LINCOLN — From the very first day, you could see this was going to be one of the most important springs in the grand history of spring practices.
Oh, not because Mike Riley and his staff are teaching any new way to play football, although a screen pass might qualify as innovation around here.
It’s not because you’re going to see a whole new team today at Memorial Stadium. The last staff had its way of teaching football technique. Riley and Co. have spent the last four weeks teaching their way. Such key elements as learning which way to step.
And it’s not because this spring will be any indication of next season. This was a building block, the first step. If you see anything in today’s 15th practice that tips you off on next season’s record, let me know. Or Las Vegas.
What made the first spring of the Riley Era so significant happened back on the very first practice.
The offensive line was in the middle of a drill when line coach Mike Cavanaugh stopped the action. Cavanaugh walked off to the sideline, and pulled out three bystanders and led them over to his linemen.
The trio were none other than Dean Steinkuhler, Mark Traynowicz and Harry Grimminger, three blocks of granite from the storied Husker offensive lines of the early 1980s.
They shook hands with each of the Husker linemen. The group chatted for several minutes before the legends waved goodbye and headed back to the sideline.
Earlier this week, I asked Cavanaugh why he did that. He shrugged.
“The history of the offensive line here is awesome,” Cavanaugh said. “And, to me, I would like all of those guys to come back and be able to tell their story to these guys, about what this place is all about. I think it would be a great life lesson.
“Steinkuhler played for my brother-in-law, Kevin Gilbride, with the Houston Oilers. I saw him down at the Embassy Suites one night. I met Mark Traynowicz that night as well. I met another guy, real big tackle ... Eric Anderson.
“I’d like them to talk about what it means to play here, the work that it takes. To me, with the great players, it’s not an accident.”
Call it the “Riley Factor.” I stole that from a shirt I saw this week at Husker Hounds. But it works here.
The Riley Factor may not be the sort of thing that puts NU over the top against Wisconsin or Ohio State. Then again, it might.
Nebraska football went through a transformation this spring. A car wash of good feelings. Riley and Co. have completely flipped the tenor around the program. They’ve chased away the clouds.
The glass has gone from half-empty to full.
I’ve never seen a group of college coaches, anywhere, so excited to wear the logo on their shirts.
Never seen a head coach leave his station in practice to visit with former players who walked in. Riley did this with Tommie Frazier, Clester Johnson and Johnny Rodgers, among others.
Never heard a head coach finish a media session after a spring practice by saying, “Thank you all for working with us in spring ball.”
Never heard coaches who were excited to see a spring game crowd.
“It’s going to be my first real look at what Nebraska football is like,” Riley said. “People care and they love their team, and I like that.
“We’re proud to represent it. We’re proud to be here. I’m excited to see it in the stadium, and see what they talk about all the time.”
Look, this is usually the drill whenever there’s a coaching change. There were good vibes for the first springs of Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini. It’s new. It’s fresh.
But what’s different about the Spring of Riley is that it looks like relationships matter again down on 10th Street.
Riley and his staff are building relationships with their players, with the fans, with the media. With Nebraska football.
What’s the big deal? Hey, you live here, right?
I’ve never lived in a state where relationships matter so much. It’s the fabric of Nebraska. And perhaps the biggest relationship in the state is between the football program and the, um, good folks in the state.
What does this have to do with winning? Well, the Tom Osborne Era was known for its relationships. With everyone from the guy in Row 96 to the high school coaches in western Nebraska.
And that Osborne guy, he did OK.
It’s as simple as answering a simple question. Ask Riley anything about football, or heck, bikes or where to eat breakfast, and he’ll give you a thoughtful, straightforward answer. He’s got time for you.
When Riley did that earlier this spring, a bunch of us scribes looked around at each other and smiled.
Nebraska football really is different. It’s a game for the people. But you have to “get” that to make it work for you.
I hear some folks already sense that. They read the quotes, they hear the podcast of a Riley interview on the Internet. They hear their coach give total respect to the program and the people who follow it.
I hear those fans say this is the way it ought to be.
I hear some say that this does matter. That Nebraska football isn’t just about winning, it’s about winning a certain way.
I hear other fans say that Riley had better go at least 9-3 this year. The implication being that there will be howling about why a change was made.
I’ll add that most folks who say this are from a younger generation. All they know is the last 10 years. They don’t know the Big Red program that Nebraskans could embrace. And would embrace you right back.
The hunch here is that if Riley produces similar records to the past seven years — without the blowout losses — folks will feel better about the program because of the Riley Factor.
Now I hear what you’re saying: What about this new rule banning Riley and Co. from making public appearances during the season?
That’s a good point. I asked Riley about it and he said the edict came from the athletic department (Shawn Eichorst). But he added that he was glad. And I liked his explanation.
“It really is helpful to me,” Riley said. “I would rather not do stuff during the season. I’m fairly accessible. But we can never lose the focus that these players need for us to coach them. Anything that takes away from that is not correct.
“I will spend time spreading our message with you guys. We’re representing the school for you guys and for the fans. But it’s really nice to be able to focus on coaching during the season.”
Winning games is still the bottom line. But as this spring has reminded us, it’s more than that, too.
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