Mike Riley: Good, But Is He Good Enough?

For the better part of this century’s first decade, there was nary a difference between this state’s primary football programs.  But then came Chip Kelly, then came his “gimmick,” and then came the gaping hole between two programs in different cars, moving at different speeds, headed in two different directions.

I’ve long been a fan of Mike Riley.  Regardless of whom you do or don’t root for, Riley’s way of doing the game, and life in general, epitomizes the level of professionalism for which coaching standards should be made.  He’s respected by all, loved by those closest to him, and does what he does at or near the highest level of his profession.  But Oregon State’s stagnant state, coupled with their rival’s rapid ascent, has me now questioning whether Riley’s way is no longer the right way for a fan base thirsting for more.

I preface by acknowledging I’ve previously chuckled at the notion Riley should go.  My stance was always that Oregon State would never again find a coach with his level of acumen, coupled with his desire to coach in Corvallis.  Sure, you could catch lightning in a bottle with a young-up-and-comer. However, someone of that ilk, paired with a heightened level of success and the limited resources found at Oregon State, would always have one eye on the next step beyond the rung Corvallis resides on regarding coaching success.  He wins at an above average level, loves the school, and is likely the least-likely candidate to bring shame to a program this side of Joe Paterno…errr…well, what we thought of Joe Paterno pre-Jerry Sandusky.  But if “good enough” isn’t good enough, it might be time the Beavers roll the dice on a “gimmick” that’s primarily responsible for Oregon’s meteoric rise to the upper-echelon of the college football universe.

The Oregon State Beavers run a pro-style offense.  Sure, they mix in an occasional fly-sweep or two, but they like to pound the ball, pass through play-action, and throw from the pocket via a statuesque quarterback with limited mobility.  It’s old school football and the type of football Mike Riley knows best.  Problem is, it’s a system dependent upon exceptional talent to succeed at the highest level.

I know what you’re thinking:  “The SEC schools primarily run pro-style systems, and they’ve won 7 national titles in a row. “ 

“USC did the same under Pete Carroll and we know how they fared.”

“Stanford’s been to 3 straight BCS games and beat Oregon last year pounding the rock and using play-action.”

All true, but the difference is that the SEC has the exceptional personnel to dominate the line of scrimmage, USC was 3-deep with talent most teams could only dream of, and Stanford is routinely sending two-thirds of its offensive line to the NFL and had arguably one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all-time.  Oregon State … not so much.

A common misnomer regarding the Oregon Ducks is that Phil Knight is the primary reason for Oregon’s step to the next level.  Sure, Phil Knight’s donations have paved the way for the Ducks’ recent success, but it was the arrival of the now departed Chip Kelly that allowed them to dominate a league which in the past they had to carefully maneuver through.  Kelly’s system offered an advantage for a team that needed one.

Under Mike Bellotti, the Ducks had relative success and would occasionally align things in a way that would allow them an exceptional season.  But domination was never an option under the previous regime, because they were trying to beat better talent, at a game designed for better talent to win.  Chip Kelly’s system leveled the playing field, allowing Oregon’s strengths to excel, while simultaneously hiding their weaknesses through schematics.  Due to Oregon State’s limited talent, they need to play a game which neutralizes their opponent’s strengths, opposed to playing directly into them.

“Oregon State has talent!”

Sure, in spots, but not like the talent now at Oregon, not like the talent at Stanford, and definitely not like the talent national contenders like those from the SEC stockpile.

Over the last 5 years, the Beavers have finished at an average of 48th in the nation in the year-end recruiting rankings, with an average player rating of 2.6 stars.  In contrast, over those same 5 years, Stanford has an average finish of 25th with a 3.34 individual ranking while Oregon’s average finish is 16.8th with a 3.35 individual ranking.  In addition, Stanford – who is really the only team in the Pac-12 giving Oregon problems right now and runs a pro-style system – has recruited 17 offensive linemen in that time at an average individual ranking of 3.5, including the recruiting class of 2012 which totaled 7 offensive linemen averaging 4 stars, while Oregon State’s recruited 18 offensive linemen with an average individual ranking of 2.78.  Those are significantly different players, and players Mike Riley’s asking his physically challenged team to overcome on a week-in and week-out basis.

Doesn’t seem fair?  It isn’t, but neither is life and neither is relieving a great man of his duties in the interest of doing better … and that’s what Oregon State may have to do in-order to take a step forward.

Mike Riley’s a very good coach and may be the best fit for a program doing “okay,” but if “okay’s” not good enough, then it might be okay to look beyond a coach that deserves better … fair or not.

About Arran Gimba