Life changes over the years, but some things remain the same.
Oregon State football coach Mike Riley is one those constants in life. He devotes his life to coaching and has made several stops along the way during his 38-year career.
Twenty years ago, Riley found himself coaching the San Antonio Riders in the World League of American Football.
In less than a week he’ll be back in San Antonio coaching the Beavers as they prepare for the Dec. 29 Alamo Bowl against Texas.
Riley’s two-year stint with the Riders (1991-92) provided some of his most fond football memories.
“I really like those teams,” Riley said. “They were a neat age of guys who had been in an NFL camp for a year or just out of college and cut, looking for another opportunity.”
The WLAF was the precursor to NFL Europe with the intention of serving as a farm system to the NFL.
The league suspended operations before the 1993 season for two years, and Riley went on to become the offensive coordinator at USC.
“I had a lot of fun coaching that team down there,” Riley said. “I was able to learn about the area. They love football.”
Tim Griffin, a college football reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, was the beat writer for the Riders and covered Riley. He found dealing with Riley as the most enjoyable time of his career.
Griffin was in Corvallis last week to write about the Beavers leading up to the Alamo Bowl, and they were able to relive old times.
“You could tell he had something special, even at that time,” Griffin said. “He was good at teaching younger players. Most of the guys were fringe players at best. It was what it was. It was Triple-A football.”
Occasionally, NFL prospects were sent down for playing time. Riley was told to prep them, but that disrupted what he wanted to do with the team in order to win.
Riley had been hired away from Winnipeg of the Canadian Football League, where he twice won the Grey Cup.
“It was a coup for the San Antonio franchise to pick him up,” Griffin said. “Riley came in there and thought it was going to be hard-core coaching, but he had to do a lot of press and a TV show. He was uncomfortable with it, and they didn’t tell him about it.”
Griffin even convinced Riley to write a weekly column in his newspaper.
“He would spend more time on it than I would on my stories,” Griffin said. “It really struck me, his sincerity. I would get handwritten Christmas cards after he left for a while.”
In his first year, Riley coached quarterback Jason Garrett, who went on to play in the NFL and is now the coach of the Dallas Cowboys. He also coached John Layfield, who found fame as a professional wrestler.
Mike Johnson played quarterback during Riley’s second year. Johnson later coached with Riley at OSU from 1997-98 and the San Diego Chargers from 2000-01.
“We had great individual players,” Riley said. “It was a new startup league so it was exciting. We came from the CFL, the oldest professional league there is, then we go into a new league where everything was brand new. After getting out of the shock of that, it was fun.”
His staff had many familiar names to OSU fans. Paul Chryst, who coached the running backs and tight ends, followed Riley to OSU to become the offensive coordinator and is now the head coach at Pittsburgh.
Offensive line coach Jim Gilstrap came to OSU in the same capacity before his retirement and death.
Greg Newhouse was the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. He coached the linebackers and defensive line at OSU before he left for other opportunities.
Part of the enjoyment of the team was the travel. The WLAF had six teams based in the United States, one in Canada and three in Europe — London, Barcelona and Frankfurt.
“It was fun seeing Mike out there (in Europe),” Griffin said. “It was like he was a tour guide. He was a kid in a candy shop. Mike had a lot of fun there. He had a good life there.”
His teams had limited success, going 4-6 in the first season and 7-3 in the second, missing out on the playoffs.
Riley rented a house close to Alamo Stadium during his first year and would ride his bike to work, just like he does now.
His wife, Dee, found an old German farmhouse on 2½ acres on the river that they bought for $119,000 and still own. He had to commute to work during his second year.
Griffin said the writers joked about his old beat-up Datsun that looked like it belonged to a sports writer with junk in the back.
“We went to Texas not knowing anything about that place, but we enjoyed it,” Riley said.
The Riley family still visits the farmhouse each summer. He and Dee enjoy music of the area, and hang out at a nearby dance hall.
While there won’t be time to visit the house when the Beavers are in town, Riley does plan to stay for a few days after the game.
The game comes first for him.
“It will be neat for him to coach in the Alamodome,” Griffin said of the building that opened in 1993. “He was promised to coach in there with the Riders and it never happened.”