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Jay Paris: Mike Riley recalls his North County roots

The ol’ ball coach is returning and he can’t wait to see the old haunts. 

Oregon State’s Mike Riley eyeing Qualcomm Stadium, where he was the Chargers’ coach for three years?

Well, that too.

“I had my little favorite hangout places,’’ Riley said. “Like Pipes for breakfast in Cardiff.’’

Riley is in town for Saturday’s game against San Diego State, but there’s a piece of him that never left North County. From 1999-2001, he lived in Del Mar and Solana Beach, devoured burritos at Roberto’s, put his toes in the sand and hiked Torrey Pines State Reserve.

It was there I did something I’d never done before or since: went on a double date with an NFL coach.

Riley and his wife, Dee, joined myself and my spouse, Julie, for a scenic trek overlooking the ocean. We retired to Ki’s in Cardiff, where the waiter dumped two entrees in Dee’s lap.

Oops, he said.

Oh well, came Riley’s reply.

Riley was the epitome of a nice guy, and when he finished last in 2000, a cliché rang true. Riley’s Chargers stint was marked by losses and Ryan Leaf, and we’re not sure which was more painful to chronicle.

Ex-general manager Bobby Beathard plucked Riley from Oregon State after a two-year run with the Beavers. It was a typical against-the-grain Beathard decision, but this one wasn’t smooth.

“In retrospect, it would have been a ton better for me if I had been in the NFL before taking a job like that,’’ said Riley, who went 14-34. ”Like being an assistant coach or coordinator. I think it would have prepared me.’’

Instead Riley was a rookie in every sense, and the common thread was defeats. Although he won four of his final five games in his debut season to go 8-8.

But a coach killer in Leaf was lurking and that was something Riley couldn’t overcome with a smile and warm handshake.

With Leaf in control in 2000, the Chargers sank to 1-15. Riley got one more spin, but was spit out the Chargers Park door after a 5-11 stinker.

“Even though I didn’t do well enough to get to stay, I look back on that as a growing and good experience considering the people I got to be around,’’ Riley said.

Maybe that was problem — too many chiefs to chart a consistent direction.

“I had three general managers in three years and they had different visions of a football team regarding a unified, long-term approach to the draft and personnel,’’ Riley said. “That was pretty disruptive.’’

But Riley never rocked the USS Charger, despite a 2000 draft-day plea to Beathard being ignored.

As an USC assistant Riley recruited a quarterback out of Northern California, someone that landed at Michigan. That the kid was on the board in the sixth round had Riley pitching his name to Beathard.

Too bad Beathard didn’t catch on. That quarterback did, some guy by the name of Tom Brady.

“I try not to dwell too much on that,’’ Riley said, with a laugh.

Same with the arrows that arrive with three non-winning seasons.

“We obviously tried our best so I don’t have any regrets or qualms about that,’’ he said. “But I look back on it and it was good for me; I learned a lot of football.’’

Riley would soon be gone, same for Leaf and JaJaun Seider — the Florida A&M quarterback Beathard drafted instead of Brady.

But Riley recites others with a deep appreciation: Jim Harbaugh, Rodney Harrison, John Parrella, LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees. Guys that were top-notch even if on teams that were at the league’s lower level.

Riley found his appropriate ground two years later, returning to Oregon State in 2003. He’s molded a successful program, even if in the shadow of Oregon and all it represents.

While the Ducks score like a video game with their spread offense, Riley clings to his pro-style attack. It isn’t the fad, but it remains productive: it’s the nation’s top passing offense at 438 yards per game.

“I don’t want to change philosophy,’’ Riley said, noting the Beavers advancing to the NFL. “Copy cats many times are a poor version of what the real thing is.’’

There’s nothing fake about Riley, and that includes his affection for all things North County.

“It was special,’’ he said. “We loved the little beach towns. The best way I tell people about it is it’s just good living.’’

Jay Paris can be heard talking Chargers football on 1090 AM on Monday and Friday mornings. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter, @jparis_sports.