By Lyle Spencer
The Alliance of American Football is new and exciting to Mike Riley, and to everyone else involved, but San Antonio isn’t new to him. He has coached in the Alamo City before. Taking his drive back to San Antonio to compete in a brand new league that kicks off the week following the NFL Super Bowl is as natural to Riley as breathing.
It might be a cliche, but it’s as accurate as Tom Brady under pressure. Mike Riley was born to be a coach. It’s in his blood, inherited from a man, Bud Riley, who loved and coached football and passed his passion along. Like father, like son.
The ride started when Mike Riley drove Corvallis High School to two Oregon state title games, winning one, and it’s been there ever since, across four decades of coaching collegians and pros.
“I kind of fell in love with the idea of the team and the whole idea behind strategy and technique,” Riley said. “That’s just always what I was going to do. I never was going to be a fireman… I knew I was going to be a coach. I knew I was going to be in football from the beginning, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Riley will teach athletes those techniques he has known virtually since birth, as a teen quarterback and then as a defensive back at the University of Alabama. Going back to his earliest days as a QB who could run and throw and lead, Riley has always loved a wide-open attack. San Antonio fans can expect their team to “fly around and have fun,” one of his favorite expressions.
Riley jumped into coaching after his playing days ended, and it’s been a wildly entertaining ride ever since. Riley spent six years cutting his coaching teeth as a defensive coordinator at Linfield College in Oregon before moving north to coach, as his father had, in the Canadian Football League.
After serving as an assistant, Riley took the head reins of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at 33, winning two Grey Cups in four seasons. Next came the San Antonio Riders of the WLAF, where he was 11-9 in two seasons before the team folded in 1993. Moving to the University of Southern California, Riley enjoyed great success as John Robinson’s offensive coordinator and QB coach. The Trojans won bowl games in three of Riley’s four seasons, and his next move brought him back to Corvallis.
Riley spent two seasons as OSU’s head coach, implementing a pro-style attack and establishing a talent base that would thrive in a highly competitive conference before accepting the San Diego Chargers’ head coaching job. After three seasons with the Bolts, going 14-34, he assisted with the New Orleans Saints for a year before returning home to the work that probably best defines his career.
From 2003 through 2014, wildly entertaining Oregon State teams went 93-80, winning five consecutive bowl games and six of eight overall. Riley directed three quarterbacks who went on to play in the NFL: Sean Canfield, Matt Moore, and Derek Anderson.
While he is primarily identified with his success with his hometown Beavers of Oregon State University, Riley’s most recent head coaching assignment was at Nebraska. While he didn’t win as often as he or the rabid Cornhuskers fan base wanted, going 19-19 in three years, Riley did what he’s always done. He taught young men how to play, compete and accept victory and defeat with equal measures of dignity.
Riley returned home to OSU after his three years at Nebraska and assisted another of his former QBs, four-year starter Jonathan Smith.
Now it’s back to the Alamo Coach, a man born to coach, doing what he’s always done.