Former rodeo performer Jim Riley rode into the Nebraska School Activities Association at the dawn of girls sports, and 31 years later it was off toward the sunset after overseeing unprecedented growth in the NSAA’s offerings.
“His was a slow and steady hand to make sure what was best for kids was the important thing,” said Jim Tenopir, who followed Riley as the NSAA’s executive director.
Riley, 86, died Saturday at his home in Lincoln. He was diagnosed with cancer last fall and was in palliative care since January.
“Everything caught up to him,” said son Kevin Riley of Eagle, Nebraska. “He was an avid reader, and up to a week ago, he had books surrounding him.”
The NSAA hired Riley, who had taught and coached boys basketball at Crawford (four years), Norfolk (six) and Omaha Westside (three), in 1970 to assist new Executive Director Les Chamberlain. It was the first time the NSAA had more than one administrator.
Riley was promoted when Chamberlain retired in 1976. Together, they had seen the NSAA add girls golf, volleyball, gymnastics, swimming, tennis and track and adopt state playoffs in football.
During Riley’s 25 years as executive director ending with his retirement in 2001, the NSAA launched the girls basketball state tournament in 1977, girls cross country in 1980, boys and girls soccer in 1988 and softball in 1993. Classes also were added in many sports. The NSAA oversaw 21 sports until boys and girls gymnastics were dropped separately.
Tenopir said there were outside pressures that Riley faced.
“He was the executive director through some times when there was a challenge to the NSAA being able to exist as a standalone agency,” Tenopir said. “Some felt the NSAA needed to be under the auspices of the state department of education. He provided strong leadership.”
Riley also navigated the NSAA through the collapse of the Commonwealth Savings Co. in the 1980s, when the NSAA had 35% of its cash reserves there. The association eventually got back about one-third of its deposits.
Born on a ranch near Snyder, Texas, Riley was raised by his father and his sister after his mother died when he was an infant. As a teenager, he moved with his father to a ranch near Faith, South Dakota, in time for the blizzards of 1948-49. In high school, he played tennis, softball, baseball, football and basketball.
At South Dakota State, which he paid for by working for a cattle rancher on the Cheyenne River Reservation, he helped start the college’s rodeo club and competed as a calf roper. As a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, he was the director and manager of the 39th Infantry Falcons baseball team that was European champion in 1955 and 1956.
He married his high school sweetheart, Mary Naslund, in 1957 and they moved to Crawford. She taught elementary school.
At each of his high school stops, he took teams to the state tournament.
Riley’s son remembers him on the road a lot with the NSAA, sometimes with one or more of his three children, “and always with a can of Coke and a Snickers in the car. He knew the best cafes, pie shops and motels in every county and could think of just one town in the entire state that he had not passed through at least once.”
“Dad was absolutely passionate about high school sports, the kids,” Kevin Riley said, “and ensuring everybody had the opportunity to participate and be part of a team.”
In retirement, Riley served on the Nebraska Golf Association board of directors and worked many state golf tournaments. He also liked to watch state basketball games from the end of press row.
Besides Riley’s wife and son, survivors include son David of Indianapolis; daughter Lynn Cooper of Pella, Iowa; and sister Dorothy Randals of Tucumcari, New Mexico.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 1940 S. 77th St. in Lincoln, at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Current and former high school referees and officials are being asked to wear their striped shirts as a remembrance. The Rev. Luke Fleck, a grandson, will officiate at the burial service at Calvary Cemetery.
Visitation will be Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Butherus, Maser & Love Funeral Home, 4040 A St., and with the family from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the church.