Comeback in Corvallis
CORVALLIS — The year was 1994, and amid capricious weather, Bob De Carolis drove east on Highway 34 en route to Portland International Airport, his memory and view of Oregon State University in the rearview mirror.
He was with the University of Michigan athletic department at the time, in Oregon to negotiate a Nike contract for the school. He had driven to Corvallis to pay a visit to Joe Wells, a former Michigan man, and then the Oregon State wrestling coach.
Before De Carolis left Corvallis to return home, he spoke with his wife back in Michigan.
"Man, I can't believe these guys are in the Pac-10," De Carolis remembers telling her. "At that time, as far as the buildings were concerned, it was horrible. I told her, 'I could never work there.' "
He wouldn't be the first, nor the last, to think that about Oregon State in the last three decades.
Although the Beavers had flashes of success in football, and won two College World Series in baseball, the athletic department has more or less been stuck in a malaise of mediocrity since 1990.
But today, the growing feeling in Corvallis is that Oregon State is embarking on a Golden Age of Beavers athletics.
The women's basketball team is atop the Pac-12 standings and ranked in the top 10 nationally for the first time in school history. The men's team has a top 20 national recruiting class coming next season, and is surpassing everyone's expectations in Wayne Tinkle's first season.
And the football program, stagnant if not reeling after a poor 2014 season and the sudden departure of Mike Riley, has renewed enthusiasm with the hiring of Gary Andersen from Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, new facilities have opened for the basketball teams and are being constructed for the baseball and track teams. And more expansion plans to Reser Stadium are nearing reality.
A comeback in Corvallis is under way.
It's a little like that 1994 car ride with De Carolis.
As he headed east on Highway 34 toward Interstate 5, he drove toward skies black and ominous. Behind him, Marys Peak and Corvallis were illuminated in sunshine.
And right in front of his view was a spectacular rainbow.
"Brightest rainbow I have ever seen in my life," De Carolis said.
Today, he looks back on that drive, and that rainbow, as a sign of fate. For some reason, it stuck with him, and he remembered it four years later, when Oregon State pursued him to run the books for the athletic department.
The place he once thought he could never work has now been his home for 17 years.
Sometimes, De Carolis figures, timing has everything to do with it.
It's why in May, when he was in Montana and nearing a deal with Tinkle to become the next men's basketball coach, De Carolis told Tinkle the story about the 1994 rainbow.
Not long after, they were signing a contract, and after exchanging hugs and back slaps, they prepared to leave for a celebratory dinner. As they opened the front door and walked onto Tinkle's porch, both men froze.
Before them was a spectacular rainbow, not unlike the one De Carolis described to Tinkle moments earlier.
"We looked at each other," De Carolis said, "and I think I said, 'This is stupid.' It was pretty cool. Pretty cool."
At the end of January, OSU President Ed Ray made a bold declaration at his state of the university address in Portland.
"Being good," Ray told the audience, "is no longer good enough."
He was talking about the entire university, which is bulging in its growth and progress, but he could have very well been talking about the athletic department.
The Beavers over the years had made strides in upgrading those dilapidated facilities De Carolis toured in 1994, and it translated into modest success over several programs.
The improvements were good, but not great.
Often times, it's the athletic programs that give a school its identity and sense of pride.
Under Ray, the roles might be reversed.
"The president came out with a pretty strong statement," De Carolis said, noting the state of the university address. "And that has helped morale. Right now, we are feeling pretty good."
An eight-year fundraising drive, with a goal of $625 million, recently surpassed $1.14 billion. That has helped erect 28 buildings, endow 79 faculty positions and provide 600 scholarships that served more than 3,200 students.
Around campus, there is construction for the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center, an Asian & Pacific Cultural Center and the recent completion of the Tebeau Hall dorm.
And in 2017, a $60 million Forest Science Complex is scheduled to debut.
It's no wonder De Carolis has been buried in meetings every week with contractors, each proposing the next great thing for the athletic department. He sees what is happening around campus and knows there is no time to be content.
"As a university, if you are going to attract high-caliber faculty, who are then in turn going to attract high-caliber students, you have to have stuff. Whatever that is. A new building, a new lab, resources, whatever," De Carolis said. "It's the same thing in athletics. To attract coaches you have to have something so they can compete in their own field."
His baby right now is the $42 million expansion to the Valley Football Center in the north end zone. The 55,000 square foot facility is still in the fundraising mode and is scheduled to be done for the 2016 season. It will include a new locker room, expanded medical center, a larger equipment room and a new team meeting space.
"It's a nice building now, but we have outgrown it, big-time outgrown it," De Carolis said. "It's all about recruiting."
De Carolis said 65 to 70 percent of the funding has been raised for the end zone project. Once that is completed, he has his eye on upgrading the west side seating at Reser.
"We have a plan to look at the west side and figure out how to get it so it's a better experience for our fans at a reasonable cost," De Carolis said.
An important factor in this Beavers renaissance has been a sudden hot streak of De Carolis hires.
Scott Rueck, plucked from Division III George Fox, has resurrected the women's basketball team into a powerhouse. Tinkle, from Montana, looks like the perfect fit. And Andersen, swept away from Wisconsin, was a move nobody expected or even dreamed could happen.
Hal Cowan, longtime sports information director and associate athletic director, said this group of coaches harkens memories of the school's legends.
"In the 40-plus years I have been involved with OSU athletics, I think at this very moment the Beavers have the best group of coaches across the board, in all sports," Cowan said. "It's the best since (Tommy) Prothro, (Slats) Gill, (Ralph) Coleman and (Dale) Thomas were together."
With a background in numbers and business, some worried whether De Carolis could ever assemble such a standout group. He was coming off the unsuccessful hires of LaVonda Wagner in women's basketball and Craig Robinson with the men's team.
De Carolis says there was no philosophical change to his hiring process, no grand revelation exposed by his previous whiffs.
"It has been luck," De Carolis said. "Seriously, it has. You never know, you just never, ever know. It's not that easy. I wish it was."
In truth, it goes a little deeper than luck. De Carolis says he has identified a series of traits he looks for in a candidate that he likes to call "Beaver DNA."
"It's somebody that works really hard, does things the right way," De Carolis said. "Somebody who is understated in the sense they are modest in what they are accomplishing. At our place, those things are important. We have to understand who we are."
He said he knew Andersen was his man when he arrived in Corvallis, looked from side to side, and announced: "It feels like Logan," referring to his tenure in Logan, Utah, as head coach at Utah State.
And he said the turning point in his pursuit of Tinkle was a story the coach told him about a water bottle. It was 2010, and the Beavers were in Missoula to play Tinkle's Grizzlies.
After Montana won, the trainer was cleaning the Beavers' locker room. A player had left a bottle of water, which carried the Beavers' OS logo. He gave the bottle to Tinkle.
For more than three years, Tinkle kept the bottle next to his computer.
"Multiple times I picked it up to throw it away and I would set it down," Tinkle said. "Because from everything I had heard about Corvallis, if I ever moved on, I thought that could be a place. So I always ended up leaving the bottle there."
De Carolis was sold. As a man who not only believes in fate, but embraces it, De Carolis took the bottle as a sign, much like he did with that rainbow 20 years earlier on his drive out of Corvallis.
This, he figured, was meant to be.
And with that, the comeback in Corvallis really took hold.
"The momentum here at the university is incredible right now," Tinkle said. "There is just a great esprit de corps on campus."