Head of the Class

CHAD SCARSBROOK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:21 AM ET

He's a link to the last three times the Winnipeg Blue Bombers brought home the Grey Cup.

He helped erase a 22-year championship drought as secondary coach in 1984 and went 40-32 in his four-year career as Blue boss, winning the silver mug in 1988 and 1990.

Since his departure, the Bombers have yet to return to the Promised Land.

Mike Riley is back in the city for the first time since the winter of 1991 and is taking in tonight's pre-season game at Canad Inns Stadium against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as the newest member of the Winnipeg Football Club's Hall of Fame.

"I'm truly appreciative of the city of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Football Club for this honour," Riley, now the head coach of the Oregon State Beavers, said recently from his office in Corvallis, Ore. "I don't think there's anything that's meant more to me in my entire career than to be asked to come back and be inducted into the Hall of Fame. That is very special to me and my family and all the people I worked with and coached."

Riley's journey to Winnipeg began as a grad assistant at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., serving under Hugh Campbell -- the man who would become head coach, general manager and eventually CEO of the Edmonton Eskimos. After beginning his coaching career as defensive co-ordinator and secondary coach at Linfield College in his home state of Oregon, Riley would make the trip north each summer to be a guest coach at Eskimos training camp. It was through the Esks that Riley met Cal Murphy. The rest is Blue Bombers history.

Murphy invited Riley aboard and to become the secondary coach for the Blue and Gold from 1983-1985, leaving after the '85 campaign 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.

Today, he's back in the place where he cemented his status as one of the premier coaches in Bombers history. But returning to Winnipeg isn't just about football. For Riley and wife Dee it's a personal affair, as their children Matthew and Kate were born in the city.

"Definitely seeing the people," Riley said of what he was looking forward to most in his return. "Seeing people with the football club, seeing people I worked with in the media and seeing friends and neighbours from town. I'm also really anxious to see the city because I know it's changed dramatically.

"There will be some familiarity and there will be a lot of new things. We really loved Winnipeg and the city in general."

As the last coach to win the big one, you can bet Winnipeggers will welcome Riley back with open arms.

Entering his 30th year in the profession, Riley has coached just about everywhere, including the CFL, World League, NFL and college ranks. But it's the stories from his time as Bombers boss he keeps coming back to.

Take the final few minutes of the 1988 Grey Cup, for example. The Bombers were leading 22-19 with 1:45 left in the fourth quarter and the B.C. Lions at the Bomber seven-yard line. B.C.'s Matt Dunigan went back to pass, but Winnipeg's Delbert Fowler got a hand on the ball. The ball ended up in the mitts of Bombers linebacker Michael Gray.

"The great lesson for defensive linemen is you never quit on a play. Once you rush the passer, you have to chase the ball. ... One of the most unexpected things in the world -- a defensive lineman makes an interception to win the ball game --you never know when that play will come unless you hustle and do what you're supposed to do. I tell that story every year to our team." Gray was named the game's outstanding defensive player, and the Bombers went on to win 22-21 to become the first team with a .500 record (they went 9-9 during the regular season) to win the Grey Cup.

"The other lesson from that team was the most important thing about a team's opportunity to win is how that team feels about itself," said Riley. "That team was able to persevere when nobody else thought we could win. "Walking off the field with that '88 Grey Cup team was as good (a memory) as any. It was an exciting finish and a great story. It was truly a Cinderella team."

The 1990 Bombers team, in stark contrast, was the best team in the league from the first day to the last day, finishing the season with a 12-6 record, tops in the CFL.

"It was really a good football team," said Riley. "Not a great offensive team but a great team. They always rose to the occasion and culminated it with a 50-11 Grey Cup win (over Edmonton). It was a pretty dominating group."

Riley recently signed a six-year contract with Oregon State with a rollover clause -- every time his school makes it to a Bowl game, another year is added to the contract. He is looking forward to finishing his career with the Beavers.

"I've been around the block and had lots of great opportunities," he said. "I'm 53 years old and just signed a long-term contract here. I'm certainly not looking past that for anything. I had thoughts about what I might do towards the end of my coaching career. We have tremendous memories of our time in Canada, and that would be fun, but I certainly can't look to that because I have many years ahead of me here building this program.

"As you go through a career, 30 years of coaching, all the parts of your career play a part in what you do. It forms what you are, and I like what I'm doing, and I plan on doing this for quite a while yet."


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