A Devaney, a Blackshirt: Old-school yet new wave

TOM SHATEL


There's a Devaney back in Memorial Stadium.

And a former Husker All-Big Eight defensive tackle is now in charge of the position.

Mike Riley's Nebraska just got more interesting. And quite possibly better.

This longtime coach at Oregon State continues to put his stamp on the building of Husker football. And that stamp is anything but conventional.

In hiring John Parrella as his defensive line coach, Riley brings in a son of Nebraska football who can recite Husker history but has no experience coaching — or recruiting — on the Division I level.

Less of a gamble but more of a curiosity is the hiring of Billy Devaney as executive director of player personnel and special assistant to the head coach. Devaney, a longtime NFL general manager and personnel guru, has never been in college football.

This is outside-the-box thinking.

It has a chance to be really smart thinking.

"It's kind of a new wave in college football," Riley said. "I think it's a good deal for Nebraska."

Devaney is no relation to the great Bob Devaney, but he's been around greatness most of his career. His scouting career began when Don Shula introduced him to Bobby Beathard. It was downhill from there.

He was part of Washington Redskins Super Bowl teams in the '80s, and helped build San Diego's only Super Bowl club. His career hasn't been perfect — he was fired as the St. Louis Rams' GM — but the man knows film, scouting and personnel.

Certainly, he knows college football players.

It's an interesting angle, and Riley said it was the idea of Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst, who approached Riley with the notion of hiring a "veteran personnel-type guy for our football hierarchy."

Riley, who coached the Chargers when Devaney was in the front office, says they have talked at least once a week for many years. He called Devaney seeking ideas on whom to hire for this new position.

"I actually thought (Devaney) would be the perfect guy for it, but I thought he would be waiting for a chance to get back into the NFL," Riley said.

"We talked about it several times. Then one day he said, 'Riles, I would be very interested in this job.' "

End of search.

Why does a veteran college coach need an NFL eye to help him recruit? This was not Eichorst saying his head coach couldn't do it. This, Riley said, was Eichorst trying to find any angle to help give the program an up-to-date edge, a boost for the recruiting profile.

"I welcome it," Riley said. "I always say, more heads are better than one."

What Devaney will do is an interesting question. The way Riley described it, he'll be a consultant/troubleshooter for the entire program. Everything from "how we practice, call plays to special projects."

"For instance, I don't think we did a good job at all last year with 11 a.m. kickoffs," Riley said. "He might be able to help us on ideas to improve that.

"He can help me with roster evaluation, depth chart and bigger-scope stuff, oversee the evaluation and recruiting of players, how we do it, the whole process. He's a big-time consultant."

These days, it's all about showing recruits something they haven't seen before. That's the method to Jim Harbaugh's madness.

But being able to tell Johnny Touchdown that there's a veteran NFL general manager in the house — who can provide a road map to The League during the player's four years at Nebraska? That might be something even Harbaugh hasn't thought of.

"Anything that can help in recruitment," Riley said. "It's a lifeblood.

"This guy has evaluated thousands of football players. He's done psychological testing, tested their physical abilities. He can tell kids that when they come here, they'll be helped. And he can talk to our senior players about what to expect at the (NFL) Combine, get them better prepared for that."

Can Devaney be the difference in Nebraska winning the Big Ten? It can't hurt. But the NFL man won't be out there recruiting.

Parrella will. And how will that work?

That's the question on many minds, and the issue of Parrella as recruiter has taken a bit of an edge off the celebration of hiring a poster boy of Nebraska football.

Back when walk-ons from Grand Island grew up to be All-Big Eight and second-team All-Americans.

Parrella is attempting almost the same thing as a coach. He's somewhat of a walk-on here, the long shot assistant coach working his way up the ladder. How'd that work out 25 years ago?

Big John was one of my favorites in that era — the 1991-92 bridge leading to the national championship days. He looked like the Incredible Hulk with a flattop, and played like the Hulk on the field. Off the field, he was a teddy bear, smart, funny, genuine.

Riley saw that side of Parrella years later in San Diego. The coach says he and Parrella would joke about the "N" standing for "nowledge."

I don't think they'll be telling that one on the recruiting trail.

Parrella doesn't look as big as he used to, but apparently his personality and passion for all things Big Red are still as wide as the state of Nebraska.

So says Riley, who shared your concerns about recruiting going into his job interview with Parrella, who was learning the ropes at Division II Northern Michigan.

"The red flags that everybody has, I knew I had to find out," Riley said. "When we visited, I wanted to find out the football coaching part of it, and also the recruiting, and his views on it. I had to find an answer."

Parrella treated Riley like a Colorado guard. He blew him away.

"I was so impressed with his answers," Riley said. "I have no doubt he will be a great hire for us. He's going to be great in the room with the players. And he has a ton of passion for recruiting.

"I asked him how he would manage the recruiting part of the job. He gave me a great picture of how he would talk to recruits, how he would relate to them. There was a lot of substance in his answers. I think he's going to be a great recruiter.

"I'll tell you what: I was actually going to hire someone else. I was ready to go. But after I talked with John, that guy came in second."

Riley's staff could use that voice in the living room, someone who can paint an accurate picture of what Nebraska football used to be — and should be again. We tend to make a big deal — sometimes too big — out of having former Huskers around. But the good old Nebraska pride always came in handy on the football roster in the form of walk-ons and home-state heroes.

It can't hurt to have some of that on the recruiting trail — and on the practice field, too.

It also can't hurt to have the name Devaney around.

"He even pronounces it the same way," Riley said.

There's magic in that name. Will these hires bring back the magic? They aren't conventional, but this might be wisdom.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

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