OSU vs. UNLV pits teacher vs. student

When he became the San Diego Chargers' coach in 1999, Mike Riley didn't hesitate to ask Mike Sanford to join his staff.

They had shared an office at Southern California -- Riley as offensive coordinator, Sanford as wide receivers coach -- and formed a strong bond as they traded and developed coaching philosophies.

So Riley called Sanford, then Notre Dame's quarterbacks coach, on college football's national signing day. Irish coach Bob Davie asked his offensive coordinator, a guy named Urban Meyer, to talk Sanford out of creating his own signing day with the NFL.

Not a chance.

"I think he's the greatest guy in the world," Riley said. "I really enjoyed working with him. We worked tremendously well together."

This week, they are working against each other. Riley's Oregon State team plays Sanford's UNLV squad at 8 p.m. Saturday before an expected crowd of close to 30,000 at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Riley is in his second stint with the Beavers after three years with the Chargers in which he went 14-34. Though he struggled to win in San Diego, Riley has transformed Oregon State from a gridiron joke into a program that can count on a bowl almost every season.

He coached the Beavers in 1997 and 1998, going 5-6 the second season for the school's best record in 27 years. Riley then left for the NFL, turning over two strong recruiting classes to Dennis Erickson, who oversaw Oregon State becoming a Pacific-10 Conference power.

When Riley returned before the 2003 season, he continued the success. OSU has gone 49-24 since, winning five bowls, including the Las Vegas Bowl that first season. Riley was the Pac-10 Coach of the Year last season, leading the Beavers to a 9-4 record that included handing USC its only loss.

Riley said he sees a similar building process at UNLV. Sanford, in his fifth season, is 12-36, but the Rebels improved by three victories last year in going 5-7.

"I've watched the program closely because of Mike being there and absolutely see that improvement and know personally how long it takes to make those jumps," Riley said. "He's in a tough league, and he's building a program. I've seen it grow every year. I just hope we can get out of there with a win because I know it's going to be very hard."

Riley and Sanford first worked together in 1993 at USC. Two years later as they rotated quarterbacks Brad Otton -- UNLV's QBs coach in 2004 -- Kyle Wachholtz during the season, they realized the Trojans were nearly unstoppable when they went into the shotgun 2-minute offense.

Sanford thought if they were so good in that offense, "why don't we just run it in the game?"

Riley and Sanford sold the idea to USC coach John Robinson, and the man who would end his career coaching UNLV from 1999 to 2004, gave the OK before the Rose Bowl.

Northwestern entered that game as the college football's feel-good story, having pulled off a remarkable turnaround to end a 47-year stretch without even a bowl appearance.

USC surprised the Wildcats with the new offense. Wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson caught 12 passes for a Rose Bowl-record 216 yards as the No. 17 Trojans beat No. 3 Northwestern, 41-32.

Afterward, Wildcats defensive coordinator Ron Vanderlinden asked his friend, Sanford, if USC's coaches saw a weakness on videotape.

"No, Ron," Sanford replied, "we just thought we were good at it."

Sanford and Riley coached together one more season at USC. Then in early 1999 when Riley was filling out his staff with the Chargers, he knew one call he had to make.

"I try to hire the person first," Riley said. "When you combine his experience as a coach with the guy he is, it was absolutely a no-brainer."

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Read the latest UNLV football updates at lvrj.com/blogs/unlv_sports.