"It's Not All About Football"

September 15, 2008

An interview with OSU football Coach Mike Riley

It's early August and football camp is going full-tilt. At the Valley Football Center, where the 2008 team is in training, head coach Mike Riley takes a few minutes out to talk about a program for incoming athletes that he helped spearhead. Since the BEST Summer Bridge program was launched in 2006, Riley has seen remarkable results. After a three-week intensive orientation to university life — where players learn study skills, organizational strategies, social awareness and other college survival techniques — they are primed to hit the ground running in the classroom as well as on the field.

Mike RileyQ: What unique challenges do student athletes face at college?

Riley: Athletes, football players, enter into a situation where they're going to be busier than they've ever been in their life. They're in a new place, away from family, away from almost everything they've been used to. And then they get into more football than they've ever experienced, along with all the things that go with football — the meetings, the weightlifting, the conditioning. During a normal day in the season, that's a four- or five-hour deal. Then you add classes and mandatory study halls and meetings with mentors. All of a sudden, from 7 in the morning until 10 at night, they're busy.

Q: Why did you help initiate BEST at OSU?

Riley: It gives players a more well-rounded picture of what it's going to be like here. Whether they know it or not, it's not all about football. The sooner they learn that, the better their chances for success. With better time management and life skills, the more likely they are to graduate. That's what we're after — growth as a person, graduation and, in the meantime, helping them be the best player they can be. Since we started BEST, our players have had a significantly better entry, with friends, with the team, with school, just making a better adjustment. I'm just so excited about it.

Q: How does it help on the academic side?

Riley: The neat thing for me is that it's a school-wide project. Professors, administrators, department members — everybody is in on this. That is a beautiful thing to see. Almost right off the bat, the players have contact with the professors instead of seeing them on the first day of a big class and maybe never getting to know them. They see the professors as real people, they form a bond, and they get a much better feel for the university. Our freshmen are doing better than ever, instead of potentially getting in trouble academically.

Q: What about the athletic side?

Riley: It used to be that they'd show up on the first day of ball camp, get their gear, go to a meeting and start practice. The level of football is unlike anything they've ever seen. Even though they're all good players, it can be overwhelming. That can lead to quickly being overwhelmed in school. But BEST creates a special bond within a freshman class. They're much more close-knit when we start football. They're more comfortable in ball camp. Their GPAs are up. We have the best entry-level first-terms ever.

Q: How does BEST figure in your recruitment of players?

Riley: I go to their parents' home and I tell them, "We're trying to develop the whole person in our program." Football is the vehicle, but we really try to develop all the things outside of football — the character, the work ethic, the behavior. When those things get pushed up to a higher level, we have a lot better chance of having a good football team. But it truly is bigger than what happens on Saturday afternoon. And the older I get, and the longer I've done this, which is over 30 years, the more I feel that way. I get great satisfaction seeing a young man growing and developing and becoming who he's going to be. BEST is a great kick-off to all that.

Q: Has BEST had an impact on the perceptions of faculty toward student athletes?

Riley: In general, they've gotten a good picture of a student athlete as a person and not just a guy with a number on a football jersey.