Parrella sold Riley on his potential, and he's sure he can sell NU to recruits

Newly hired Nebraska football defensive line coach John Parrella, left, sits with coach Mike Riley during the Nebraska women's basketball game Wednesday night. Parrella got the job in one of three interviews Riley conducted after firing Hank Hughes earlier this month.


LINCOLN — Nebraska's new defensive line coach is touted for his recruiting philosophy, and although this isn't the most obvious question to ask a former Blackshirt returning to his alma mater, it's one that John Parrella may get a lot, since NU's defensive line recruiting has been an occasional trainwreck in the last six years.

And Parrella has thought plenty about recruiting, and every other aspect of the role, since being offered — and accepting — the job.

Twenty minutes after the former All-Big Eight defensive tackle and 12-year NFL veteran knew he was coming back to NU, his mind had already shifted to "work mode." And in an interview that clearly impressed Husker coach Mike Riley, Parrella had to sell himself as a strong recruiter even though he's never coached above the Division II level.

Initially, Parrella chuckled when asked for the recruiting manifesto.

"If I had one, I probably wouldn't say it."

Then, the 46-year-old cut right to the chase: "C'mon. This is the University of Nebraska. It's a no-brainer to want to play football here. You're talking about a place that takes care of you and prepares you for the rest of life."

Parrella wasn't done — he listed several strengths of the program — but he also didn't prattle on. It was, without him intending to give one, a short, strong pitch.

"You're fired up right now, aren't you?" he joked afterward.

The Grand Island Central Catholic graduate certainly is fired up. The last three days have been a whirlwind, taking him from being a defensive line coach at Northern Michigan to an office at Nebraska that overlooks one of his favorite places, the weight room. He's heard from too many ex-teammates and well-wishing fans and Huskers to remember them all. A former walk-on who, under the tutelage of former NU defensive coordinator Charlie McBride, worked his way up to an elite defensive tackle at NU, Parrella then played 12 years in the NFL, most of them with the Chargers.

The guy who helped sign him to a contract in San Diego? Billy Devaney, who on Wednesday was named by Nebraska as a special assistant to Riley and executive director of player personnel. Later in San Diego, Parrella played for Riley and current Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker.

"They're football guys," Parrella said. "Great men. They've probably forgotten more football than most people ever knew."

After his stint playing for the Chargers came time in Oakland, including a few seasons under former Nebraska coach Bill Callahan. Parrella liked him, too.

Twelve years after retiring from the NFL, Parrella is back at NU with an eclectic resume that's perhaps rare for a major college position coach. But he said it has expanded his view of coaching. It's also given him notes for his manual.

Yes, the manual. Parrella brought it with him to his interview for the Nebraska job. Riley called it a "bible." A bible of techniques and teaching points on how to play defensive line. How big is it?

"Pretty thick," Riley said, smiling, while sitting next to Parrella at Wednesday night's NU women's basketball game.

He held his fingers an inch apart. "It was great."

Parrella's had it for years.

"There's things you don't want to forget," he said. Parrella doesn't forget his key mentors. McBride was one. Another is Mike Waufle, who coached Parrella in Oakland and now coaches defensive line for the NFL's Los Angeles Rams.

Nor does he forget the coaching road that brought him to Lincoln. It started at Valley Christian High School in Dublin, California. Parrella founded the high school football program and served as head coach for four years.

"Keep it simple, right?" Parrella said of his coaching style in high school. McBride, who watched a few of Valley Christian's games that first year, said the players loved Parrella's coaching style.

Parrella had a few former Raiders teammates as assistants, including Rod Woodson, who was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 and coached the secondary.

"I think the kids were in awe that a Hall of Famer was coaching them," Parrella said.

Parrella spent four years there, helping the Vikings qualify for the playoffs each year. He then moved on to Chabot College in 2013 to coach the defensive line. Danny Calcagno, the head coach at the California junior college, said Parrella was an "excellent teacher" and a strong recruiter who worked hard each day with players.

"He was really, really good," Calcagno said. "If he believes in a situation, he's really passionate, and he's quite a technician. He did a real good job of zeroing in on what players needed to do to get better."

Parrella took the Northern Michigan job in 2014. When he arrived, NMU needed a total rebuild. The entire roster, he said, had just six defensive linemen. When he left, the team had 25. Just in the last year, he recruited 10 linemen into the program.

Parrella wanted to walk that road — to earn his stripes, so to speak.

"I didn't want to be a guy who used his NFL card to be standing on the sidelines," he said.

He'll instead be on Nebraska's. When Riley took the job last year, Parrella was interested, to some degree, in the job that eventually went to Hank Hughes. When Riley fired Hughes in early February, though, Parrella was "adamant" about wanting the job. He called Riley and said so.

Riley whittled down his list and eventually gave three interviews. Parrella got one of them.

"I was anxious to see how he'd do because I knew him," Riley said Wednesday night. Riley wasn't certain Parrella would knock it out of the park.

But he did. Parrella said he wanted to convey passion for the position and the university, and passion for the defensive line role in general. He prepared in-depth. And he brought the manual. Parrella said he did the best he could to be thorough.

It worked.

"He blew us away," Riley said. More than one Husker fan stopped the coach Wednesday night to tell him "great hire."

Parrella's already in the thick of the job that will pay him $250,000 per year as part of a two-year contract. He was in coaches meetings Wednesday. He'd met with most of the defensive linemen, including a glut of youngsters — four redshirt freshmen and four sophomores — plus seniors Kevin Williams, Greg McMullen, Kevin Maurice and Ross Dzuris.

Parrella is circumspect about evaluating the roster. Spring football is close.

He's back on a campus he hadn't seen much of since returning for a spring game more than a decade ago. The facilities have almost all been upgraded since then. And the NU weight room? It's bigger than ever.

"It's just what you'd want it be," he said.

The same could be said for the job he now has.

Contact the writer: 402-219-3790, sam.mckewon@owh.com twitter.com/swmckewonOWH

THE JOHN PARRELLA FILE

AS A PLAYER

1988-1992: Nebraska (first-team All-Big Eight, second-team All-America in 1992)

1993: Buffalo Bills (NFL)

1994-2001: San Diego Chargers

2002-2004: Oakland Raiders

AS A COACH

2009-2012: Head coach, Valley Christian High (Dublin, California)

2013: Defensive line coach, Chabot Junior College

2014-2015: Defensive line coach, Northern Michigan

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