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Originally published December 2, 2009 at 10:01 PM | Page modified December 3, 2009 at 9:17 PM

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Bud Withers

Civil War: Which coach pulls his team through?

Oregon hosts Oregon State with a trip to the Rose Bowl at stake.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Today

Oregon State @ Oregon, 6 p.m., ESPN

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EUGENE, Ore. — Tonight, we get the biggest thing to hit the state of Oregon since beaches without motor vehicles. It's so big, the state's largest newspaper, The Oregonian of Portland, has 20 press credentials.

You may have heard about it. Oregon hosts Oregon State in a football game that proves that what goes around, comes around, even if it sometimes takes generations.

The winner gets to make plans for the Rose Bowl. It will either be the Beavers, who have the NCAA record for consecutive losing seasons (28), or the Ducks, who in 1989 were so eager to end a 26-year streak without the postseason they bought their way into the Independence Bowl.

As an added perk, time will bestow another laurel on the victor: That program will be known as the one that brought down the USC dynasty, longest in the history of the Pac-10 and its antecedent conferences. (If you're into omens, it was OSU that in 1980 ended UCLA's basketball streak of 13 conference titles.)

Of course, the programs are coached by two dunces who, if you value the advice of message boards and dissent in the stands, should have been cashiered by now.

You don't remember Sept. 3, the night Oregon's Chip Kelly debuted at Boise State? Kelly seemed the epitome of clueless, as without answers as an offense that didn't get a first down until the third quarter. The whole LeGarrette Blount mess only added to the sense that Kelly was overwhelmed by the job.

Here he is, three months to the day later, to suggest that maybe he does know what he's doing.

"It was just a matter of guys gaining experience," Kelly says now, pointing out the Ducks lost six offensive linemen from 2008. "We knew we would get better as a group. We didn't change anything. We stayed the course."

Then there's Mike Riley, who has overcome mid-level fan growling in his second term at Oregon State. In 2006, I worked the game in Corvallis when OSU fell to 2-3, atop a losing season in 2005, and it was difficult to properly parse the booing for him or quarterback Matt Moore.

"Time has been so important to us," Riley said this week. "We've been able to establish what we're about and what this program is about. We had rough seas for quite a time there, whether we were getting beat or it was other things happening off the field.

"But with time, I think we could prove what we were trying to do with young people."

The lesson, then: Sometimes it's better to take some deep breaths and count to 10 rather than speed-dial the hangman.

Tonight feels like a game in which coaching takes on an even bigger part. Yes, the Ducks are considerable 9 ½-point favorites, owing chiefly to offensive talents like Jeremiah Masoli, LaMichael James and Ed Dickson.

But there are so many issues related to coaching:

Which staff learns more and reacts better to Oregon's 65-38 romp over OSU in 2008? Who deals more profitably from the extra five days' preparation time? Which guy strikes just the right emotional pitch with his team in a winner-take-all fight?

Who imposes his will — Kelly, the fast-talking Northeasterner with an offense to match, or Riley, the Oregon native with the gee-whiz coefficient and a more traditional run-pass attack?

By itself, the 2008 game is a point of fascination. With a victory, the Beavers would have won a Rose Bowl trip.

Nothing like that rout seems imminent this time. The Ducks scored twice on pass interceptions and three scrimmage plays of 45 yards or more. OSU was without its irrepressible tailback, Jacquizz Rodgers. The Beavers had a hard game at Arizona the week before while the Ducks had a bye. OSU's Steven Paea, maybe the best interior defender in the Pac-10 now, was slowed by knee swelling in that game.

As for the larger historical perspective, Riley talked this week about the "fear" he felt in his first tenure at the school in 1997-98, how destitute things were.

"You don't know what 28 losing seasons is like until you're in it," he said.

So his staff put winning aside and just coached kids to get better, wherever that might take them.

Tonight, that's so far away. So is three months ago in Boise.

Big stage. Big spoils.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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About Bud Withers

Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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