Jiminy Christmas, Mike Riley?
The new face of Nebraska football has a smile. That’s the first thing you need to know, but not all you need to know, about this stunner of a hire Shawn Eichorst made on Thursday.
Wow. The announcement of Riley was the very definition of a “wow” hire. With two different definitions.
The initial response from a good number of Nebraskans: “Who is Mike Riley?” or “They hired a guy who went 5-7 at Oregon State?”
The immediate response from football people around the world: Inspired hire, Nebraska.
The answer is probably somewhere in between, but one Husker fan I ran into nailed it: “I was upset at first, but now that I look closer at him, this might be a really good hire.”
Exactly. Riley’s track record, on and off the field, demands he be given every benefit of the doubt.
One of the first questions Riley will take this morning at his introductory press conference will be about winning championships. Fair enough. That’s part of his new job.
But if you were paying attention to Eichorst last Sunday, you heard that there was more to this hire than winning.
Did Eichorst just hire a Tim Miles for football?
Riley is known universally as one of the great guys in football. I’m not sure anyone has ever said a negative thing about the man.
He has a soft, friendly personality. He’s naturally upbeat. He emits good vibrations. Positive Energy.
ESPN’s “College GameDay” did a feature story recently on Riley (which is posted here). In it, Riley is shown riding his bike to work, waving hello to strangers, a small-town guy loving life in a small town.
One of his Oregon State players is quoted as saying Riley doesn’t swear. The worst thing he’ll say is “Jiminy Christmas.”
He comes off as a fun guy. They show water balloon fights, tennis ball home run derby at the stadium, sumo wrestling at practice. He’s famous for taking his team to In-N-Out Burger after it upset UCLA in 2012 (the same team NU lost to that season).
It’s not hard to envision Riley taking his good guy image around the state, chatting up fans and media alike. It’s not hard to imagine a major climate change around this program and state.
It’s not hard to see why Riley was brought to Nebraska.
Goodbye, drama. Hello, football.
Are you ready for a hug, Nebraska? In an insightful blog post, World-Herald writer Sam McKewon touched on the “us against the world” mentality of the Bo Pelini regime, the divisiveness that permeated the state.
If Riley isn’t the anti-Pelini, his hire certainly seems to be a nod toward a change of mood and professional attitude that would be welcome in many corners.
Riley will bring smiles. But will he bring titles?
That’s the question of the moment. But Riley’s record is complicated beyond first glance.
Riley was 93-80 in 14 years at Oregon State. And, let’s stop right there. He had a winning career record. At Oregon State.
Start at his second run at OSU, in 2003, and he had eight winning seasons out of 12. Again, at Oregon State.
His best bowl game was the Alamo, but he went to eight bowl games. At Oregon State. And, his 2006 team won 10 games.
Winning 10 games at Oregon State would be, well, like winning 12 or 13 at Nebraska.
Like winning 10 games or going to eight bowls at Iowa State or Indiana.
Riley didn’t win in his three years as head coach of the San Diego Chargers. But as a lifelong Bolts fan, I can attest that he was wading through a lost time in franchise history, before General Managers John Butler and A.J. Smith started drafting Drew Brees, LaDainian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers.
Riley’s quarterback was Ryan Leaf. Any questions?
Riley is known in football as a quarterback guru. You wanted a quarterback coach for Tommy Armstrong, Johnny Stanton and Co. (reportedly he pursued Stanton for OSU)? He’s here.
Riley turned down offers to coach at Alabama and USC (twice) and was considered for UCLA. Turning down Bama couldn’t have been easy. Riley played for Bear Bryant. Yes, that Bear Bryant.
Why he chose to make the jump at this time is a good question for today. Maybe, at 61, Riley felt like it was the right time at the right place.
And maybe he feels like trading the Pac-12 North (Oregon, Stanford and Washington) for the Big Ten West.
What we know about Riley is that he’ll line them up in the right place and coach them. He’ll throw it, but it’s fair to note that the top four rushers in Oregon State history (Ken Simonton, Yvenson Bernard, Jacquizz Rodgers and Steven Jackson) were recruited by Riley and played for him, though Simonton for just one season (1998).
Can he play defense? What about special teams? Will he adjust his offense to Nebraska and Big Ten weather?
These sorts of questions will be answered once Riley’s staff falls into place. This will tell us a lot. Building a program and coaching at Nebraska is a night-and-day difference to Oregon State, in terms of money, facilities and, yes, expectations.
But imagine how many proven recruiters and coaches will be intrigued by the idea of working for a coach like Riley at a place like Nebraska.
Riley will be the proverbial kid in the candy store as he enters the Osborne Athletic Complex. He’s seen as an energetic, innovative recruiter (including Texas) who is savvy with social media. Just think what he could do at Nebraska.
And that’s exactly the bet that Eichorst is making here, that Riley’s over-achievements at Oregon State will project to championships when he gets to a place that has all the stuff.
It could be a good bet. Nebraskans want to be part of their program, and they crave good coaching and development. Riley, a technician who has attention to detail, should deliver that.
He figures to be good enough with real folks that he’ll smooth over the disappointment in not landing Jim Tressel or Scott Frost or the other big fish. He might be good enough to pull the state together and on the same train.
Eventually, it will come down to Saturday afternoons. It always does.
But if Riley can teach the Huskers to stay out of their own way, and win those “games that matter,” then a lot of people will be smiling right along with him.
You do remember how to smile, right?
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