Michael Vincent Oriard was born in 1948 in Spokane, Washington. The second of seven children, Oriard grew up in Spokane, attending Catholic schools and developing a love of literature. In the fourth grade, Oriard began playing football, and by his senior year he was captain of his high school football team.

In 1966 Oriard enrolled at the University of Notre Dame, initially choosing to study Physics and walking on to the football team as an offensive lineman. During his sophomore year, Oriard turned his academic focus to English and by his junior season he had become a starter for the football team. As a senior, Oriard was a co-captain and the starting center for the Fighting Irish; he was named an All American at the conclusion of the season. That spring, in 1970, he received his B.A. in English.

In the fall of 1970, Oriard began playing in the National Football League with the Kansas City Chiefs. In the off-season following his first year in professional football, he began graduate studies at the University of Washington, transferring to Stanford University in 1971. Oriard spent four seasons with the Chiefs before being cut from the team in 1974, shortly after the NFL players went on strike. After his release, he played one season in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger Cats before retiring from football. Now solely focused on an academic career, Oriard finished his graduate studies in 1976, receiving his Stanford Ph.D. in American Literature.

Oriard and his wife, Julie, moved to Corvallis in 1976 when Oriard was hired as an Assistant Professor in the Oregon State University English department. Over the first decade of his OSU career, Oriard published two books, Dreaming of Heroes: American Sports Fiction, 1868-1980 and a memoir, The End of Autumn: Reflections on My Life in Football. He also taught in Stuttgart, Germany for a term and later, in 1989, taught again at the University of Tübingen during a time period coinciding with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

During the 1990s, Oriard began to distinguish himself as one the world's foremost cultural historians of American football. During the decade he published two books, Sporting with the Gods: The Rhetoric of Play and Game in American Culture and Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle. He also served as President of the OSU Faculty Senate in 1994 and received both the College of Liberal Arts Excellence Award and the Beaver Champion Award in 1995. In 1998 Oriard was named a Distinguished Professor by Oregon State University.

In the 2000s, Oriard published another three books that once again examined, often critically, the sport in which he had once so excelled. King Football: Sport and Spectacle in the Golden Age of Radio and Newsreels, Movies and Magazines, the Weekly and the Daily Press was published in 2001 and, four years later, received praise from The Chronicle of Higher Education as one of "The Ten Best College-Sports Books Ever." His most recent two books, Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport and Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football from the Sixties to the BCS Era, were published in 2007 and 2009 respectively.

In 2004 Oriard became the Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, a position that held for nine years. In 2013 Oriard stepped down as Dean and retired from Oregon State. Today, Oriard continues to study, write and comment on the history of football as an OSU professor emeritus.