There is no doubt that Jonathan Smith’s hire of Mike Riley was a polarizing one. Though many in the media have been optimistic about his return, and what it means for Smith, fan reactions have run the emotional gamut. Those with an optimistic view of his return remember the zero- and one-win seasons under Joe Avezzano and Jerry Pettibone, while other fans are frustrated as they recall the dominance of Oregon in the Civil War in Riley’s last seven seasons.
When studying Riley’s history with OSU, it is easy to understand either point of view. Though he did have moderate success prior to the end of his second stint as the head coach, his approach on both sides of the ball felt stale in comparison to the modern, evolving styles being implemented by conference opponents. Riley’s loyalty to his assistant coaches and coordinators added to the growing frustration regarding his direction for the program. Additionally, slow starts, and losses to FCS foes also drew the ire of many Beaver fans. Despite all of this, Riley was 21-17 in his final three seasons, finishing as high as 3rd in the Pac-12 standings, even appearing in two bowl games.
Though he wasn’t perfect, he did have his strengths as a head coach. He was always touted for his ability to recruit and development players, many of whom have gone on to have successful careers in the NFL. Riley was also a great leader, and even when his teams struggled, it never felt as if they had quit on him. Often the program would show signs of continued improvement throughout the season, and come November, the Beavers were always a “tough out.” Riley also had a genuine love for the university, and the city of Corvallis. No one will deny that there have been ups and downs to Riley’s career at OSU. Over the years, there have been opportunities to both criticize and praise his abilities as a head coach, and fans on both ends of the spectrum have made compelling arguments defending their positions on Mike Riley.
Reading the tea leaves after the hiring of Jonathan Smith left little doubt that Riley would be back in some capacity with the Beavers. A mentor role, or some other front office position with the team seemed a likely landing spot for Riley, but when news broke that he’d been hired on as the assistant head coach, his critics were skeptical (to put it mildly), and understandably so. To many fans, it seemed the decision was a step backward, rather than one that builds toward the future of the program. However, after the tedious, controlling, hostile environment created by Gary Anderson, this hire felt like a breath of fresh air, and there are many reasons fans should be optimistic about having Riley back in black (and orange).
The title of assistant head coach is usually associated the development of a specific position, such as running backs or tight ends, and it is likely that Riley will be assigned similar duties as well. He has experience on both sides of the ball, so where he will end up is anyone’s guess. For Riley, this role of position coach is the perfect opportunity as it plays directly into his strengths as a leader and a teacher of student athletes. Focusing on a specific group within the program will likely refresh and rejuvenate the 64-year-old, as it will mark the first time since 2002 that he won’t be dealing with the pressure of being a head coach. According to Smith, Riley’s other duties, though not fully outlined, will involve recruiting, game planning, and providing guidance to the first-time head coach, as needed. Again, these are things in which Riley has excelled. In fact, the experience of Riley combined with the youth and energy of Smith, will be a dynamic recruiting tool for the Beavers going forward. Additionally, Riley’s new role likely won’t allow him the opportunity to revisit the duties that have been a struggle for him in past seasons. It is up to Smith to shoulder the pressure of the gig. Staffing concerns, play calling, and overall program direction are now Smith’s concerns, not Riley’s.
Fans should be encouraged by Smith’s direction, and his decision to bring Riley back to Oregon State. This hire is not a flashy one, but its smart. There is tremendous upside with little risk. Smith could have surrounded himself with young, inexperienced personnel that would make easy scapegoats if he struggles early. However, Smith, like Riley, seems to have little ego. He doesn’t need to be the most innovative or experienced guy on staff. He knows he doesn’t have all the answers, and fans should admire the fact that he isn’t afraid to go and get those that do. For the Beavers, there really is nowhere to go but up, and Smith’s hiring of Mike Riley shows that he is ready to begin the ascent.