OSU has winner in coach Riley

    If Oregon State's Mike Riley isn't considered in the running for national coach of the year honors, it's an absolute shame.

    There's work still to be done for Riley and the Beavers, to be sure, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more remarkable coaching job this season.

    Consider: Oregon State was tabbed as the sixth best team in the Pac-10 Conference in the preseason media poll, and two uninspiring losses to start the season seemed to validate that.

    But the Beavers have won eight of their last nine games, including that improbable victory last Saturday in Arizona without starting quarterback Lyle Moevao or the Pac-10's leading rusher Jacquizz Rodgers.

    Yet, a victory today against rival Oregon ensures the Beavers' first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1965.

    That's a compelling case.

    Today's game is a monumental one for the program, certainly, but also for Riley, who can eliminate any questions about his ability to take Oregon State to the next level.

    And in the high stress, high stakes world of college football, Riley is a breath of fresh air.

    What's not to love?

    He's gutsy, confident, and always first class.

    He's transformed a walk-on wide receiver into a Fred Biletnikoff Award winner and a once downtrodden kicker into a Lou Groza Award recipient.

    He displays unbelievable trust in his players.

    It's why he elected to attempt a two-point conversion in the final seconds to beat Missouri in the 2006 Sun Bowl, or why he relied on kicker Justin Kahut for the game-winning field goal instead of taking a shot at the end zone late against Arizona last week — that despite Kahut missing an extra point earlier that would have tied the game.

    Riley's unwavering belief in his players has translated into a 4-0 record in bowl games and a 26-9 record the last three seasons against Pac-10 foes, which is the conference's second-best mark during that stretch.

    It's stunning to recall just three years ago, most of Beaver Nation wanted Riley out.

    No surprise Riley's still around.

    If you follow his teams, responding from adversity is a trademark.

    Despite notoriously bad starts, the Beavers are 13-2 in the months of November and December since 2006.

    "That's a huge reflection of Riley," senior offensive guard Adam Speer said. "He's huge on recruiting guys with high character."

    He shows genuine care for them, too.

    "He acts like your dad," Speer said. "He really loves his players and is really interested in what they are doing on and off the field. Any time you see him, he asks how school is going. If you are hunting, he asks how hunting is going.

    "If you are sitting by yourself, he'll sit there with you. Not many coaches will do that in the Pac-10. I talk to players from other teams, and the difference is night and day how much the coaches are into players here."

    I came to personally understand Riley's compassionate nature earlier this year.

    It occurred in the wake of tragedy.

    I lost a beloved friend, Geoff, last January following a hiking accident.

    Geoff and I spent the majority of our time together as inseparable friends inside Parker/Reser Stadium, and the bond we always shared was Oregon State football.

    He inspired in me a deep appreciation for the sport. He was the biggest Beavers' fan I ever knew, and it's a passion instilled in him by his father — an Oregon State graduate who never permitted us to miss a single Saturday home game in nearly eight seasons.

    My last great memory of Geoff is him recounting a trip to San Francisco, with his father of course, to watch the Beavers' thrilling win over Maryland in the Emerald Bowl.

    On a whim, shortly after Geoff's passing, I e-mailed Riley — knowing how much any small gesture from the coach could provide for a heartbroken father.

    His response?

    It blew me away.

    Riley offered to send an autographed football with a personalized message: Beaver Nation will always remember Geoff.

    In this era of win-at-all-cost mentalities and narrow-minded focuses, here's a coach who gets it.

    Riley always preaches to his players to live in the moment.

    Coach, now is your time to do the same.

    Who says nice guys finish last?

    Reach reporter Luke Andrews at 776-4469, or e-mail landrews@mailtribune.com

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