LINCOLN — Keyshawn Johnson didn’t hesitate when asked, nor did he amble through his response. There’s one clear reason why he’s introduced his son and several other highly regarded prospects to Nebraska.
That reason is Mike Riley.
“The only reason,” Johnson said. “Otherwise, I probably would have never seen Nebraska in my life.”
It’s been 20 years since Johnson played for USC, where Riley served as the offensive coordinator from 1993 to 1996. But the memories are still fresh.
The sideline conversations between a boisterous and confident star who wanted to make an impact and a mild-mannered coach who was willing to listen.
Those days when Johnson would join the Trojan quarterbacks for lunch and film study in Riley’s office. The one-on-one talk Johnson once had with Riley, who was interviewing for a new job — “If you stay, I’ll stay,” Johnson remembers saying.
Riley promoted fairness, positivity and accountability, Johnson said. It was exactly the type of environment he needed.
“There’s that old mentality, of like 1965, where people think a coach has to have a whistle in his mouth, T-shirt tucked in, screaming and growling at players in the hot sun,” Johnson said. “That’s not who he is. (People) don’t always understand with a coach, that’s a relationship, that’s family.”
Johnson cherishes that bond he formed with Riley. He’ll tell anyone who’ll listen about it, too — including his son and the other athletes he mentors.
Which is why Keyshawn Johnson Jr., a four-star wide receiver who just began his junior year, is set to take an unofficial visit to Nebraska’s campus for the Wisconsin game. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound prospect tweeted in July that NU was among his top eight desired destinations.
Johnson will be joined this weekend by a couple high-profile classmates — including quarterback Tristan Gebbia and cornerback Darnay Holmes. They play for Calabasas (California) High School, a potentially budding powerhouse in a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles. Safety Marquel Dismuke, a 2016 recruit who transferred to Calabasas this season, has already made a non-binding commitment to Nebraska.
It’s a potential pipeline worth monitoring.
Calabasas hired former Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen after a winless season in 2013. A major turnaround is underway. The Knights are 6-0, coming off a 34-0 win over a team that beat them by 38 points a year ago.
And as long as the elder Johnson is in contact with the Calabasas players and their families, he’ll always be willing to share his stories about Riley.
Johnson helps run a 7-on-7 squad called Team19 All-Stars, something he started seven years ago when his nephew Mike Thomas — now at Ohio State — began emerging on the circuit. Johnson and about a dozen players toured the country last spring — Nebraska was one of the stops. It likely will be again, too.
That’s because of Riley.
It was Riley who welcomed Johnson into his office multiple times a week 20 years ago at USC. All of the quarterbacks packed their lunches the night before and put them in Riley’s fridge. They met at noon to watch extra film. Johnson, too.
Johnson got to the point where he said he could recognize the first couple signals for a play call and know what was coming.
“I’d break the huddle early,” he said. “I didn’t need to hear the rest.”
But Riley and Johnson weren’t always talking football.
There was the night in a Texas hotel room when Johnson was sitting across from Riley, who’d just interviewed for another job. Vanderbilt had an opening. Riley talked to Johnson about it.
“It was amazing, for a junior in college, him keeping me up to date with what was happening,” Johnson said. He’d stay at USC, if Riley stayed.
A couple days later, Johnson caught eight passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns in a Cotton Bowl blowout win over Texas Tech. Johnson ended up leading the Trojans to the Rose Bowl the next season — sealing their postseason berth with a game-winning touchdown catch against Stanford.
At one point in his 11-year professional career (mostly with the Jets and Buccaneers), Johnson thought he might get traded to San Diego while Riley was its head coach. He would have welcomed the move. Same goes for Riley.
“Oh my gosh, he was one of the greatest guys I’ve ever been around,” Riley said this week. “The most competitive and fun guy. Every day he wanted to win. He wanted to get better. His work ethic was unbelievable.”
Riley had something to do with that desire, which is exactly what Johnson tells his son.
Find a coach who fits your personality, a coach who sees things the way you do. Johnson said he was lucky enough to experience that.
“When (coaches) start screaming, lying and manipulating and playing games — kids don’t want to deal with that. They’re smart,” Johnson said. “Coach Riley never had that problem. He could get the most out of me.”
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