Riley loves how far the Beavers have come

2009-12-13T19:45:00Z Riley loves how far the Beavers have comeBy Cliff Kirkpatrick, Gazette-Times Reporter Corvallis Gazette Times

Oregon State's football history can't be forgotten, so it won't be repeated.

The Beavers were once the worst program in the nation, enduring 28 consecutive losing seasons. Most of them weren't even near-misses.

Success was rare with 16 seasons of two or less wins.

Coach Mike Riley began the renaissance of the Beavers in 1997, took a four-year break for an NFL opportunity and returned to finish the job.

The Beavers are now headed to their fourth bowl game in a row, and sixth in seven years since Riley's return.

All those contests were victories. The five-game bowl winning streak is the second-longest in the nation.

"I love the story of Oregon State and where it has gone," Riley said. "It's due to a ton of people. Reflecting to where we were to what it is now is just awesome. It's a sign of a lot of people working hard and caring.

"It's mostly about the people seeing attitudes change about how they feel and what they are doing. It has been a great journey for Oregon State football."

The 16th-ranked Beavers have an opportunity to finish in the top 25 for the fourth straight year with a victory over No. 15 Brigham Young in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 22.

National respect is slowing developing, as Riley said he believes the Beavers are still recovering from those dark days.

However, the athletes look at it as ancient history.

"When I was recruited here I heard a little bit about that, but I had no idea about that growing up," tight end Joe Halahuni said of the losing streak. "We don't think about that anymore.

"We consider ourselves a winning program and we want to keep that tradition going."

Here's a look at how far the Beavers have come:

• 80 wins this decade, compared to 29 in the 1990s and 22 in the 1980s.

• Eight bowl games in the last 10 years.

• Seven wins in 14 games against top-25 opponents.

• Successive runner-up finishes in the Pacific-10 Conference.

• Four consecutive winnings seasons, the longest such streak since a five-year run from 1966-70.

Success was more than creating better game plans. The program had to be rebuilt from within and then expanded.

Riley wanted to save a program his father coached when things were going well and he grew up watching. After being hired he feared what he got himself into.

"You don't know what 28 seasons are like until you are in it," he said. "The most dramatic thing at the time was I didn't think there was any pride in the program, mostly from the kids. They weren't happy with how they were, what they were doing and where they were at. That's really scary."

Quality coaches tried to change OSU's fortunes, but had no luck. BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall played for the Beavers for two years in the middle of the losing streak and coached for four years.

He went on to have success everywhere else, and has lead BYU to its fifth straight bowl game and at least 10 wins the last four years.

Mendenhall resurrected a once-proud program that had fallen on hard times. The Cougars had three losing seasons before he arrived.

"The mental part of being a head coach is more difficult than the physical," Mendenhall said. "To inspire and teach the team and have a formula in place to reach the goals is constant. It's draining."

When Riley started, he took his time and began with what was already here. He taught players how to be better and didn't worry about immediate results. He recruited who he could and worked with them.

There were only three wins the first season and five the next, but that laid the groundwork for the program's boom.

"It wasn't reflected in wins, and that was a key, key factor," Riley said of his approach. "It affected our attitudes about what we were doing. We had to approach it a different way than we ever did in coaching. We wanted to be teachers of football. Now looking back, we can say what a great coaching project it was."

Little by little the players believed, had better attitudes and won some games.

That helped coaches enhance the playbook and get better players as more wins followed.

"It's really impacting when we recruit with how the players feel about this place and this team," Riley said. "That's our best recruiting tool."

Now the Beavers win a regular basis and the coaches recruit better athletes who become refined quicker. Take this season for example.

In the past, if they rebuilt a defense with nine new starters who were young, disaster was imminent. Instead, they were on the verge of Pac-10 title.

"I tell them about how great a place it is," Halahuni said of how he convinces recruits to attend OSU. "We have great coaches, a great community and a great place to go to school. We have a great program now. Coach Riley has done a good job. People like to win, and I'm sure everybody likes that."

Riley never went with the quick-fix, so time was crucial to the change. Taking a program to the top after 28 years of losing doesn't happen over night.

There were bumps along the road with a losing season in 2005, academic issues and criminal behavior.

Time to sift through the bad seeds allowed the Beavers to stabilize themselves in the classroom, community and on the field.

Since the team is young, the Beavers don't look at narrowly missing the Rose Bowl as a failed ending to a season, but a learning experience. They see a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl as a step toward a greater future.

"We've been able to establish and prove to people what we are about, and what this program is about," Riley said. "We had rough seas for a time in there about wining games or other things that happened off the field. But with time we've proved what we can do with young people and we are on the right track as far as the values in our program."

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