Last week, while the number of Riley sightings in Corvallis rose as fast as the rain-swollen Willamette River, Singler had to handle domestic duties while fighting for his job. Leah was out of town for three days on a family matter, so Bill ferried sons Mitchell, 6, and Jack, 3, to and from day care; fed them their daily ration of ice cream and Jell-O; and kept them up past bedtime playing basketball in his carton-filled garage. "This is the typical assistant coach's garage," Singler joked, "filled with boxes ready to be packed."
On Dec. 11, though, Singler was in the football office manipulating the X's and O's of surmise and speculation. As the clock nudged 2:30, Denny Schuler, the offensive coordinator under Pettibone, stood in Singler's door and brooded over the canceled press conference. He asked, "Do you think Mike has seen something, since he's been here, that he doesn't like?" Both men knew that the odds of their being retained were long. Last year at the six Division I-A schools where outsiders were brought in as head coaches, only 11 of 54 assistants kept their jobs.
The phone rang and Singler answered. "Big Don!" he yelped. It was Don Frease, the coach of Portland's new Arena football team, calling to share his club's name: the Forest Dragons.
Counihan appeared at the door. "You're up next," she said softly to Singler.
The assistant coach cupped his hand over the phone. "When?"
A minute later Singler walked briskly up the hallway to the head coach's office, where a relaxed Riley met him with a warm handshake and a smile. "Billy," Riley said.
It was still raining two hours later when a weary Riley emerged from room 117, finished with his interviews. "It's very difficult," he said. "You dream about putting your own staff together—guys you coached with, people who played for you. But that means turning out guys who've been loyal to the program and have done a great job. Believe me, it's hard." Minutes later, Riley was on the road to Eugene to catch a flight "home"—to L.A., where he planned to say goodbye to colleagues and players at last Thursday night's USC football banquet.
Singler, meanwhile, was home with his kids, trying to suppress the urge to sing. "I feel real good," he had said in his office before leaving. "It's not a done deal, there are a couple of things that have to be worked out. But Mike was very encouraging. I think—" Singler cut himself off and smiled. (As SI went to press on Monday night, Riley had been named Oregon State's new coach; Singler was still hopeful but also prepared to start packing.)
Largely unnoticed was the fact that Ludington, the young secretary, had finished trimming the tree. At one point while Riley conducted his interviews an ornament—a small red globe—had slipped from her hand and shattered on the floor. "It's O.K.," she said, picking up the biggest shards with her fingers. "I'll get a broom and sweep up the rest."