate all sorts of good food, tacos included, and "had a good time," Riley said.

Except they didn't enjoy the trip under the same circumstances they were expecting when they booked it. Riley was being considered for a new job, which would require the couple to uproot their lives and besides, he had to stay in touch with his players at EWU — "making sure they're good and locked in for next year," he said.

It also gave David and Emily time to chat, time to reflect on the opportunity coming their way. David talked to WSU President Kirk Schulz the first or second day of the trip. He hadn't fielded an offer yet — that didn't come until early April — but it was serious enough to prompt them to talk about what their lives might be like if David made the move.

At the front of David's mind: It was one of the few opportunities he'd received that could pry him away from EWU. During the past couple of years, others had come his way but none with what WSU could offer.

"Really, it was just what the values of the place were," Riley said. "Was it a college that I can relate to? Like, some of these other schools, I don't necessarily have the same values of what they represent. Part of it is I love the idea of a college town, and what you can get done here and what kind of people it's gonna attract. I think those were the big things — Washington State kind of checked all those boxes."

Riley also had to consider the phase in which WSU found itself : one of the two Pac-12 schools left behind in conference realignment, working with fellow holdover Oregon State to rebuild the conference. In the meantime, the Cougs had worked out an affiliate membership agreement with the West Coast Conference, a departure from the Power Five status the school enjoyed for more than a century.

That reality has colored nearly every corner of the athletics department. WSU's football team used a scheduling agreement with the Mountain West Conference to populate its 2024 schedule, and its baseball team is joining the same conference next year as affiliate members. Every staff and coaching member of the Cougs' football program received a pay cut — which went as high as 10% — and the program's hazy future was a key factor in some coaches' decisions to take jobs elsewhere, according to one source.

Riley admitted the WCC deal crossed his mind.

"That was one of the things that, on paper, you're like, 'Oh, that's a red flag or whatever,' " he said. "But if you actually think about it, it's Washington State. You look around here, these facilities, the school. It's an amazing institution. There's a dang art museum right next to the athletic facilities. It's a university. I just think we're gonna be operating at a high level no matter what — and the WCC is damn good, too."

Plus, Riley said, he liked that the job came with expectations. Days before he took it, WSU had wrapped up one of the best seasons in program history, a second-place finish in the Pac-12 followed by its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 16 years. The program was on an upswing, even before last season's surge, which gives Riley some pressure to keep things going.

One thing is clear: Riley came to WSU, in large part, because he likes his chances.

"I'm always gonna put pressure on myself to win, and I think that's something that we wanna go do," Riley said. "But I think that kind of takes care of itself if you do things the right way. Everyone expects us to be really good — as they should. It's a place that should have championship expectations every year.

"And that's the beauty. That's why I wanted to come here. Like, this is a place that has the facilities, it has the resources to go do that, it has the fanbase to do something really, really special."