LINCOLN — One of the most powerful men in the Nebraska football program never played football at all.
Well, one year he did suit up.
“I played my freshman year in high school,” says Dan Van De Riet. “Five foot, 120 pounds. Got my butt kicked every day. I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ ”
Somehow, he found his way to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he goes to work every day at Memorial Stadium.
He has an office next to Nebraska head coach Mike Riley, who calls Van De Riet one of his two “confidants” who is in on every decision the coach makes.
Everyone has a story. Van De Riet’s journey is one of timing, connections and a football guy who found out what he could do — and does it well.
Van De Riet is NU’s associate athletic director for football operations. He oversees travel, budget, staffing and everything else that doesn’t involve X’s and O’s.
There’s a character in the movie “Pulp Fiction” called “The Wolf.” He’s a guy you call to take care of all situations, fix any problem. That’s Van De Riet.
He doesn’t go by Wolf. They call him “DVD.”
The “Friday Night Lights” camp and the California satellite camp? DVD was in on that. The recent moves on Riley’s coaching staff? DVD was in on that, too, next to Riley’s other confidant, Billy Devaney.
Van De Riet is Riley’s right-hand man, trusted, true and loyal.
And his story starts with garlic ice cream.
Van De Riet grew up in Gilroy, California, a burg about an hour south of San Francisco, known for its garlic crop. And, of course, the annual Garlic Festival, which draws hundreds of thousands from all over.
“It’s everything and anything garlic,” Van De Riet says. “You can get garlic ice cream. Frog legs. Scampi. Pepper steak sandwiches.
“I’ve never fact-checked, but I assume it is the Garlic Capital of the World.”
The San Francisco 49ers are a close second to garlic in Gilroy. Van De Riet’s parents have been 49ers season-ticket holders since 1978 — or, a year before Bill Walsh arrived. Talk about timing.
Van De Riet grew up wearing a 49ers uniform on Sundays. He’s too young to remember “The Catch” game. But in his Nebraska office, Van De Riet has a 49ers helmet signed by Joe Montana and Dwight Clark.
He was a football fanatic who had no idea just how deep his passion ran.
Van De Riet was set to attend San Jose State University. His senior year, he took a job as a teacher’s assistant. That teacher happened to be an SJSU grad with connections to Jeff Garcia, a former quarterback for the Spartans and 49ers who was from Gilroy.
The teacher had Garcia call the football equipment manager at San Jose State to see if he had room for Van De Riet.
“I had never been to a college game in my life,” Van De Riet said. “I had no idea what this meant. The equipment manager was Gary Hazelitt, who was just hired by Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. He said, ‘I can give you books, tuition and $100 a month.’
“I was like, ‘Sure. What do you do?’ ”
Simple. Load the equipment and players’ bags onto trucks for road games. Set up the stadium for home games. Do laundry. And so on and so forth.
Van De Riet got a free education for hauling football equipment. What a deal.
“It was the time of my life,” Van De Riet said. “From 1995 to 1999, I had an absolute blast.
“It was neat being around a team of guys who were all together and trying to win football games. It was interesting. I was fascinated to see how it all worked.
“We had this role, whether it was doing laundry or whatever, that was part of this greater good. Loading up the equipment under planes, flying to different cities. I just kind of fell in love with it.”
When it was over, Van De Riet thought about coaching. He got his teaching certificate and a job at an elementary school. Then fate called again.
Hazelitt was now at Stanford. He needed help. Could Van De Riet come over after school? Sure.
Then the phone rang again. It was Matt Lubick, who was the receivers coach at Oregon State for Dennis Erickson. Lubick — now the co-offensive coordinator at Baylor — had coached at San Jose State and gotten to know Van De Riet.
Connections, they are the key to life.
“Matt called me and said Oregon State was creating this position, assistant football operations director,” Van De Riet said. “It was mostly recruiting stuff, organize the VHS tapes, help with visits, do all the stuff. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ”
Van De Riet had never been to the state of Oregon in his life. He was getting married. Why not?
Two years later, Erickson accepted the head coaching job with the 49ers. As Van De Riet drove him to the airport, Erickson told him if things went well, he would bring Van De Riet down soon to work for the Niners.
Things didn’t go well. Van De Riet never made it back to Candlestick Park. But fate still had his back.
“My wife says, ‘What happens now?’ ” Van De Riet said. “I said, ‘I don’t know. We just hired this guy named Mike Riley. I don’t know him from Adam.’ ”
Van De Riet continued going to work, making sure to be the first one and last one in the office each day in case the new boss stopped by to talk.
“At some point, he’s probably going to say, ‘What the heck do you do around here?’ ” Van De Riet said. “So I spent my days putting my job on paper, everything I did, the program and stuff we were doing. This went on for two weeks.
“I saw guys come in that I have no idea who they are. I see a guy named Paul Chryst come in, offensive coordinator. Guy named Mark Banker, guys I’ve never met in my life.”
Finally, one day, Riley poked his head into Van De Riet’s office. Are you Danny? You got a minute?
“I was scared to death,” Van De Riet said. “I just got married. I think my wife was pregnant with our first baby. This was my first real taste of the coaching carousel.”
Then Van De Riet met Mike Riley.
“He was awesome,” Van De Riet said. “When Coach Riley talks to you, he makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world. He was very genuine.
“He said, ‘What exactly do you do?’ ”
Van De Riet broke out a 3-inch binder he had been working on that detailed his job and what the previous staff had been working on, recruiting philosophy, etc. Riley said, “Very cool. I like this stuff. Can we keep using it?”
Then Riley told Van De Riet he could stay if he wanted to, but not before one final question.
“Can you be loyal to me?” Riley asked.
“Absolutely,” Van De Riet said.
For the last 14 years, absolutely. Van De Riet eventually moved up to director of football operations at OSU. There was little money and less tradition to work with. But the former equipment guy at San Jose State was not about glitz.
“Oregon State was kind of a mom and pop shop,” Van De Riet said. “You’re always scraping and clawing for resources. Budget’s always an issue. Department staffing was very low. You had to wear a lot of hats.
“You had to have a lot of good relationships. Good teamwork, communication and camaraderie, and it worked well.”
Back then, Van De Riet often met with Hilary O’Bryan (now NU’s assistant director of football operations) and Ryan Gunderson (former NU director of player personnel) in his smallish office at OSU to brainstorm ways to recruit and market the program.
He got an idea from his days at 49ers games, watching a plane circle the stadium with an advertising banner behind it. They arranged for a plane to fly over OSU recruits’ games with an “Oregon State football, Go Beavs” banner.
“That turned out to be illegal,” Van De Riet said. “We got shut down (by the NCAA). We were just a bunch of young bucks, trying to be creative.”
Then, one day in December 2014, Riley called up Van De Riet and said, “I have a press conference at Nebraska tomorrow. You’re going with me.”
The kid from Gilroy had followed fate this long. Why not?
“I remember the first time we drove into town and saw the stadium,” Van De Riet said. “It was like, ‘Holy crap.’ It was pretty neat.
“They pulled into the stadium and walked us in. It was like the ‘Rudy’ line, this is the most beautiful sight these eyes have seen. I’m not trying to be corny, no pun intended. I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”
Merry Christmas and Happy Spring Game. Van De Riet said when he saw 70,000 Husker fans at the spring game, he said, “What the heck did we get ourselves into?”
“You start to read the local papers and get on all those social media feeds and you learn everyone eats, sleeps and breathes Nebraska football 365 days a year,” Van De Riet said. “This ain’t no joke.
“But with all that comes pressure. As you learn the history of this place, all of us want to make everyone proud. We’re working our tails off to win a championship.”
The offices are plusher, the staff larger, the money abundant. But Van De Riet says he’s learning to leverage a commodity he didn’t have at OSU: the passion of Husker fans.
The recruiting camps, home and away, have been a way to do that. And they’re learning more every year, using the creativity that was a necessity in Corvallis.
There’s been one major difference from OSU: the head coach.
Riley’s dismissal of three coaches in two seasons, and his urgency in landing defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, is a side few saw at Oregon State. For good reason, Van De Riet said.
“Coach Riley has always been one of the most competitive guys I know,” Van De Riet said. “With expectations come hard decisions. We were at a place for so long where a bowl game was fine.
“Those decisions are hard. I don’t know if at Oregon State if that was necessary. You win seven games, six, go to a bowl game, the fans are happy. The goal there was to get to a bowl game, because they hadn’t had one.
“I’ve been impressed with the way he’s not only been aware of the expectations but how he’s managed those expectations. He’s set the bar to what he feels it’s going to take to win.”
Van De Riet says he has to pinch himself every day walking past the Tom Osborne statue and into the place with all that history. Now, the former San Jose State equipment guy is helping shape it.
“Coach Riley talks to Billy and I about everything,” Van De Riet said. “I’m part of a conversation. Mike’s the decision-maker. Coach has his vision on where he wants to go and our job is to help him get there.”
Photos: Nebraska's highest-ranked commit from each recruiting class since 2002
Check out the Huskers' highest-ranked commit, according to Rivals.com, from each recruiting class since 2002.