I’ll admit, I used to roll my eyes when former Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis would lay out the master plan for sustainability in his athletic department.
Now, I realize he was a genius.
De Carolis wanted the Beavers to be bowl eligible. That’s it. Be bowl eligible and the OSU machine would run well because playing in the postseason boosted season-ticket sales and helped grease the gift-giving wheel. It’s why De Carolis designed his football coach’s contract to add one additional year of job security every time Mike Riley qualified for a bowl game.
That’s what makes what happened at Ohio Stadium last Saturday so puzzling. Because it didn’t fit the formula. Also, the 77-31 outcome has prompted the current AD Scott Barnes to declare this week that he won’t schedule those kinds of payday mismatches ever again. Oregon State was paid $1.7 million to play in Columbus.
“Why in the world would Oregon State come 2,000 miles back to Columbus and play a game against Ohio State and not get a return game?” Cooper asked. “Get beat that bad? You must need the money.”
“We won’t do it this way,” Barnes said a day earlier. “This game was scheduled several years ago… it was a one-off, payday against a perennial top-five team. That’s not our philosophy. Our philosophy is that we’ll play the middle of the Big Ten, the middle of the Big 12, we’ll play a group of five team and a FCS team… building momentum means everything right now.”
De Carolis scheduled Ohio State in August of 2014. It needed the money. At the time, Oregon State was still paying off fired basketball coach Craig Robinson, who was owed $4.2 million when he was fired in May of 2014. Also, fundraising fell short on the athletics building projects. Also, the Pac 12 Network windfall wasn’t as lucrative as expected. OSU needs that money to fill the gap. Even with the payday games, the athletic department faced an annual deficit that runs in the $5 million to $6 million range. And unless University president Dr. Ed Ray and the Board of Trustees forgave that deficit, there’s an annual inherent issue looming for Barnes and his athletic department.
It’s why the success of the football program becomes so important. And while I once shook my head at De Carolis and wondered why he’d set the bar so low for the Beavers programs, I now see the logic in what he was doing. And now I hear Barnes, who I think is a smart guy, on board with his own plan, and it makes sense.
No more Ohio State-like games. Not until Oregon State can prove it can consistently be bowl eligible. Riley once won 29 regular-season games in a three-year period. If Jonathan Smith does that, maybe Barnes throws him a bigger challenge. But until then, Oregon State needs to focus on trying to get to six victories. No more five-win bowl teams in the Pac 12. The conference voted this offseason to prohibit its 5-7 teams from playing in bowl games.
Beavers fans may complain about scheduling to the middle of the Power Five conferences and adding Group of Five conference teams and playing an FCS opponent such as Portland State. But it makes complete sense if you’re someone who understands that it’s more important for Oregon State to get to bowl eligibility than it is for them to impress the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.
As one parent pointed out, “Stand, then walk, then run, then sprint.” As OSU learned on Saturday, if you attempt to stand and sprint, Dwayne Haskins is there to help you find the pavement. The Buckeyes first-year starter threw five touchdown passes to make that point.
Also, the decision from former football coach Gary Andersen to leave $12 million on the table and walk away ends up an important piece here. OSU could not have afforded to fire Andersen. Whether you liked the guy or not, ripping up his contract instead of paying him out fast-tracked the recovery timeline for the athletic department and avoided Barnes’ necessity for playing those payday games.
The newer, fancier, side of Reser Stadium was built to sustain the program financially. It tripled in inventory the funding possibilities — donors and season tickets — from before 2005. The problem? Riley went 5-7 the first year the addition opened. He made one Alamo Bowl, but after that, he faded. So there’s an opportunity here for Oregon State that is untapped.
Next season in non-conference games Oregon State hosts Oklahoma State and Cal Poly and is at Hawaii. In 2020, the Beavers are at Oklahoma State and host Colorado State and Portland State. The Beavers play Purdue (2021 and 2024), Fresno State (2022 and 2024), Boise State (2022-23), San Diego State (2023 and 2026) and Texas Tech (2025 and 2026). So you see, Barnes is already well positioned.
His plan makes total sense. And I suspect had Ohio State offered to let the Beavers out of that payday game when he came aboard 21 months ago, that Barnes would have jumped at it and scheduled a winnable non-conference home game.
Again, the season-ticket holders may complain when they see schedules that are softer, but lets face it, Washington State has been doing this for years with success. But I’ve never met a person who complained when the football team they root for ended the season with a pile of wins, even against softened competition. Chief among them at OSU is the athletic director.