Each time Mike Riley walks into a team meeting in the Valley Football Center, he’s greeted with applause.
The more than 100 Oregon State football players stand up and cheer their coach.
It’s a tradition they don’t know the origin of, but something that went on when they arrived as freshmen and kept going.
“That’s a gesture that coach Riley (has) entered the room, the meeting (has) started and everyone quiet down,” senior cornerback Jordan Poyer said. “That’s how it has always been.”
Defensive coordinator Mark Banker, who has coached with Riley at various stops since 1996, can’t remember who started it but said it began sometime in the 2003 season.
“It’s obviously something that’s born out of respect for the person,” Banker said.
There was a strong ovation for the first meeting this week as the Beavers were about to begin preparations for today’s 7 p.m. Pac-12 Conference showdown at Arizona.
The Beavers are coming off back-to-back wins over ranked teams and earned a No. 18 ranking.
However, the reason for applause was more than a strong start to the season — Riley tied Lon Stiner for first place with 74 career wins at OSU last weekend.
“It is a big deal to me, it’s very important,” Riley said of the milestone. “The thing I like about it is the fact that we’ve been able to be here for a while. We’ve had a good group of people who have been able to work at it for a long time. That continuity and longevity is very important to what we want to do.”
Riley is in his 12th season with the Beavers. While he averaged just 6.5 wins a season his first 11, it has taken time to turn around the program.
The Beavers went through 26 straight losing seasons before he arrived in 1997. The Beavers had two more losing seasons under Riley, but he started the program down the winning track for Dennis Erickson. Then Riley continued that path when he returned in 2003.
Since then, Riley has had six winning seasons with a 5-1 record in bowl games. His steady influence on and off the field, and in recruiting, has made OSU a common member of the top-25 poll.
“Coming over here we walked into a mess in 1997,” Banker said. “That’s where his personality comes into account. He’s never quick to lay judgment about a situation or make a rash decision without first giving it careful thought. I’m sure there was a general plan to remedy the situation, but it was a day at a time.”
Riley was a big name in 2003 after three Grey Cups in the Canadian Football League and a stint as an NFL head coach with the San Diego Chargers from 1999-2001.
Before that, he was a hotshot offensive coordinator with USC under coach John Robinson from 1993-96. And he played at Alabama under legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
His football education came from an elite pedigree.
“I never met Mike before that one year I went there (at USC in 1996), but before that I had a dozen people tell me there’s a great guy on that staff and a good football coach,” Banker said. “His name is Mike Riley. His name always comes up as a (potential) head coach somewhere. People were already talking about him.”
Gary Beck, a longtime friend and Riley’s teammate at Corvallis High, coached with and works behind the scenes for him now. Beck has watched Riley evolve and isn’t surprised about his success.
Beck has seen the hard work Riley puts in studying the game and finding the best ways to win and teach because Riley hates to lose.
“Every time you hear people talk about him, they say coach Riley is such a nice guy — and that’s true,” Beck said. “You would be hard to find someone who will say something negative about him.
“But he doesn’t get enough credit for knowing the game of football. He coached all the areas. He knows what it’s supposed to look like. Those things have to go together to be successful. You need the knowledge, and you need the personality that people want to play for you and play hard for you.”
Riley sets a standard for players to live up to and has high expectations. He allows room to grow and fail, and then gives players a second chance.
Most of the time the second chances come on the field, but they include how they behave in the classroom and in the community.
“His character makes you want to play for him,” Poyer said. “He’s a genuine guy. He wants the best for this team. He expects players to be on their best behavior behind closed doors.”
An example of this came in Riley’s first season at OSU when he laid out a few simple rules based on respect and accountability.
He expected players to be at every class and academic appointment on time, and be at all the football meetings, workouts and practices on time. Then to be the best they could be in all they did.
When he was done the players were shocked. They were accustomed to a long list of rules to keep them in line.
“I’ll never forget, when we were leaving that meeting, the players we had, there was a whole bunch of them that said we don’t have any rules,” Banker said. “A lot of them didn’t get it. They were used to the heavy-handedness. He was never that way.”
Riley loves to talk to anybody about anything from his family, books he’s reading and his dog. After the win over UCLA he held his grandson, Eli, and did media interviews.
It’s easy for fans and the media to get him going about his team. Even after a loss or a bad season, Riley doesn’t shut down or get angry; he stays focused on the next game.
“The blend of his expertise as a coach and his expertise of handling people and handling a football team has made him successful,” Banker said. “Mike is not a pound-your-chest guy. He’s not one to demonstrate emotion. But I know this, when it comes to competing, and I mean this in the kindest sense of the phrase, he’ll step on your throat. If he can beat you, he’ll beat you.”
Beck has seen the good and bad times with Riley and knows what to expect out of him.
He knows Riley will savor what he’s done at OSU after retirement but for now his only concern is beating Arizona tonight.
“Mike is good at staying in the moment and looking to the future,” Beck said. “If you lose a game, that game is over and you go to the next one. He’s honest about that. Every day in practice he’s upbeat and positive. He has his moments when he gets upset. He doesn’t waste that and it’s not phony. When you need to be admonished, he’ll admonish you. Trust me, you don’t want to wrong him.”
Riley has eight more years on his contract — with a year added for every bowl game appearance — and has been open about retiring in Corvallis.
He’s thankful for his opportunity and still wants to win every game. He talks about improving the program with better players and enhanced facilities.
“Mike has plenty of good years ahead of him and I anticipate him being on our sidelines for the foreseeable future,” athletic director Bob De Carolis wrote in an email. “... he certainly has done a number of things for the program and university on and off the field that Beaver Nation should be proud of.”
Riley says longevity is the reason for the record number of wins. However, he needed to succeed to stay around a long time.
“What’s important to him, his legacy, here or if he goes to another job, is his teams perform well on the field, off the field and the opponent respects you as well as the team respects him,” Banker said. “He doesn’t want to let anyone down and he doesn’t want to let himself down.”