“Should I stay or should I go now? If I leave there will be trouble, but if I stay it will be double.” Them there are the famous lyrics of an equally famous song by The Clash, but in this case I’m using them as a segue to the single most interesting question facing Oregon State athletics at this point: Keep or dismiss long-time head football coach Mike Riley.
I’ve always been a Mike Riley fan. Although not a card-carrying member of Beaver Nation, I’ve respected what he’s done in Corvallis and appreciated the level of success he’s managed to sustain in spite of the inherent disadvantages which come with coaching Oregon State. He routinely gets his team to bowl games, always puts a competitive product on the field, and occasionally makes a run at the conference title which has alluded the Beavers for the better part of 5 decades. He does it the “right way,” and manages to do so without the benefit of top-tier facilities, a high level of talent, and in a state lacking the advantage – local talent – a school like the Beavers need to offset the disadvantages that will likely never go away. But he also lacks the charisma to attract high-level talent, appears loyal to a fault, and annually loses a head-scratcher or two to a team scheduled with the sole purpose of a sure-fire win. Which is why we’ve arrived at this point.
Oregon State is never going to be Oregon. They don’t have the money, don’t have the facilities because of such, and don’t have the booster (Phil Knight) capable of overcoming the aforementioned with the cache of an iconic company, check, or in Phil’s case; the cash in his wallet or money clip. It pains some Beavers to say such, but others would like it no other way. They call themselves “Lunch Pail U,” and take a certain level of pride in the fact that they do more with less, and not with the bells and whistles synonymous with their rival to the south. But, while relishing the differences between them and the Ducks, there’s one thing they’d love nothing more to do similarly … win games.
Oregon’s winning and Oregon State isn’t, and Beavers don’t like it. It wasn’t long ago that OSU was a Civil War win away from a conference title, in fact, that was the case in consecutive years in 2008 and 2009. Since then however, Oregon’s been on an unprecedented stretch of winning, while Oregon State’s been slowly eroding before our eyes, and an ever-increasing segment of the fan base has seen enough. They’re not satisfied with mediocrity, and Riley to them is just that. They understand they may never be Oregon, but would at least like to be Oregon in a given year.
I’ve always argued that the true benefit of Riley is not only what he brings to Corvallis, but more so that he won’t leave. He may never be great, but he will be good, and he’ll be it as long as you allow him to. A young up-and-comer could infuse a little life into a program that could certainly use it, but he’d also parlay any success into a job a step beyond what Oregon State has to offer. Then you’re back at square-one, of a process better less often repeated. Therein lies the line. If you’re okay with the status quo and fear a retreat to the days of Jerry Pettibone, Dave Kragthorpe, and others during OSU’s historic 28-year streak of losing seasons, you’ll ride with Riley. However, if you’re tired of second rate performances and thirst for at least hope of success at the highest level, you’re willing to risk an occasional dumpster fire for a shot at that magical run. It’s those people that are ready to move on, while the former fans are all-in on the hometown boy from Corvallis High.
Football is different. You can struggle in women’s soccer, stink in baseball, even suffer through a losing stretch in hoops, but football is what’s responsible for funding the athletic department and generating the type of excitement that gets stadiums renovated, indoor practice facilities built, and makes things like the new OSU Basketball Center a reality, opposed to a pipedream only others can afford. Can Mike Riley create that buzz? Or is it worth the risk of losing a “good” coach, in an effort to find a potentially “great” one? Questions Oregon State and their alumnus must ask, and questions those responsible for making said decisions must answer.