Life of Riley

CHAD SCARSBROOK -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 10:04 AM ET

Mike Riley knew exactly what he wanted to be when he was growing up.

"I really never thought of doing anything else," the head coach of the Oregon State University Beavers said recently from his office in Corvallis, Ore. "My dad (Bud) was a coach and I hung around the locker-rooms growing up. I hung around the practice fields and the games, rode the buses and never entertained any other (occupation).

"I knew I wanted to be a high school history teacher and coach football."

The history teacher and high school coach job never materialized for Riley, the former Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach who's a link to the last three Grey Cup championship teams. Instead, Riley ended up coaching seemingly everywhere.

He came to the CFL after six seasons as defensive co-ordinator and secondary coach at Linfield College in Oregon, the state he grew up in.

"While coaching at Linfield, I had a lot of connections in Canada," said Riley, noting he served under current Edmonton Eskimos CEO Hugh Campbell when he was a grad assistant at Whitworth College. Riley would make the trip north to Edmonton each year to be a guest coach at Eskimos training camp.

"Through my experiences in Edmonton, I got to know Cal Murphy and when Cal got the (coaching) job in Winnipeg, he asked me to join him on his staff."

Riley became the secondary coach for the Blue and Gold from 1983-1985, leaving after the '85 season to take a defensive co-ordinator position at Northern Colorado. He returned to Winnipeg the following year and became a head coach for the first time in his career. In his four years as Bombers head coach, the club went 40-32, winning Grey Cups in 1988 and 1990.

"It was the greatest city with the greatest people and just about the best time I've had in football," Riley recalled of his time spent in the River City. "I loved every minute of it. I had a great mentor in Cal, he was the best, and I just loved our teams. I'm really appreciative of my time there."

And you might be surprised to discover that the one Bombers moment that stands out more than any other did not involve a Grey Cup winning Gatorade splash. Instead, Riley remembered the 1990 Eastern Final against Toronto.

"They had beaten us four times that year -- three in the regular season and once in the pre-season," Riley said. "It was a real dogfight ... We were tied in the fourth quarter and I remember (quarterback) Tom Burgess ran right down the middle of the field on a scramble. He wasn't a runner but it seemed like he just ran forever. I just remember the (Winnipeg) Stadium erupting when he was sliding at the 20-yard line. Trevor Kennerd kicked the game-winning field goal. It was a phenomenal experience."

Before the 1991 season, Riley was offered the job as head coach of the San Antonio Riders of the up-start World League (now NFL Europe).

"It was an unbelievable decision, I don't even know today why I did it," Riley said of leaving Winnipeg. "We were still really young and we were willing to step out and take the opportunity. It was a decision I basically lost sleep over for a long time. You enter a new league that wasn't even near the calibre of the CFL as far as the organization and the players went. But it ended up being a good experience."

From there, Riley landed an assistant head coach position with the University of Southern California and as offensive co-ordinator/quarterbacks coach, helped the team win three Bowl games between 1993-1996. He also groomed several future NFL players including quarterback Rob Johnson, wide receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Johnnie Morton, and offensive lineman Tony Boselli.

After his first stint as head coach of Oregon State between 1997-98, he made it to prime time in 1999 as head coach of the NFL's San Diego Chargers.

"It was a unique opportunity to all of a sudden be coaching the Chargers," Riley said with a laugh. "The day-to-day coaching was no different from college or the CFL. The football was fun, we just weren't a good enough team."

Today, Riley coaches at Oregon State and lives about "two minutes" from the stadium.

"My goal is to stay here and coach it out," said the 53-year-old, noting he has no plans to retire in the near future. "I probably wouldn't go back (to the NFL) but I won't say that I won't go back there in some fashion. I enjoyed my year in New Orleans tremendously (as an assistant head coach after being fired by the Chargers). I'd also coach in the CFL again. I don't close any doors."

Riley said he still keeps tabs with how the Bombers are doing from year to year and has pictures of the Grey Cup team adorning his office walls. Three ex-CFLers also work for Riley -- Greg Newhouse (who coached with the B.C. Lions, Eskimos and Birmingham Barracudas), Danny Langsdorf (former Eskimos offensive co-ordinator) and Jim Gilstrap (former coach in Saskatchewan, Toronto, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Hamilton).

"We talk about the CFL a lot," said Riley. "Guys that coach up there, they love the league. It remains a topic of conversation for the rest of their careers."

When he's not busy coaching, Riley likes to spend time with his wife of 26 years Dee and his children Matthew, 21 and Kate, 18. The Riley kids, who were both born in Winnipeg, recently decided to take a term off school and travel across Europe together for two months.

"I'm thankful of the little things in Winnipeg," said Riley. "We lived in Westwood -- such a nice area with great friends and neighbours. I miss it. We had a great life there. I'll always be thankful."


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