Senior day is supposed to be a celebration. A coronation. An exclamation point in the career scrapbook.
Afterward, departing senior Imani Cross — in his red Adidas stocking cap — saw beyond the interceptions and missed assignments. He described the lessons of a broken season and laid out the blueprint for Big Red renewal.
“Player leadership is extremely important in this kind of environment,” said the I-back. “Coaches aren’t cursing and throwing chairs and knocking over clipboards. It’s more like, ‘OK, do you wanna do this or not?’ ”
Cross had just endured one of the most tumultuous 12-month periods in program history — and one of the most dramatic culture changes possible. The public viewed Bo Pelini as the Mr. Rage and Mike Riley as Mr. Rogers.
The stereotypes weren’t lies, but the applications were more nuanced.
Pelini believed that 18-year-olds arrived on campus seeking steady discipline and firm leadership. Motivation was best delivered from the top — and with passion. You get players to attend class and workouts by demanding it. College football is no place for the lazy or tentative.
“Before, it was kind of a military style,” said Daniel Davie, a 2015 senior.
His successor preferred a more relaxed world view. Riley wanted a broader leadership structure — not just coaches and a few seniors. He wanted kids to take care of daily obligations, but he wasn’t holding anyone’s hand. He shunned rules in favor of a simple motto he picked up 40 years ago.
Over the past year, in more than 20 interviews, Husker players reflected on these competing parenting styles, how they impacted the coaching transition and how comfort finally paved the way to progress. Players loved Bo Pelini because he nourished them with daily inspiration, direction and guidance. Riley is playing a longer game. Michael Rose-Ivey explains it like this:
“I’m gonna lead you to the water, but you’ve got to drink,” the senior linebacker said. “I’m gonna give the tools to be a better person, to be a better man, a better friend, a better brother, a better son. However, you have to apply those things. I can sit here and yell at you and force things at you, but you have to be able to motivate yourself because when you leave this facility, you’re out there by yourself.”
A year ago, the hard-luck Huskers demonstrated the drawbacks of change. They lacked discipline and order. They experienced a leadership vacuum. They darn near died of thirst. This year, they’re validating Riley’s culture.
Said senior linebacker Josh Banderas: “We’re more of a close family than we’ve ever been.”
* * *
Under any circumstances, Mike Riley would’ve had his hands full. Nebraska is no job for the meek or weary. But let’s face it, his task would’ve been much easier had Pelini dropped a few more games.
“Taking over a losing program is easy because they wanna change,” linebackers coach Trent Bray said. “When you take over a team that won nine games, you can’t come in and say, ‘We’re changing this because you were bad.’
“I think the initial reaction was, ‘Well, why are we changing this?’ ”
Schemes were foreign, of course, but just as jarring was the style contrast. When the Huskers showed up for spring practice in 2015, they were struck by the silence.
“It was like being in ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ” Banderas said. “After a play, I’m kinda looking around waiting for somebody to yell at me or correct me. There wasn’t. It was just a whole new world.”
Players counted on Pelini’s intensity to set the tone. If you weren’t in the mood to play football leaving the locker room, you snapped out of it when you saw the head coach. Players suddenly had to find a way to motivate themselves.
“That is a hard thing to do,” tight end Trey Foster said. “When you’re used to it every single day like that, it’s hard. Practices were a lot different. You weren’t getting yelled at if you didn’t get it right or didn’t seem to give the right amount of effort.”
It wasn’t just on the field. In every way, Riley loosened the laws.
Where Bo emphasized class attendance — even sending staffers to check if players were showing up — Riley waited for the grade reports. Where Bo had dress code rules in the meeting rooms — no earrings and only Husker hats — Riley allowed more freedom. Where Bo treated road trips as business trips — more meetings, more structure — Riley gave players more time to themselves.
Riley’s way didn’t just cause confusion, it stirred resistance.
Under Pelini, a missed workout prompted punishment from the coaching staff, said Tyson Broekemeier. You’d have to roll across the field or do a series of up-downs. In the summer of 2015, coaches were basically ignoring absences.
“We were like, ‘Well, is it seniors who need to take care of this?’ ” said Broekemeier, a senior quarterback in 2015. “Do we let it slide? Some guys weren’t sure. Where’s our control or leadership?”
At times, it seemed like inmates were running the asylum. Rifts developed between the disciplined and undisciplined.
“I think part of their idea for the transition was to kind of let it play out,” Broekemeier said. “They didn’t want to be over-the-top right away and turn guys off, especially with how the coaching change went down. They want to err on the side of being more player-friendly.”
According to the scoreboard, Riley’s strategy backfired. The Huskers were a mess at crunch time because players weren’t on the same page. It surely didn’t help that a couple of defensive linemen maintained correspondence with ex-assistant Rick Kaczenski. They even went over to his house, Mark Banker said.
“It was weird,” the defensive coordinator said. “It was weird.”
Nor did it help when BYU completed the Hail Mary ... or when Tommy Armstrong threw incomplete on third-and-7 at Illinois ... or when Wisconsin silenced Memorial Stadium with a last-second field goal. Four losses in the final 10 seconds.
“Can’t really draw that up in Hollywood, right?” center Dylan Utter said.
After Purdue, when scrutiny was highest, Bray reiterated that things were on the right track. The teacher had once been in the pupils’ shoes. In 2003, he was an Oregon State linebacker when his fiery head coach, Dennis Erickson, left to coach the 49ers. Riley took over, and Bray’s teammates had a hard time.
“We haven’t had the first year we wanted to have,” Bray said, “but we’re trying to install a way of doing things. He’s not gonna compromise one little thing to get a quick fix. He wants ... a sustained culture.”
* * *
Riley’s vision goes back almost 50 years.
He’d watched great coaches all his life, from his dad to Bear Bryant to John Robinson. But his accountability motto comes from a less famous coach. In his second job — graduate assistant at Whitworth College in 1976 — Hugh Campbell gave him a piece of advice.
You can have a rulebook 2 inches thick detailing every potential mistake a player can make — and its consequences. Or you can keep it simple with this:
“Do the right thing.”
Riley likes the vagueness of the phrase. Players make hundreds of decisions a day, he says. Trust their moral compass. If they make mistakes, punish them. But don’t force the right decisions. Let them find the right decisions on their own.
In interviews with more than a dozen players, they frequently cite Riley’s four-word law.
“Do the right thing,” Utter said. “You don’t have to have someone babysitting you all the time.”
The goal, Bray says, is player ownership. The more responsibility and control a player feels, the more the team means to him.
“I think that was a big change with those guys,” Bray says. “We weren’t necessarily trying to drag them to where they wanted to go, we wanted them to learn to get where they wanted to go. Decide that that’s what they want and go get it themselves.”
Remember the water metaphor?
“If you give us water,” Foster said, “then we’ve only got a finite amount of it. That can only do us so good for so long.”
Taking orders from a strong personality has its value. But at crunch time, Bray says, “the same buy-in isn’t there.”
“When it’s yours, you won’t let that slip through your fingers. You won’t let things fade away. Just that little bit of mentality is a big difference when it comes to close games.”
Riley must have seen the vision cracking in October 2015. He must have sensed the leadership void. But he didn’t panic. He kept praising his team’s perseverance and work ethic. He waited for something good to happen. Against Michigan State on Nov. 7, it finally did.
By the Foster Farms Bowl, the Huskers had turned a corner. Bray began noticing crisper practices and stronger accountability. Over the summer, he heard of an incident that never would’ve happened in 2015.
A couple of younger guys showed up late for a workout. Under Pelini, the coaches would’ve administered the punishment. In Riley’s first year, the crime might have gone unpunished. This time?
“Without a second thought,” Banderas said, “the seniors looked at each other and said, ‘Move ’em out.’ They’ll come back when they earn it.”
And just like that, the youngsters were evicted from the plush confines of the Husker locker room and demoted to the auxiliary locker room in the next building.
* * *
It’s big-game week in Lincoln, and in case you haven’t noticed, big games haven’t been kind to Nebraska the past 15 years.
Pelini always won nine or more games — his personality seemingly willed NU to that benchmark every season — but his high-strung teams frequently cracked under pressure.
Broekemeier, like most of Pelini’s ex-players, would still run through a wall for Bo. He still thinks a little fear is a good motivator. But Broekemeier recognized a flaw in the wiring. The bigger the game, the more tension in the building.
“You could just sense inside the walls of the stadium any time we had a prime-time game or against a top-15 team or what not, everybody just seemed a little bit more uptight,” Broekemeier said. “A little bit more stressed out.”
Pelini’s staff targeted a few players each year for leadership roles, hoping those guys would “take it and run with it,” Broekemeier said. But in the game-day crucible, the blueprint often failed.
“If you got three guys that are kinda the head of the team and one or two of those guys isn’t doing so hot, that maybe rubs off on the rest of the team,” Broekemeier said. “People see that and they’re like, ‘Well, here we go again.’ ”
Meanwhile, Nebraska’s emotional leader — the head coach himself — watched helplessly as the mistakes piled up, waiting for someone to stop the bleeding. His stress was easy to see.
A culture change doesn’t necessarily mean that Nebraska will win at Wisconsin or Ohio State. It doesn’t mean that Riley will win more games than Pelini. (What happens, for instance, when he has a poor crop of leaders?) But the Huskers have come a long way since Halloween 2015, primarily because they believe in the Riley Way.
Utter sees a clique-free locker room. When he was younger, he noticed a divide between those who played and those who didn’t. Now, “you want to play for the guy next to you, even the guy who’s not even on the field.”
Banderas sees a senior class rich in experience and leadership. Riley’s efforts to turn his team over to its players, he said, has paid off in fourth quarters.
The funny thing is, we probably should’ve recognized Riley’s leadership vision from the start. He revealed it day one — BYU 2015 — in the most public way possible:
The Tunnel Walk.
If you remember, Pelini made a habit of leading the Huskers out of the locker room — he was always the first face that 90,000 fans saw on the big screen. Like a general taking his troops into battle, he walked the team down the tunnel, stopping just outside the northwest gate, as if to organize the attack.
He turned to his players and offered a last word of inspiration. Then Pelini took off for the sideline and the crowd roared.
Riley’s Tunnel Walk plays out differently. The first guys out of the locker room are players. Riley is toward the front of the pack walking down the red carpet, but then he does something unusual. As the fog machine conceals Nebraska’s entrance to the field, the head coach slips out of traffic.
Where did he go? It’s hard to tell with all the smoke.
The Huskers explode from the tunnel to the fans’ delight, a parade of senior standouts, promising youngsters and obscure walk-ons. Along a fence line, the head coach stands and waits for every player to pass by.
Trusting that they know the way.