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OSU's Catch 22

Winning solves everything. Losing causes questions.

Susan Ragan-USA TODAY Sports

You might say that Bob DeCarolis has a decision to make about OSU football coaching future, one with no easy right answer.  However, I think that decision's already been made, and was made years ago.  Which perhaps makes this giant article a bit of a waste of time.

We know that OSU can't easily fire Mike Riley (even if they want to) because of his long term contract.  And while there is a very vocal group of fans calling for the end of the Riley era, there's also a slightly-less-but-still audible group defending him.  And neither of these groups matter as much as the top money boosters, where the majority of donations come from.  There's no way to make everyone happy here.

So what are the (semi) realistic options?

Option #1:  Fire Riley (a.k.a. encourage him to retire), and find someone who will work for his salary or less, because the Athletic Department can't afford any more, especially now that they are paying Riley's buyout.  That limits your options to unproven and/or low profile guys, as Mike Riley is already the lowest paid head coach in the Pac-12.

OSU isn't a high profile job, but it's still a Pac-12 school with a recent history of moderate success and upgraded facilities (with more to come in 2016).  It should be able to have reasonable success trying to draw from lower level programs (unlike, say, the coaching searches following Jay John or LaVonda Wagner).  Getting a head coach from a Mountain West or other non-Power 5 school seems doable.  The problem is that most, if not all, of those coaches are going to look at this as a stepping stone and not a permanent destination.

Let's say, in the best case scenario, OSU finds the next Urban Meyer from Bowling Green or Jim Tressel from Youngstown State.  They're gone to greener pastures in 2-5 years to someone who can pay more money.  Maybe the program is improved to that point where we can afford someone a little better, but that's no guarantee, and basically we're looking for the next, next Urban Meyer or Jim Tressel.  Probably more likely is that we hire Paul Wulff 2.0 and end up going further down the rabbit hole.  Either way, we won't know who we're going to be able to get until Riley's gone;  you can't easily coach search in college athletics while you still have a head coach.

It's also possible we could hire some currently unemployed (i.e. washed up) older coach for a lower amount of money.  Dennis Erickson might come back.  Jerry Glanville's probably available.  There's probably some other big name coaches who didn't retire entirely by choice.  While I don't see either of those specific names being good options, there might be others that are.  But do any of those names actually seem like a better idea than Mike Riley, particularly those that would working for $1.5M or less?  My guess would be no.  And even if we found a Dennis Erickson circa 1999 again, it would likely be a temporary situation, due to either retirement or being a stepping stone yet again.  Maybe a big enough name could earn a temporary boost in donations, but (as with all college hires), the firing has to come before the hiring.

I do want to reiterate here that there is a popular belief amongst people who know far more about football than I ever will is that the only reason OSU is even semi-relevant is Mike Riley.  I think that's a very important thing to repeat; it's often wise to listen to people who do this for a living.  They're not always right, but their opinions are usually worth listening to.

Option #2:  Maintain Riley, replace Banker and maybe some other assisstants.  This is a pretty popular opinion, but I'm not sure Riley will allow that, particularly with Banker, who has been with Riley for almost 20 years.

The general consensus was that John Garrett's debut season as offensive coordinator was an unsuccessful one, but to me it felt a lot more like more of the same old Oregon State.  The play calling struck me as conservative.  The lack of hurry-up ability displayed by the Beavers at times this year was frustrating.   Not being an X's-and-O's guy, I don't feel comfortable pointing at Garrett after one injury filled year and saying he's the problem, but he certainly didn't impress.

Plus, someone who had a better understanding of how to call time outs would be nice.

Option #3:  Do nothing, maintain the status quo.  Riley's had four disappointing years in the last five, but he is the winningest coach in OSU history.   Everything's cyclical, a case can be made that after four third place seasons in a row, they're just on an equivalent downswing.  And while they just missed a bowl game this year, the 2014 campaign had a better record than any year between 1972 and 1997.  It can definitely get worse.

However, based on returning on the field personnel, unless another 2012 miracle is in the works (with the added uncertainty of a rookie starting QB), next year is going to be a down year as well.  Anything more than four wins at this point would come as a pleasant surprise to me.  So as long as we're not replacing Riley & Co this year, we should probably plan on not doing it next year as well, as it will be hard to underachieve, and we're unlikely to make any coaching changes next year based on expectations alone.  In my opinion, this is, at minimum, a 2-year decision.

* * * * * *

Despite exploring all three options, I'm 99% sure the answer that OSU is going to go with #2 or #3.  I think there's basically zero chance the administration moves on from Riley at this point, unless he decides to retire.  There's a distinct chance they'll never move on from Riley until it's on his terms.  Unless Wesley Edens or Don Robert decides to take a more active role, or some other magnanimous donor appears out of nowhere, the money just isn't there.  And, even if it were, I'm not sure the Athletic Department pulls the trigger anyway.

To me, the question at this point is less about what OSU's athletic department does and more about how fans react.  Reser average paid attendance was 42,175 this year, a little over 92% of capacity.  That's down from 42,964 last year (a non-Civil War year), and well down from the 43,424 fans the Beavers averaged in 2012 (including the terribly attended Nicholls State game, attendance was over 45,000 in the six other games).  And as someone who attended six home games, I can attest that the announced attendance was always quite a bit higher than actual.  I will bet those numbers come down next year for a suspect team with a mediocre home slate that includes Stanford, Washington, and UCLA as the marquee games.  I can't imagine Colorado, San Jose State, and Weber State will open many wallets.

For the first year in recent memory, even the Civil War had empty corners of the stadium, although paid attendance will tell you otherwise.   I interpret this to mean that not only have Beaver fans given up, but Duck fans have quit caring about attending a Duck game for cheaper than they can get into most of their home games for because it's just another expected blow out win.  Admittedly, some of it might be that the forecast scared away a few extra people, but still....it's the Civil War.

There's nothing more dangerous to an athletic department than an apathetic fan base.  If the current on the field trend continues, fan base apathy will turn into money lost in ticket sales.  At what point does the money lost from ticket sales start to balance against the money saved by retaining Mike Riley?  It probably is going to take several more years of being sub-par, or a couple of years of being abysmal.  No matter what, I don't think it comes soon.

Personally, I'll still be in the stands next year if it's Mike Riley coaching, or if it's Jim Tressel or Rocky Long or Elmer Fudd.  Whether you think that makes me a loyal Beaver fan or part of the problem probably corresponds to how you're likely to vote in the poll below.