PORTLAND — The whispers about job security are no longer an issue for Oregon State’s Mike Riley.
The amiable Beaver football coach has led his team to a 3-0 start and the No. 14 spot in the AP rankings. It’s a dramatic turnaround for a team that won only three games last season.
After consecutive wins over ranked teams, Oregon State is coming off a 38-35 victory over Arizona in Tucson last Saturday. It was Riley’s 75th victory in his two stints — he’s in his 12th season overall — as coach of the Beavers, making him the winningest football coach in school history.
Oregon State has not opened with a three-game winning streak since 2002. The Beavers host 2-3 Washington State on Saturday.
“Mike and his staff have done a great job," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “You can see those guys are playing with a lot of confidence and a sense of maturity as well."
Even Riley is a bit surprised.
“Actually, the seasons are always a bit of a mystery, but coming off a 3-9 you really didn’t know what to expect," he said. “The only thing I’ll say is that this team has worked hard. It was a good offseason and right through the summer and we had a really good fall camp with very few distractions. All the signs were good, you just had to start playing and see what came out of it."
Stanford coach David Shaw said he told people in the offseason that the Beavers would be a contender.
“I got a couple chuckles when I said, ‘You got to watch out for Mike Riley,’" Shaw said. “Those players love Mike Riley. They will go to battle for him every single week. I got a couple chuckles. Nobody’s chuckling now. They look as good as anybody in the nation right now the way they’re playing."
When the Beavers won just three games last year, disgruntled fans called for Riley’s dismissal. The vitriol, however, was tempered a bit by the respect Riley enjoys both in college football overall and in the Corvallis community.
Riley’s father, Bud, who passed away in August at age 86, was an assistant coach at Oregon State from 1965 to 1972 and again in 1979.
Mike was a quarterback at Corvallis High School, leading the team to the state title in 1970 before deciding to play at Alabama under legendary coach Bear Bryant. He was a reserve defensive back on the 1973 Tide team that went 11-1, losing to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.
Riley returned to Oregon State as head coach in 1997 after serving as an assistant at USC for several years under John Robinson. He coached the Beavers for two seasons before taking the job as head coach of the NFL’s San Diego Chargers, then returned to Oregon State in 2003 after Dennis Erickson left OSU to became head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
Overall, Riley is 75-63 as head coach of the Beavers. His total of 75 wins surpasses Lon Stiner’s 74 victories at Oregon State from 1933 to 1948. Riley has 48 league victories, tied for 17th on the league’s career list with Cal coach Jeff Tedford.
This season’s Beavers were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 North Division. But after the opener against Nicholls State was postponed by Hurricane Isaac, the Beavers upset then-No. 13 Wisconsin at Reser Stadium and the then-No. 19 UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl.
“I give a lot of credit again to Oregon State," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said after his team’s loss to the Beavers. “Mike Riley is a very good football coach."
Oregon State’s AP ranking is its highest since Nov. 29, 2009, when the Beavers were No. 13 heading into the Civil War rivalry game against Oregon. It is the team’s highest ranking this early in the season since they opened 2001 at No. 10.
Riley said he is keeping tabs on how his players are dealing with success.
“You find out week to week, right?" Riley said. “I thought their approach and everything was good since day one, and I mean camp. They haven’t really changed. I know it’s an issue, and we address it all the time about how you handle doing well. But this team seems to be pretty grounded."
Through three games, the Beavers appear solid on both sides of the ball. Against Arizona, sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion passed for a career-high 433 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner to Connor Hamlett with 1:17 remaining in the fourth quarter. Mannion was honored as Pac-12 player of the week. Wide receivers Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks are each averaging just over 134 receiving yards a game, ranking them fifth and sixth in the nation.
Oregon State’s defense is allowing an average of only 83 yards rushing per game, ninth nationally. The Beavers are in the middle of the Pac-12 for overall defense, allowing opponents nearly 399 yards a game.
This Saturday they will play at home against Washington State, which has lost two straight games, to conference foes Colorado and Oregon. Cougars coach Mike Leach said he does not know Riley personally but has a lot of respect for him.
“They’re a good, solid team," Leach said of the Beavers. “They’re a team that took their lumps last year, and it feels like this is their year, you know?"