It's been a rough year for the Oregon State football program. Al Reser, the team's benefactor for whom the stadium is named, dies. The "three point stance" incident occurs. The team goes 5-7, missing out on the bowls, and we get to watch our rival play for the BCS Trophy tonight. And today, of course, brings bad news for OSU's immediate football prospects--Quizz is leaving (see the main page article).
However, that only affects the Beavs for a single year, as he was going to be a senior, and this post is focused on more long term.
At any rate--Mike Riley has got his work cut out for him.
Riley's an excellent coach, so the following should not be interpreted in any way as a vote of no-confidence. He's the dean of Pac-10 coaches, if you count his first stint with the Beavers in the 1990s (if you don't, then Cal's Jeff Tedford gets the honor). He's a tireless recruiter, he's not afraid to play bold on the football field, and he's well-liked (to whatever extent that matters). He's easily in the upper half of Pac-10 coaches (along with Tedford, Chip Kelly, and Mike Stoops), especially with Harbaugh going to the NFL.
But circumstances have changed, and he needs to up his game. A lot. Much of this has to do with the program down the road, obviously--and there are many things about the Ducks' ascendence which Riley has no control over. About the only thing he CAN control is the one weekend each fall where the Ducks and Beavs play.
And even ignoring the disparate levels of talent on the field--Kelly handed Riley his ass last time around.
The gap in preparation between the two teams was astounding. The Beavs played well against a superior opponent, but their hopes were continually dashed by things like batted-down passes, embarassing fake punts, and not-previously-employed offensive schemes run by the Ducks. Kelly had quite a few surprises in store for the Beavs; and the Beavers had none in return--they simply did what they always do, and the Ducks were ready for it.
And, it may get worse--Kelly's coaching methods and techniques have gotten a lot of attention; and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, expect the Ducks' program to be "flattered" quite a bit next year. Expect quite a few other Pac-12 schools to be displaying elements of "fastbreak football"--Riley's even hinted they may use some elements of it, though as part of a larger offensive package. And expect Chip Kelly to be coming up with something new, as defensive coordinators around the conference retool and rescheme to stop what the Ducks are doing today.
There are quite a few lessons to be learned from the school down the road (in addition to "graduate a future billionaire who is mad about sports"--the importance of that lesson cannot be diminished, and it too is something beyond Riley's control). Some coaches will refuse to learn them at all. Others will learn the wrong ones, and copy the Ducks' "system" but not the underlying methodology.
What Riley needs to learn from his counterpart in Eugene is not his schemes (which he probably knows very well already--he can watch tape), but his focus.
What separates the true innovators of the game (and Kelly deserves mention as such) from guys who just lead practice, call plays, and sit on high-schoolers' couches trying to suck up to their mothers, is attention to detail in EVERYTHING. How you conduct practice. How you watch tape. How you make adjustments for the next game. How you make adjustments IN-game. What separates the true innovators is "continuous improvement"--the drive to be better, constantly. While the term as used in business is frequently a meaningless buzzword (and really means, in most cases, the drive to be cheaper, not the drive to be better), in many circumstances it is not. It involves a willingness to take risks and tolerate setbacks, rather than punishing the first sign of failure.
The big question: Can Mike Riley do it?
I don't know.
"It" may require a massive break from habits and methods of the past. It may push the coach out of his comfort zone--a terrifying prospect in a profession that rewards conservative play and harshly punishes those who take risks and fail. It may require that he and his staff do unorthodox things--including things which fail, such as the "Edge Principle" defense Oregon tried a few years back. (Many Duck fans called for Nick Allioti's head after that debacle--I suspect they're all glad now that Mike Belotti declined to give it to them).
It may even require that he abandon some of his core values--replace the assistants and coordinators who have been faithful to him over the years, if these guys aren't willing to commit to such a project. The Ducks change OCs every several years--mainly because their guys are getting (mostly) promoted into better positions in other programs. Belotti. Tedford. Crowton. Kelly, Is Mark Helfrich getting phone calls? Certainly. Danny Langsdorf is a good coach, and this is not a call to get rid of him--but is he in demand elsewhere? After 5-7, I doubt it. Should the team be focusing on stability? Or should the program be run more like the military--a competitive environment where those who don't get promoted, get cashiered?
I don't know.
What I do know is that with a possible national champion down the freeway--at a school which seems to have little institutional regard for its fellow public universities in Oregon (I'm not taking about the football program so much), and another top-10 football program 400 miles to the east, the status quo is probably not going to cut it for long. Riley's a good football coach, and he deserves every chance to continue to develop the OSU football program.
But being good is no longer good enough.