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Breaking Down "A Long, Long Rebuild"

Gary Andersen faces a long list of hurdles in his rebuilding project at Oregon State.
Gary Andersen faces a long list of hurdles in his rebuilding project at Oregon State.

Sometimes I think Mike Parker might just be Gary Andersen's worst nightmare. Wayne Tinkle's and Pat Casey's too. The voice of the Beavers and co-host of the daily Joe Beaver show's lack of objectivity and endless unfounded optimism sets Oregon State's premier program coaches up for disappointment in the eyes of those who pay their salaries by raising expectations to irresponsible levels.

And whenever a voice of reason, or one with outside objectivity, comes to the conversation, the over-reaction is off the chart. More importantly, it distracts from actually addressing the very real problems that Oregon State must address in order to gain, regain, or maintain, the level of performance and success those invested in the program are paying for.

Case in point this week was an early projection of next fall's Pac-12 football season by Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, and specifically his statement that "Oregon State could be the most improved team in the conference ... and should still be the worst. Rebuilding in Corvallis is a long, long process."

Wilner is far from the authoritive voice on Pac-12 athletics, or college sports generally, and his picks that fluctuate right around the 50% mark demonstrates that his preference of certain styles often clouds his objectivity as well. But he is one of the more respected writers covering the conference nationally, and one of the few who cover the conference that have the experience and knowledge to differentiate what he sees from what he hears in the promotional pieces that pass for press conferences in this conference. In an era where more and more of the so-called major papers are hiring low cost cub reporters with a charge to get page views, and the locals don't have the readership for the budget for anyone capable of actual analysis, any shred of objectivity is at once remarkable, and something to be taken seriously.

It's not entirely Parker's fault; he's paid by the athletic department to whip up enthusiasm to sell tickets to an often inferior product, and in his spare time, call the games. Journalistic objectivity was sold down the river long ago by paying for the coverage call of games that otherwise would go uncovered on the radio. The advent of conference owned/run networks haven't substantially changed that; as long as sales trump journalism, promotion will take precedence over objectivity.

Because we as patrons and investors in the program want to have some insight into what we are getting win or lose, we not only indorse it, we continue to demand it.

But this past week's outburst on the Joe Beaver radio show, coupled with a couple of other troubling events, and the curious reactions they have received, underscored the need to look in depth at the state of affairs that has led to a "long, long" rebuilding process.

The first issue is the definition of "long".

Parker seemed to automatically assume Wilner was making reference to the 28 years of losing throughout the era of incompetence that preceded the arrival of Mike Riley, and the subsequent actual resurrection of the program.

And, in his preferred overoptimistic mode, continued to advance the notion that it won't take long, citing the fact that it only took 3 years following the Pettibone debacle to get to a bowl game, and 4 to get to the Fiesta Bowl, never mind the fact that the circumstances were so different in college football less than 20 years ago as to be irrelevant to the current situation. Or that that level of performance couldn't be sustained.

Wilner's perspective of course, falls in between these extremes, and doubtless falls more in line with the more common expectation that this is optimistically a 5-7 year rebuild process. It of course might not take that long, but it could also take even longer.

That qualifies as a "long, long" rebuild without being anywhere near a 28 year exercise, because in today's world of college football, 2-3 years is normally the expected timeframe for a rebuild by investors who aren't paying premium prices for losing seasons. And its probably a bit demoralizing for Beaver fans who have heard both the sales narrative and the contrasting notion that Oregon State can't expect to do any better than the Riley era that they hope isn't the case.

It needn't be, because, again, reality probably falls in between, and, with a dose of accountability, should be attainable, at least if a culture of candor replaces the one of spin cycles we've all gotten dizzy from recently.

So lets take a look at what might occur in the course of a several year rebuild. One Wilner characterized as long, mostly because the list of challenges that have to be overcome is long. Very long.

First of all, Oregon State is already well into year 2. Year 1 was, at 2-10, and 0-9 in conference, undisputably the worst season since the end of the dark ages. The Beavers were beaten by a double digit margin in all but one of the losses, and blown out, if not downright uncomptetitive, in 7 of them.

The causes were a combination of one of the least experienced teams in the country and the history of college football, never mind the conference, and the absence of a Pac-12 quarterback, a problem compounded by a curious decision to compound the problem by not even using the program's best weapon to fullest advantage.

This experience, depth, and talent deficiency was largely the culmination of the extended nose-dive the program has taken, in which results have now declined 3 years in a row, and 6 of the last 7, with the Alamo Bowl year the lone exception, and the only year in the last 9, since the 10 win 2006 season, that the Oregon State program has seen an improved season over the one prior.

What Parker frequently begrudgingly characterizes as "some slippage" under Riley was indeed slippage, but more on the order of an avalanche, which technically is "some slippage".

But "some slippage" sounds like its a slight problem, and in fact, the issue is Oregon State, whether its under Mike Riley or Gary Andersen, is trying to play Power-5 football with middle of the road Mt. West personnel. The only question most games has been in which quarter the opponent will expose that.

Those 2-3 year rebuilds come at programs where the personnel, and years of good recruiting, are present. Riley won't get 5-7 years to produce respectable results at Nebraska, but then he walked into far more on-hand talent and resources than he walked away from.

The first step to competitiveness is recruiting, and under Andersen, it has been better than ever in Corvallis, this past week's disturbing decommit of John Bates in favor of Boise State not withstanding.

But the fact is Oregon State will again be one of the least experienced teams to take the field this fall, and still one of the thinnest as well. Last year's first year starters will only be second year starters, and last year's recruits are mostly red-shirt freshmen.

Oregon State loses their 2 best offensive linemen, with no immediately equivalent replacements, haven't resolved the quarterback issue, must totally rebuild the defensive line, and will still be dangerously thin at linebacker.

This while the Beavers will be facing a markedly tougher schedule, with 10 opponents that went to bowl games, and only 1 built in win instead of 2 this past year in the non-conference portion. Road trips to Pullman and Berkeley will be exchanged for ones to Seattle and Palo Alto.

But more importantly, despite having 7 home games, the Beavers will have to play 10 weeks in a row, and against opponents who won't have to. This almost always results in a loss that could have been a win anytime any one tries this. See Arizona last season, for the latest example. It's one reason Parker's hope for an immediate turnaround is probably overly optimistic, but one of many Wilner didn't overlook in tempering his expectations.

This while the Beavers' seniors will be on their 4th offensive coordinator, and the defense will be under their 3rd defensive coordinator in 3 years.

Oregon State will be the underdog in every game this season save the Idaho State game, unless late in the season the Beavers have markedly exceed all reasonable expectations, AND some other team starting the season in better shape has their season go totally off the rails. That's certainly possible (Cal comes to mind in light of the departure of Offensive Coordinator Tony Franklin, the architect of the "Bear Raid", and the loss of not only NFL bound QB Jared Goff, but essentially all of their receivers that formed the deepest pass catching corp in college football), but the Beavers will have to pull off several significant upsets to get to a 4 win season.

That makes year 3, with considerable continued progress, the earliest a chance for a non-losing season is a possibly. A 6 game turnaround like led to the Alamo Bowl isn't ever likely; that was one of the biggest turnarounds in CFB in modern history, and had a lot of more experienced players around. And given that the Pac-12 is deeper than at any point in the 100 year history of the conference, continued improvement could well occur and still result in a 5-7 season, without anything happening that would necessarily call the direction of the program under Andersen into question. A bottom tier bowl is the probable ceiling in year 3, and one most Beaver fans, after sitting at home during the holidays for 5 out of 7 years (really 6, given that very few could afford to go to Hawaii), would gladly welcome.

But it means year 4, and more improvement, before even a mid-tier bowl, like the Sun or Holiday, which constitutes the minimum standard to be expected, is likely.

And the 2018 schedule has a built in non-conference loss, the last of former Athletic Director Bob DeCarolis' body-bag road trip games without even a return game, this one to Ohio State. Another inconvenient detail Parker's optimism overlooks, but Wilner's assessment of a long haul doesn't.

That strategic error could push a mid-tier or better bowl off to year 5 even if no bumps in the road are encountered. And getting to a quality bowl, or even a shot at winning the Pac-12 North, and the berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and the shot at a NY6 bowl, Rosey or otherwise, doesn't signal the successful end of a rebuild; a program must demonstrate it can maintain at a competitive level. That level of loftiness means little if its followed by a nose dive like followed the Alamo Bowl. Oregon State investors should ultimately require the program to sustain competence, not merely achieve it, and not continue to employ those that don't.

So there you have a scenario for a 6 year rebuild, and one that went very well if its done by then.

Now lets look at another potential bump.

Andersen's second recruiting class currently contains a half dozen JC transfers, an unusually high number that causes concern among many. Its understandable; Andersen faces a number of serious roster deficiencies that require immediate attention. But it also creates another problem in a couple of years, particularly if next year's recruiting class also has a heavy reliance on transfers.

Even if all of these JC transfers turn out to be terrific, Parker unfounded optimism level, they are still not 4 year guys, and rarely even 3. They will have to be replaced again sooner.

Its possible Oregon State could get themselves into a position in the next couple of years of not being able to bring in enough non-walkons (regardless of star level!) to replace the players exiting.

The Beavers have more than 25 juniors, and so will lose more than 25 players after next season, and the number of current sophomores and incoming JCs is also greater than 25, meaning another large turnover after the 2017 season. Though not all on scholarship, there's also bound to be other attrition; there always is.

NCAA rules, with few exceptions, limit a program to awarding 25 new scholarships in a year, and if there are 30 scholarship players leaving, they can't all be re-awarded.

It's the real reason why so many people are wary of JC transfers, and one of the overlooked issues that led to 2 losing seasons and another 7-5 campaign in the years following the height of the Ericksen era in the Fiesta Bowl.

Parker seems to have overlooked this, but Wilner certainly did not.

Finally, lets examine another point, Andersen's track record, and how it relates to rebuilding. This the point Parker's cohort Jon Warren questioned; specifically the equity of prior accomplishments. While a potential predictor of things to come, it's of no direct relevance to each new rebuild, where new players who have no recollection of 7 years ago must be assembled into a team capable of winning.

Andersen's only rebuild was at Utah State; he arrived at Wisconsin to a well-stocked top 25 program. The first two years in Logan were 4-8 campaigns; it wasn't until year 3 that the Aggies even broke above .500. Not until year 4 did Utah State win with regularity, and that team, which had an extra game to get a win with, was still a Potato Bowl team.

And that wasn't even against Mt. West opposition; it was accomplished in the WAC. The Mt. West Mountain division championship and Poinsettia Bowl trip didn't come until year 5, after Andersen had left for Wisconsin. And that team still lost to a sub-.500 Utah team, and by double digit margins to both Boise State, in what was a down year for the Broncos, and BYU.

So even Andersen's lone effort at rebuilding, while noteworthy, was a 5-6 year project, had to be completed by others, and didn't come against Pac-12 level resistance.

It could go even better at Oregon State, and still take longer. And there's scant recent history of improvement in Corvallis, extending across multiple coaching staffs and athletic administrations, and multiple total turnovers of the roster.

Also, consider Colorado. The Buffs are headed into year 4 of what is a second attempt at a rebuild similar to what Oregon State is attempting, and haven't gotten to 5 wins yet, never mind a bottom tier bowl.

So while Parker takes loud exception to Wilner, its Wilner that has taken facts into account.

It doesn't mean Oregon State can't, or won't overcome these challenges, but the Beavers do have plenty to do.