The Pac-12’s model program is coming to Rice-Eccles Stadium this weekend.
It’s true: The University of Utah should aspire to be like Oregon State.
That sentence is not something I ever imagined writing during my phase of attachment to OSU as a coach’s kid in the 1980s. The school lacked anything resembling the facilities, commitment and belief in football that exist today.
My purpose here is not to justify Dave Kragthorpe’s coaching record. I’m just saying I’ve forgiven him.
The Beavers were playing a much different game than everybody else in the Pac-10 of that era. Everything about the program is respectable now — even better than that label, actually.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham admires the work of OSU’s Mike Riley, but you should have seen his expression of surprise when I informed him the Beavers rank No. 3 in conference victories in the past 10 seasons.
Nobody in the Pac-12 can match USC’s tradition or Oregon’s funding. Yet OSU’s level of performance under Riley, following Dennis Erickson’s revival of the program, is enviable. Utah is targeting a Pac-12 South title and an appearance in the Rose Bowl or the College Football Playoff someday, which is fine. The more attainable, short-term goal is doing what the Beavers do — maximizing their talent, staging upsets and generally overachieving, while striving to support a genuine Pac-12 program.
Utah can do that. The Utes have the administrative commitment and fan support it takes to play in this conference. Entering their third Pac-12 season, they just need to establish the kind of consistency on the field that distinguishes the Beavers.
They haven’t played in a Rose Bowl since 1965, they suffer through the occasional rough season and they’re looking up at Oregon and Stanford in the North right now. Yet considering my reference point of hopelessness, in the middle of those 28 straight losing seasons, everything the Beavers have become is phenomenal to me.
“It’s been a good story,” Riley said this week.
Riley fits into this story in a deep-rooted way. Having grown up in Corvallis as a son of an OSU assistant coach, he took the job in 1997, when the standards were so low and the challenge so great that a two-year record of 8-14 was judged favorably enough to make him the San Diego Chargers’ coach.
In between NFL jobs of his own, Erickson arrived in 1999. He broke the losing curse immediately, took the Beavers to the Fiesta Bowl in his second season and posted a 31-17 record before moving to the San Francisco 49ers and enabling Riley’s return.
“Those people were starving for a winner,” said Erickson, 66, now Utah’s co-offensive coordinator. “It was the funnest time I’ve ever had in coaching, without question.”
The jolt Erickson gave OSU undoubtedly helped Riley, changing the attitudes and expectations surrounding the program — and the facilities, including the renovated Reser Stadium.
“Physically, this thing has gone through a transformation that’s been impressive to see,” Riley said.
“It’s first-class,” Erickson said. “It’s unbelievable … such a far cry from the first time I was there. They’ve got a lot of pride in their program. They’re tough. They’ve got the kids that Mike believes in, and they win.”
The Beavers haven’t won enough to reach the Rose Bowl, keep up with Oregon lately or even satisfy all of their own followers, who expect more from them now. There were grumblings when Riley’s 2010 and ’11 teams went a combined 7-11 in conference play — which is Utah’s record for its two Pac-12 seasons.
OSU came back with a 6-3 mark last season, which serves as a good standard for the Utes.
When they hit six wins in league play, I’ll award them a distinction that once sounded like anything but a compliment: They will have become like Oregon State.
Records in Pac-12 Conference games since 2003:
Oregon State 50-37
Arizona State 41-46
Washington State 23-65
* includes wins vacated due to NCAA sanctions