Riley

Nebraska coach Mike Riley greets players before the start of the spring game. 

LINCOLN — Thirty?

The message from the NU athletic department came last week. Come on down. You can have 30 minutes with Coach Riley.

Say what? It would take me at least 40 minutes to gawk at the autographed Lance Alworth jersey in Riley’s display case.

There’s a litany of topics to cover here. Vision. Identity. History. Oregon State. Harbaugh. The Chargers. Bear Bryant. And “Trading Places.”

But this wasn’t my first tape-recorded rodeo. With Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini, I often managed to finesse a half-hour into 60 uninterrupted minutes of coach speak. Has it really been an hour? So sorry.

There’s a new regime in town. Sure enough, as the clock approached 30 minutes, there was a knock on Riley’s door. His assistant, Hilary O’Bryan, politely said, “Five more minutes, coach.”

Riley nodded. This is an organized bunch. Riley’s a busy man. But the topic was Bear Bryant and he was in no hurry to go no-huddle on me here.

My first one-on-one chat with Mike Riley was what I suspected: smooth, insightful and relaxed. This new Nebraska football boss is an engaging fellow and master storyteller, and his side roads are wonderful joy rides.

For instance, I asked Riley if he had found a house in Lincoln yet. He said no. But there was an interesting reason for the delay.

A few years ago, the Rileys had the porch redone on their house in Corvallis, Oregon. Riley’s wife, Dee, had a terrible reaction to the chemicals. They had to move out of their house for a year until it was fumigated.

“It was a chemical that they put on the concrete,” Riley said. “They put on two coats. They let the first coat dry, and it was too hot, 95 degrees. The smell was really bad.

“We lived with my daughter for a bit, in a hotel for a bit and in a condo downtown for a bit. So we have to find the right house for her. Any oil-based paint, or anything like that, we can’t have.”

So, I’m learning that there is usually more than meets the eye with Riley. You will, too. Enjoy.

Q: When did it hit you that you were at Nebraska now?

A: I thought the spring game atmosphere was kind of a throwback. Kids everywhere having fun. They took me to speak to a group at the Coliseum and I was on a cart and I was just looking around. There was a track meet going on. There were kids playing football. It was like a big picnic. The whole thing, the way they set it up, kind of in a family way, just felt good.

Q: You remember the movie “Trading Places?’’

A: The one with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy?

Q: Yeah, that’s it. My theory is that you coming here is a little like that. Pull somebody out of one environment and put them in a totally different one and see how they cope. What do you think?

A: People have noted that. But it’s something I never thought much about at Oregon State. We didn’t have all the resources Oregon had, but I really didn’t dwell on it. It was kind of a waste of time to think about what you didn’t have.

Coming here, so many of the things are in place. And the resources are outstanding. I look at Nebraska and I’m really proud of being part of it, because they put the resources back into the student-athlete here. They believe in life after football and developing life skills. To me, I believe in total development.

(Little did I know that this was a perfect transition into Riley’s vision for Nebraska, and how he plans to sell it to recruits.)

In my vision, we’re going to sell this as the best place in the country to come train for the future. Whether that’s the NFL or just life.

You know how Olympic athletes will have a certain place in the country that this is the place to go train for a specific sport? That’s what I’d like to present this place as: a great place to train for your life.

Q: But a lot of places have facilities now, right?

A: But I don’t know if all the places have them put together like this one, with the research lab, the actual training facility. And our level of expertise with our weight coaches. We have Boyd Epley here. To me, he’s like the scientist. He’s been at the forefront. We want to utilize his experience, the research lab expertise. We want to give these guys a picture of who they are, but also a vision of where they can go.

That’s how I envision this place. Right in the middle of the country, this is where you train to do what you do.

Q: You mean maybe get some NFL guys to do that here in the offseason?

A: Absolutely. That’s already in my thought. Guys who have played here, but also other guys. Keith Williams (NU receivers coach) has trained a group of NFL receivers in the summertime at Tulane in New Orleans. Those guys will follow 
him here.

Q: On the way down here I was listening to the Tim Brando show and he was talking to Gerry DiNardo, the Big Ten Network analyst. Brando went on and on about how you were a great fit here, and DiNardo agreed, but he said, “Except for the new early signing rules.” His point was, earlier unofficial visits are going to be a problem because of geography. Thoughts?

A: I talked to Gerry about that. He’s right. Kids today do everything earlier. The old days of waiting for them to come make an official visit in December or January, if that’s your first shot, you’ve got an unusual kid or you’re late.

We better be careful. This is not an easy drive for an unofficial visit for a lot of families. If we do this, you have to have an earlier day for visits. We need to get kids on our campus before December.

Q: I can’t see a lot of coaches in other conferences feeling sorry for Nebraska, right?

A: No, they’re not. I lived the other side of that when I was at USC (as an assistant). You’ve got a couple hundred prospects within a two-hour drive. In those days, we recruited a lot of our class within a 30-mile radius. But that’s not the case here.

(What’s the answer? More Riley vision.)

We have an early philosophy on how we’re going to do this. It will be fluid. It will change, because we’re going to learn more.

(The plan: hit the 500-mile radius that Riley talks about. Riley said that includes Nebraska, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City and extends to Dallas and Indianapolis.)

Can we get half of our class, 10 to 12 guys, from this radius? If we can, then can we get two top players from California? Can we get three or four from Texas? Can we get a couple more from Louisiana, a guy from Georgia? Can we go back to where De’Mornay (Pierson-El) is from (Washington, D.C. area) and get a guy? Can we get two out of Florida? And maybe the Northeast; historically New Jersey’s been good.

Brian Stewart is from the D.C. area. Keith Williams gets guys from Louisiana. Trent (Bray) recruits Dallas, Reggie Davis recruits Houston. Mark Banker has recruited California and Hawaii forever. We are going to re-establish George Darlington’s connection in Hawaii. There’s going to be two or three great players from Hawaii each year. Can we get one? Also, I want the kids coming out of South Dakota.

When you look at it like that, it doesn’t feel overwhelming.

Q: This leads me to a question about your walk-on/high school director. A lot of people here wanted a guy with Nebraska ties. But you went a different direction. Why?

A: The people are generally right. If I had been here a few years, and known the people around Nebraska, and the coaches, it would have been very likely I would have hired one.

I hired the right guy for this job (Chris Brasfield, former Oregon State running backs coach). This is like the perfect job for him. He’ll be out there, don’t worry. He’s already in the process of calling the coaches. Once people accept him as part of the staff, they’re going to love him.

(This is the part where I like to toss in an off-speed pitch, like favorite movies or TV shows or which character would he be in “Cheers.” But I hear the clock ticking.

So I ask about identity. Some folks are still jumpy when they think of the Bill Callahan passing circus. But the first thing Riley talks about is off-the-field identity, and this was a cool response ... )

I want this to be known as a good place for young men, where parents feel very comfortable with their sons being here, to be educated and grow as a person. I don’t even want to do one of these jobs in college unless I can do it right. I could go coach pro football and be swamped with football. And I love the football part.

But, as I get older, I need the other part of it.

(We get to the football identity, 
and wouldn’t you know it, Riley throws me a curve. The pro-style guy says 
he’s considering moving to a quarterback run game for the final 
act of his career.)

I’m intrigued by it. We’re not going to be a dropback passing team, or pro-style, like we were at Oregon State because of our skill set here. You don’t coach plays, you coach players.

But I’m excited about this. We get to expand, coaching-wise. That will be good for us. And I want to look at doing this as we continue forward.

Q: Apparently coach (Mike) Cavanaugh asked Milt Tenopir 
how to block a certain running play. Can you see yourself calling up 
Tom Osborne and asking for advice on the quarterback run game?

A: Absolutely. I’m interested, because we have dived into it. Anything that we can continue to pick up that best utilizes the quarterback.

At Oregon State, we were 50 percent shotgun anyway, and looking at other ways to evolve. I would still like to maintain our game under center, but how they ran the quarterback, we have to explore that.

Offense is all about keeping the defense off-balance. The utilization of people carrying the football ... we did that several years ago at Oregon State with the addition of the fly sweep. So we’re looking for the next move that might do that.

Q: I know the Pac-12 was always a dropback league. But you played at Alabama, and Bear at the time had a running quarterback, right?

A: My first year at Alabama was the first year we ran the wishbone. It was crazy going from Joe Namath to Ken Stabler and others morphed into that. But in the transition from quarterback to quarterback, the last year we went 6-5. It was about success. That’s what I admired about coach Bryant. He was always able to adjust.

(I asked Riley how he became a pro-style guy. He reminded me that he was a defensive guy when he started out. He talked about his time with the World League in San Antonio. He coached the secondary. He said they only had three offensive assistants, so he volunteered to coach the quarterbacks. A guy named Paul Chryst coached receivers.)

There were three of us who put the offense together. From page one. That was the first time in my career I had done that. This was 1991.

I was scared to death. I knew patterns that would hurt a defense. But teaching a quarterback how to play? I had to start from scratch.

Do you know who we copied? Dallas. I went to (Cowboys) training camp in Austin that summer. And Norv (Turner, offensive coordinator) let me in and watch film. We ran the lead draw, the lead draw that you saw us run in the spring. You know what we called that play? Dallas.

Q: You’re doing that again, here, in a way. Does that energize you?

A: The whole thing has been energizing and motivating. It’s made me think about a whole new way of recruiting. It’s made me start over the foundation of what I want the program to be. The one thing about being at a place for a while is that you have values established, to where players basically become the teachers.

But, as football coaches, it’s good to grow. You have to keep growing. I never want to stop learning. There’s always a better way to run a pass pattern. I love the teaching part of football, the detail of what’s inside the play. Everyone has plays, but how you teach and how you can make a guy get better.

(I’m ready to ask the next question, but Riley stops me and says he has a story to finish. About the World League. That’s where he met John Robinson, who was doing TV for the league. That’s how Riley got to USC when the great Robinson went back for a second tenure.)

He offered me the offensive coordinator job. I said, “John, I’ve been coaching offense for one year.” He said, “Mike, I don’t care. I just want somebody I can work with.”

(When Riley explains things from his past like that, it helps you understand how he hires his staff. I thought I’d go deeper.)

Q: What was it like being around the Bear?

A: We were always kind of in awe. 
He was brilliant with people. He was a great leader. He captured people. I suppose the respect for him was like the respect for Tom Osborne in this state.

I wasn’t a great player. I probably wasn’t a good player. I was just on the team. I suppose they would have called me a “miss” in today’s recruiting world. Despite that, he made everybody feel part of it.

Everybody got coached. Everybody got included. What I bring from that is, I want all these guys that are like me on this team, I want them to feel like I did. I felt like I was part of it. Everybody had such pride playing there. You were made to feel that way, and not excluded.

Q: Sometimes coaches stay too long in one place. Fans get tired. Was that you?

A: I’m not naïve. I saw my dad get fired half a dozen times, literally. I knew all of that. But when I went back to Oregon State after having left, and had been around the world, I was going to prove everybody wrong. I was going to finish there. I was going to be the antithesis of that. And we parlayed it into 12 years, which is hard to do.

Sonny Dykes (California coach) told me something his dad, Spike, once said: “A head coach loses 10 percent of his popularity each year and I’ve been here 13 years. You do the math.”

Q: Is that a reason you’re here? You wanted a challenge, but were you also getting ahead of a possible bad ending?

A: I understand that, but I didn’t want to believe it. That wasn’t a motivating factor. I had a long contract. I was secure in that.

People say (we) hadn’t done that well at Oregon State, it was time to leave. My answer to that was, the whole ride at Oregon State as a roller coaster. We’d have a good year, then we’d have a tough year. That’s kind of the cycle of a program like that. And we survived it.

This (job) struck me as something that we wanted to do. We have gone on adventures. The timing was right for this one. It was hard turning down Bama. But our kids were young. They grew up on the West Coast. I thought I was going to get the UCLA job. Alabama offered me the job and I didn’t get the UCLA job. A week later, Dennis Erickson went to the 49ers and Oregon State opened up. I went back. It was all timing.

I’m not naïve about this place. But I don’t buy into the pressure in this business. It’s all self-inflicted. I just like what I’m doing.

(Of course, that’s the secret, isn’t it? Enjoy what you are doing and you never work a day in your life.

My time was up. I hadn’t even gotten to Alworth or Harbaugh yet. It will have to wait for my next 30 minutes.)

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