This thing called Calibraska arrives this week in Lincoln, but it started a long time ago.
Long before Keyshawn Johnson Sr. ever imagined himself wearing a red Nebraska pullover or hanging out at Husker practices, or coach Mike Riley imagined inviting him to practice.
This Calibraska thing goes back to an ancient time, 1994, in the offensive meeting room at USC.
That’s when Riley, then USC’s offensive coordinator, was introduced to a tall, personable wide receiver who had transferred from West Los Angeles College.
“We used to have quarterback meetings around lunch in my office every day,” Riley said. “The quarterbacks would put their lunches in my fridge so they could come in and be ready.
“Keyshawn would show up every day. He wasn’t a quarterback, but we let him stay.
“He wanted to learn everything we were doing. He wanted to know everything that was going on.
“I have never been around anyone who liked football as much as Keyshawn.”
Fortunately for Riley, Keyshawn Johnson Sr. is sending his son to Riley’s meetings now.
“He’s a beauty,” says Riley, the third-year Nebraska football coach, of Keyshawn Sr. “He’s a really neat guy. I’ve been a fan of his forever.”
“He’s great,” says Keyshawn Sr. of Riley. “I’ve known him for a long time. As my offensive coordinator, he was instrumental in my development, in me becoming the player I became. We’ve stayed in touch through the years.”
That relationship has turned into something really neat for Nebraska football.
Or, the moral to the story: Treat people well. Don’t burn bridges. Remember your friends. One day, they might have a son who is a four-star receiver who can jump-start your football program.
Keyshawn Johnson Jr. is that four-star kid. He is very much his own person on his own path. But as he signs this week, he has company: four-star quarterback Tristan Gebbia and four-star receivers Tyjon Lindsey and Jamire Calvin.
Riley’s program now has a presence in playmaker-dense California, a very good place to start.
And experts are giving credit to Keyshawn Johnson Sr.: former USC and NFL star, ESPN voice and football celebrity.
“He was the key,” says Mike Farrell, national recruiting director for Rivals.com. “If (Keyshawn Jr.) isn’t there, the quarterback doesn’t come. And the other kids don’t come.
“(Keyshawn Sr.) has a lot of influence in that area. He’s a big name in the seven-on-seven (circuit). Without him, it doesn’t happen.”
Never underestimate the power of the image of a USC legend wearing a Nebraska jacket — Johnson wore it on ESPN as he helped analyze the Alabama-Clemson national championship game.
Then there was the “Calibraska” tweet two weeks ago, with Keyshawn Sr. sending out an image of his son, Gebbia and Lindsey with the line, “Can’t wait to watch these three play #GBR.”
And nobody at NU can forget Keyshawn Sr. bringing a group of high school players to Lincoln on an unofficial visit last spring.
It’s a huge break for Riley, this thing that fell out of the sky. But in this case, Riley made his own break. Just by being himself.
And being a mentor to a young kid from L.A.
“This is a special story,” Riley said by phone from his office on Saturday. “After his first (junior) year at USC, he was projected to go 15th overall in the (NFL) draft. And he didn’t know what to do.
“I remember I was recruiting in the Bay Area, sitting in my hotel room, when the phone rang. It was Keyshawn, wondering what he should do. He wanted me to give him some advice, tell him what he should do.
“I didn’t really feel comfortable doing that. This was a big decision for him, and I didn’t want to step in on that. I thought he should make it. I told him to call (head coach John Robinson).
“Well, he came back and had 102 catches, which was a Pac-10 record, and a Rose Bowl record. And he was the No. 1 pick in the draft.
“I left SC a year after he did. We stayed in touch at times. Always friends. He’s a guy with a big heart, and his loyalty is unparalleled.”
Which made it easy for Keyshawn Sr. to reference Riley when a star football player was growing up at his dinner table. But the Riley Factor still had to overcome the father’s own loyalty to USC.
“I talked to him about Coach Riley,” Keyshawn Sr. said earlier this week from Los Angeles. “But I got out of the way. This was his decision, his choice. He has to be his own person.
“For him, this is a chance to do his own thing. It’s a great opportunity for him at Nebraska. I want him to follow his own path. Be yourself.”
Nebraska sells Nebraska, too. Johnson Jr. likely wouldn’t be following Riley to Oregon State.
“It was pretty pure,” Riley said. “The real neat thing was, he was recommended for a scholarship by Coach (Keith) Williams. He saw a real good player. I was excited to hear about it because I knew Keyshawn (Sr.).
“There’s no question (their relationship) helped, but I never thought we had an ‘in.’ It was good in the way that every recruit needs inside information, the inside scoop on the coach or the place. And then it’s up to the young man to decide. It is never personal with me.
“But I have to say, it’s been fun to be reunited with Keyshawn.”
The question is, what will life with Keyshawn Sr. be like?
The football star still does occasional work for ESPN and does a regular talk radio show in the L.A. area. But will he ingrain himself in the Husker program, hanging out at practices and becoming part of the scene?
There was talk that Keyshawn Sr. might get an apartment in Lincoln. This week, he said he only had plans to attend some practices this spring, and go to every Nebraska game.
“Especially if my son is playing,” Keyshawn Sr. said.
That was said as an aside, not a request. Having the elder Johnson attend NU practices and games will draw cameras and social media attention. That can be a good thing for recruiting.
But could Johnson’s reputation for being colorful and outspoken become a distraction to the program? No way, says Riley.
“I don’t worry about that at all,” Riley said. “He (Keyshawn Sr.) is a football guy. He is mature. He understands the game.
“I used to laugh at the image people had of him. He’s a flamboyant, outgoing guy. But he’s a serious guy about the game. He’s one of those guys who always wanted to know, always wanted to be good, always went the extra mile to improve.
“I hope he is around a lot. I think he’ll add a lot, and he’s going to be a good fit.
“And you know what the best part is? His son is a really good person and a really good football player.”
Keyshawn Jr., who has graduated from high school, has enrolled at NU and is taking classes in Lincoln. This week, he becomes a Nebraska football player — one of many.
And his famous football dad joins the club of red-jacket-wearing dads in the stands.
“I’m going to support my son’s school, just like he has supported mine,” Keyshawn Sr. said.
Do they hear about it back home in USC country?
“Sometimes,” Keyshawn Sr. said, laughing. “But the hell with them.”
Welcome to Calibraska.