SAN ANTONIO —
Their fans don’t stand for entire football games. And best that I can tell, Reser Stadium does not sway.
Their colors lean toward orange and black, not maroon.
The team mascot builds things rather than barks. And it wears a costume.
But in many respects, Oregon State might as well be Texas A&M. Or the Northwest version of the Aggies.
“We may be that school (A&M) in our state," OSU head coach Mike Riley said after a recent practice for today’s Alamo Bowl against Texas.
Like its “cousin" in the Lone Star state, Oregon State is a proud agricultural school isolated in a rural setting and committed to escaping the shadow of its big brother nearby.
The Beavers even have a slightly less hostile version of the Aggies-Longhorns blood feud with their in-state rival, Oregon, which — in Oregon State’s view — comes off as big, arrogant and swimming in money. For instance, OSU claims a $58 million athletic budget, which pales in comparison with Texas’ $163 million annual operation.
“We’re a bunch of farmers," OSU operations and recruiting intern Todd McShane said of his alma mater and Oregon, “and they’re a bunch of hippies."
And were it not for the Pac-12’s ban on such things, those same Oregon Ducks might have their own television network as well. The Nike Network, if you will.
And like the trending Aggies since their move to the SEC, the Beavers are on the rise on the back of a charismatic head coach who rides his bike to work each day (if Riley’s not driving his modest silver Prius) and overachieving, overlooked players who love football. Still, Oregon State might be college football’s best-kept secret in a pastoral setting where the stadium sits just a long punt away from dairy farms.
However, the word may be out. A win in the Alamo Bowl would give Oregon State only its third 10-win season ever. Seven OSU players were drafted by NFL teams in 2009, and 15 more have signed with NFL teams the past two years.
“Our goal was to make this Happy Valley West," Riley said, playing on Penn State’s remoteness. “We tell our players there’s no ceiling to what we might be."
Riley’s bunch is flirting with engineering the biggest one-year improvement in school history, matching the best turnarounds in the FBS at Ohio State and Middle Tennessee. A prolific offense and tough-minded defense flipped a 3-9 season into a 9-3 turnaround that — but for a four-point loss at Stanford — almost included wins over both Rose Bowl-bound champions from the Pac-12 and Big Ten.
Now OSU doesn’t have that transcendent player like A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. But until this magical season, both schools had just a single Heisman Trophy winner in Aggie back John David Crow (1957) and Beavers quarterback Terry Baker (1962) before the sport exploded.
The Aggies, however, have one thing the Beavers do not: instant access to hundreds of FBS-quality athletes in their home state.
“When you compare the 10 or 12 Division I kids from Oregon to the 400 out of Texas, it’s clear that we have to go elsewhere," Riley said. “That’s why we have a handful of kids from Texas (five) and Oklahoma."
Corrected Mark Banker, OSU’s defensive coordinator, “I think he’s over-exaggerating. I think there are only six (Division I prospects) a year."
One of those was Jordan Poyer, a lightly regarded quarterback/safety from wide-spot-in-the-road Astoria. Just a two-star recruit, he accepted OSU’s offer over Idaho and Portland State and made good on it as the school’s first consensus defensive All-American.
“You see Oregon, and you want to be as good as they are," said Poyer, a shutdown cornerback. “But we’re headed in the right direction. Our program’s on the rise."
Not only does OSU have to travel long distances for recruits, at least three coaches, including Riley, spend time in Texas, and Riley owns a two-story home on the Guadalupe River north of San Antonio. The lack of a rich tradition and high-profile success forces OSU to be creative and thorough in evaluating talent.
Asked how many five-star players are on the Beaver roster, Banker said, “None."
“None," he said, although a deeper check reveals two, including an offensive tackle with 34 career starts.
The point, however, remains that Oregon State has to do more with less. Texas, incidentally, signed eight five-star and 60 four-star players the past four seasons, although 15 of them are no longer on the team.
The Beavers stumbled upon James Rodgers out of Lamar Consolidated in Texas when a coaching friend of Riley’s tipped him off to the great talent in a high school all-star game whose only offer came from Texas State. Rodgers’ high school coach was so shocked to see an Oregon State recruiter that he questioned if the school was actually there to later entice Rodgers’ younger brother, Jacquizz, to the Northwest.
The comeback by the OSU recruiter, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf: “Who’s Jacquizz?"
The Beavers were both lucky and good when the brothers fell in their lap. The older Rodgers became the school’s all-time leading receiver with 222 catches, and Jacquizz followed up as the 2008 Pac-10 offensive player of the year before joining the Atlanta Falcons.
The uphill battle for OSU is never more obvious than in the school’s ongoing struggle with Oregon, which — thanks in large part to the arrival of innovative coach Chip Kelly and the omnipresence of Nike and Ducks benefactor Phil Knight — elevated the program to the elite level.
We’re actually closer to Nike than Oregon is — in miles," OSU associate athletic director Steve Fenk said. “We aren’t the Ducks, but they’ve forced us to be successful, and we’ve fed off their success. Everybody would like to have what Oregon has. Even USC doesn’t have what Oregon has, but it’s a little bit of an unfair comparison."
Yet, the Ducks remain a big measuring stick and have won five straight in the Civil War.
“Oregon is flashier than we are, and not only because of their uniforms," said safety Ryan Murphy, who chose OSU over UCLA, Fresno State, Cal and San Jose State. “Up and down I-5, you see Ducks billboards. In the malls, there are bigger Ducks sections than Beavers. We probably feel about them like A&M does Texas. What’s the saying? If you’re A&M, you root for two teams — A&M and whomever Texas is playing against."