After 28 wins in three years, and five consecutive bowl-game wins, Mike Riley unquestionably one of the Pac-10's top coaches

CORVALLIS, Ore. — On a pleasant August afternoon recently, Mike Riley kicked back with a handful of writers and talked about the old days, how he was recruited by Jim Sweeney at Washington State, what it was like to play for Bear Bryant at Alabama.

The breadth of those experiences, and a lifetime spent in coaching at a dozen different places, brings him to appreciate where he is now: Entrenched.

He finally has continuity — he’s entering his ninth year as Oregon State football coach — and he says of it, “It’s been an enlightenment for me, and I appreciate it more than ever.”

Laughing, he says, “That’s why I continue to fight for term in my contract, not anything else.”

Surely he’s preaching to the choir. This is a program that’s won 28 games in three years, beaten USC twice and won five straight bowl games under Riley, tops in the nation. Each time OSU gets to a bowl, it extends Riley’s deal one more year. He’s good through 2015.

Still, he takes very little for granted. This is a man who drives to work in a Toyota Prius, one of those famous gas-misers, even though home is two miles away.

“A millionaire, but he drives a little Prius,” muses safety Lance Mitchell. “It’s crazy.”

Riley can think of a lot of reasons for pause with this OSU team — defensive end, a new secondary, an offensive tackle spot, some young receivers, and the camp loss of wideout Darrell Catchings to ligament and tendon damage in his right hand.

“I think we’re picked higher than ever,” he says, referencing a Pac-10 media vote of No. 4, “but to me, we have more questions than ever. I would have picked last year’s team [9-4, and denied a Rose Bowl berth only by a loss to Oregon] higher than this year’s team.

“Not that I don’t have faith, but we’ve got a lot to prove.”

If there are potential shortfalls, they won’t be in the foundation. At 56, Riley has come to understand the beauty of longevity, the wonders of sameness.

Only through trial and error did that happen. Remember, he left here after two years of rebuilding in 1998 when the San Diego Chargers dropped a head-coaching offer onto his lap.

“It was there; either do it or don’t do it,” he says. “I did it. I can sit here with this job and say I’ve got no regrets, but I can say I wouldn’t do it again.”

The NFL, with its multiple masters at almost every franchise, spit Riley out. He got lucky and went back to OSU in 2003 when Dennis Erickson left.

“I didn’t understand it until about two years ago,” said Riley, “what that time really means, what it really means to have seniors become leaders, so they get it and become part of the teaching models.

“That’s always been my goal, to have guys come in and learn with a foundation. Guys learn how to play and grow without changes. If somebody has three coordinators in four years, I don’t see how they have a chance to reach their potential.”

You begin to know how important continuity is to Riley when you realize he’s known a couple of his staff members since junior high school. The coordinator of OSU’s salty defenses, Mark Banker, has been with Riley 12 of the past 13 years.

“He’s a great guy to work for,” said Robin Ross, ex-Western Washington coach doing a second tour on Riley’s staff. “I like the way he runs his program. I tried to pattern a lot of things at Western Washington the way he did here.

“I remember when I first got hired here four years ago, he said, ‘If you like to just coach football and be around good people, you’ll enjoy it here.’ “

That’s what Mike Riley has going. The Beavers may have holes to fill, but the most important player is back.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com