LINCOLN — Class was nearing its conclusion Thursday morning when De’Mornay Pierson-El glanced at a new text message, and the freshman receiver immediately looked up to lock eyes with a few other teammates in the room.
They’d just learned that they had a new coach, though the finality of that complicated reality wasn’t easy to process in that moment — as fellow students wrapped up presentations related to the course’s music and art curriculum.
Pierson-El just sat there, his mind racing. Freshmen Chris Jones, Jerald Foster and AJ Bush reacted the same way.
And even after a short team meeting Thursday night and a press conference Friday morning introducing Mike Riley as the new Nebraska coach, so much of their uncertainty about the program’s future and an eventual culture shift had not subsided. A team shaken by the unexpected firing of Bo Pelini still has an adjustment period to work through. The players will be monitoring Riley closely.
And what would they like him to do?
“Build the trust,” Pierson-El said. “Gain the trust of us as a staff, as players and everything. Develop us. Coach us up.
“I’m not saying to do exactly what Bo did or anything like that. He’s not Bo. But gain our trust, continue to grow and help us along the way, on and off the field, with life in any way possible.”
The players have a responsibility to buy in, too, though. And they know that.
The process began Thursday night, when each guy shook Riley’s hand and introduced himself before leaving the meeting room. That meant a lot to Riley.
But it says something about the Huskers, too.
“We have to move past (Pelini’s firing) because if we don’t, we’re not going to win,” cornerback Daniel Davie said. “You have to be behind your coach to win games.”
Davie and Pierson-El were among a handful of players at Riley’s press conference Friday. They’ll be trying to spread a united message during the coming weeks. Preparation for a bowl game starts soon (the destination will be announced Sunday).
But everyone has a different perspective, junior offensive tackle Givens Price said. There are seniors just now realizing they have one last game without the coach they adore. There are upperclassmen who will soon be learning a brand new system, which can be unsettling for guys who’ve invested so much time in their playbooks. And then there are young guys who are wondering if this program under new leadership is still the right fit for them.
It’s up to each player to decide to put the team first, to rally behind Riley.
“I’m confident in his plan and what he’s going to do for us,” Price said.
That’s just not the easiest mentality to have after the way this week began.
Senior cornerback Josh Mitchell was one of the most outspoken players on Twitter after NU fired Pelini on Sunday. Like many Huskers, he disapproved. He saw firsthand the impact Pelini had in his own life, and he didn’t understand why the on-field accomplishments weren’t good enough. Mitchell didn’t hold back.
But he apologized on Twitter Friday.
“As a captain it is my responsibility to lead in a respectable manner and represent this university with honor and class,” he wrote on Twitter. “I am proud to be a Husker and will forever be grateful for my time here.”
That was basically the main point of Pelini’s message when he met with the team Tuesday, according to Price. The team gathered at Lincoln North Star High School to hear from its coach, who Price said was not bitter.
“(He was) telling us that he still cares for us and he loves us — that he believes that we’ll be OK, we’ll be fine with the guy they bring in,” Price said. “It was more of just a farewell message. Keep our heads up.”
Riley said he’ll do his best to help the players move forward. He knows it’s not an automatic shift.
“I know that they’re facing a time of uncertainty, and that’s not going to go away just because we’re talking about it right now,” Riley said. “It’s going to take some time to get past all that. It all goes with knowledge and trust, as time goes on.”
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