LINCOLN — This kid, Mike Riley, he’s 62 years young.
He could have decided to hang up the football whistle and spend his days tubing down a river in central Texas.
He could have ridden his 10-speed into the sunset at Oregon State, for as long as it would have him.
At an age when most people are looking for a nice island, Riley decided it was time to play Indiana Jones in “Huskers of the Lost Ark.” So he dove headfirst into the pressure-filled Nebraska job, complete with giant rolling boulders and snake pits.
“We (he and wife Dee) figured we had a chance for one last adventure,” Riley said.
The adventure began the other day.
Riley got his first taste of Nebraska football, when a story came out with sharp details of a Nebraska coaches meeting.
A couple of the goodies: that five Huskers would be suspended for the BYU opener, and a quote from an assistant coach saying a true freshman is “high maintenance.”
Riley gave full access to a Portland, Oregon, reporter whom he had known for a long time. No problem there. That’s why reporters build relationships.
But the story made the Nebraska news cycle for a couple of days and Riley sheepishly had to address it. While he won’t name names, the chatter about the suspensions won’t stop anytime soon.
Meanwhile, a freshman was called out in public, and there’s likely some damage control now with his family and teammates.
It looked like a rookie mistake, from a man who has coached in the NFL and was wooed by Alabama and USC.
Well, Riley is new to this animal that is Nebraska football. And that’s what makes his story so refreshing.
I’m 57. Many of my colleagues are starting to point to 62 and 65 as their finish line. What will they do then? Some have a plan, a condo. Some don’t know.
I know guys who retired at 60, thinking they were going to chase golf balls every day and cruise their way around the seven seas.
What some of them found is they got bored in a hurry, and wished they hadn’t retired.
Other folks I know are still grinding away, with big smiles, wanting to go through their 60s and past the 70 mile marker. They like staying busy.
For so many, their job is their passion. Their identity. Maybe they can’t afford to retire. And maybe they’re afraid.
A generation ago, 65 was considered the finish line. Today, more people seem to be working later in life, and that’s especially true of college football coaches.
These crazy kids. Bill Snyder, 75. Steve Spurrier, 70. Nick Saban, 63. Frank Beamer, 68. Gary Pinkel, 63. Frankie Solich, 70. On and on.
Maybe it’s the big money. Maybe they take better care, more treadmill and less booster bar. Maybe they know the story of Bear Bryant, who predicted he would “croak” after he retired.
The Bear, Riley’s college coach, stepped down from his legendary pulpit at 69. Months later, he died.
Tom Osborne retired from coaching at 60, because he promised Solich a turn. But Osborne, now 78, just stepped down as athletic director two years ago, and it’s no stretch to imagine Osborne could have coached into his 70s, or beyond, like peers Bobby Bowden (80) and Joe Paterno (84).
Riley’s father stopped coaching at 60, a typical stopping point for that generation. But for today’s coach, 60 is the middle of the third quarter.
“I feel absolutely good,” Riley said. “I feel more excited and energized for the game than I ever have been. Something doesn’t equate to me when people say I’m 62. I think you must be talking about someone else.”
Riley says he wants to complete his five-year contract with Nebraska, but adds, “I don’t want to say I’m finished then.” He won’t rule out coaching into his 70s.
What he will find, though, is that this job will age him.
Nebraska football is not for everybody; it can be no country for old coaches. The pressures and time demands certainly fit a younger man’s game.
But Riley takes care of himself, with a lifestyle that includes yoga and yogurt, and he’s a CEO who lets his assistants do their thing.
And if he wins big, there’s no more fun place to coach than right here in the fishbowl.
Whatever, you have to admire Riley, and some of his graybeard assistants, taking on a challenge of this magnitude at this stage in their careers.
On the other hand, for many coaches Nebraska is on a bucket list. So here’s to getting your chance and taking it.
“We might not be able to do anything with our lives,” joked defensive coordinator Mark Banker, 59.
“The thing is, when you keep up with the times, scheme-wise and with the advance in technology, it keeps you intrigued. It keeps you learning. It’s the love and passion for it.”
It keeps you ... young? As Riley said, “this change has actually been energizing.”
You mention to Banker that Riley wanted an adventure and he brings up a story. It was one of the San Diego Chargers years, and Riley and his staff that includes Banker, special teams coach Bruce Read and Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst have started 0-11.
Then Riley’s phone rang. It was Alabama, his alma mater, on the line.
“We’re hoping he would take the Alabama job, because we were having a tough time,” Banker said. “He talked with Mal Moore (Bama A.D.), and he decided to stay in San Diego, and keep working at it, keep coaching football.”
The rest of the story is they eventually got fired, and went back to Oregon State.
Sometimes when you’re ready for adventure, opportunity never comes back.
And sometimes it swings back around one last time.
Riley wanted one more adventure. He’s going to get it.
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