Mike Riley embraced the history and tradition of Nebraska’s storied football program Friday and said he looked forward to leading the Cornhuskers into a new championship era.
“We are in this together to build young men and win championships, and they don’t have to be exclusive of one another,’’ Riley said Friday during his first meeting with Nebraska media. “We’re going to do it the right way.’’
Riley brings to Lincoln a 93-80 career record over 14 years at Oregon State, including a 5-7 mark this past season. And he’s had three losing seasons in his last five — one more than the Nebraska football program has seen in the last half century.
Those numbers left many Husker fans underwhelmed when Riley’s hiring was announced Thursday. But Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst spoke confidently during Friday’s introductory press conference.
“We will win with Mike,” Eichorst said.
When you back an “elite coach’’ like Riley with the tradition and resources of a program like Nebraska, Eichorst said, success will follow.
“I have zero concern about that,’’ Eichorst said. “I know there’s uncertainty in our fan base, but we have a good football coach, and I think folks are ready and excited to unite and take this program to where it should be.’’
Riley received a five-year contract that will pay him $2.7 million annually, a step up from the $1.5 million he was making at Oregon State and just below the $3 million former Husker Coach Bo Pelini was paid.
The 29th coach in the history of Nebraska football, Riley spoke modestly and smiled often during his half-hour meeting with reporters. He talked of his love of working with young people and shaping their lives. Highly regarded within the coaching fraternity, Riley also spoke of why he decided to leave Corvallis, Oregon, after spurning other high-profile offers in the past. Nebraska just seemed like “the right place at the right time,” he said.
The 61-year-old Riley said he’ll be going to work right away. Job one will be building a coaching staff, saying he had names in mind and hoped to finalize all the positions soon. He made it clear he would be bringing coaches from his current staff at Oregon State, since he knows and trusts them. But was also open to retaining current Husker assistants.
Riley wants his coaches to meet two criteria: “They must be experts” and “treat people right.”
His staff will fan out recruiting over the coming week, a critical time before a recruiting “dead period’’ commences. He will be trying to re-recruit some high school players whose commitment to the university has flagged since Pelini’s firing.
Riley will bring a reputation for running a pro-style passing offense to Lincoln. But he said he’ll be tailoring what Nebraska does offensively to the skills of the players, saying the offense needs to be something the players are comfortable with. “That’s coaching,’’ Riley said simply.
Riley will not coach Nebraska in its coming bowl game, concentrating on his staff and recruiting. He will look forward to attending as a fan, he said.
Riley and Eichorst Friday also offered a glimpse into the whirlwind process that landed the coach in Lincoln.
After announcing Sunday that he had fired Pelini and then meeting with the team, Eichorst spent much of Sunday night considering the qualities he wanted in a coach. By Monday morning, he had fixed on Riley. It’s not as easy to lure a successful coach from one of the nation’s five “power conferences’’ as some people think, Eichorst said, but Riley was someone he felt could be moved to come to Lincoln.
Eichorst had an initial phone conversation with Riley on Monday, and it was clear there was mutual interest. It also was clear to Eichorst Riley possessed all the qualities he was looking for, including a sound approach to football and teaching, an understanding of the university’s educational mission and high integrity. From that point, Eichorst said, “I recruited my tail off like I never have before.’’
Riley was planning to go recruiting in the San Francisco area, and it just so happened that Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman was visiting the city. The three met together there Tuesday. Riley left the room and Eichorst turned to Perlman.
“I think this is our guy,’’ the athletic director said.
“Yep,’’ Perlman said.
Details of the contract were hammered out by Wednesday night. Despite media reports that Nebraska at first offered the job to Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema, Perlman was emphatic in saying the sole focus was Riley.
“No other coach was offered the job,’’ Perlman said. “When you file your public information request for finalists you will discover there was one finalist, Mike Riley. There is absolutely no truth to any rumor or speculation to the contrary.’’
Added Perlman of Riley: “This guy is regarded nationally as a super football coach.’’
Eichorst said his decision was reinforced when he saw how the new coach was embraced by the players on his new team during a meeting on campus Thursday night.
“He is a football coach; that’s what he is,’’ Eichorst said. “He’s a teacher.’’
Eichorst dismissed the notion that Riley’s age was a concern. Eichorst called on his own experience hiring basketball coach Jim Larranaga at Miami and his involvement in Steve Spurrier’s hiring at South Carolina as evidence of older coaches having success.
Friday’s press conference capped an eventful, topsy-turvy 24 hours for Nebraska’s legion of fans.
All fans had their wish list for the hire, with lots of big names thrown around. Jim Tressel. Bielema. What the heck, let’s back up a Brink’s truck and steal Nick Saban from Alabama.
Then at 11:25 a.m. Thursday came the stunning announcement of the man now charged with returning the Huskers to football glory: Riley.
Riley’s name literally hadn’t circulated at all in the four days of media speculation since the Sunday firing of Pelini. Riley wasn’t even the favored candidate from the state of Oregon, that being native son Scott Frost, an assistant at OSU archrival Oregon.
“Nobody saw that coming,” typical Husker fan Nick Brenner of Omaha said of the hire.
But after the initial shock — and perhaps some time spent during work hours Thursday afternoon researching the man who played for Bear Bryant and who’s highly regarded by coaching peers — a Husker fan base starved for championships seemed at least intrigued by the hire, with many seeing much upside in it.
“I was a little skeptical at first,’’ said NU fan Tony Hollingsworth. “But I’m all for it. I’m just waiting to get to the season and go from there.’’
Even Riley himself seemed a bit taken aback by the turn of events. He told a reporter in Corvallis before the flight that brought him to Lincoln on Thursday night that he had not pursued the job, that the Big Red offer came from “out of the blue.’’
In many ways, the man the Huskers hired Thursday is the anti-Pelini. Riley’s calm and cool personality contrasts with that of the combustible Pelini, whose fiery demeanor and sideline meltdowns were legend. It’s often said in the sports world that when you hire a coach, you look for one just the opposite of the one you let go.
Coaching colleagues give much praise to what Riley has accomplished in the football backwater of Corvallis, while competing in the powerful Pac-12 Conference. The school had suffered through a quarter-century of losing seasons before he arrived in 1997. In his second year, the team went 5-6, the school’s best record in 27 years. From there, OSU went on to play in bowl games in 11 of the next 15 years.
Riley has had two stints at the school, interrupted by an unsuccessful three-year foray into the NFL as coach of the San Diego Chargers.
Soon after landing in Lincoln Thursday, Riley had his first meeting with Husker players — the same players he will be leading onto the field for Nebraska’s 2015 home opener against BYU.
He told them how proud he was to be there and how sensitive he was to the uncertainty they face. He was impressed when each of the more than 100 players approached him afterward to shake his hand.
Several players expressed relief after meeting with their new coach.
“We’re all excited just to get this process over with and move forward,” sophomore punter Sam Foltz said.
Junior I-back Imani Cross described the meeting as a “breath of fresh air” after days of uncertainty.
The new coach then sent an email to members of the N club, a group created to keep Nebraska letter-winners updated on athletic department news, thanking them for a “dedication to excellence” that’s helped build the program. In the letter, Riley welcomed the former players “back home” to help him launch a “new chapter in Nebraska football.”
Friday morning Riley donned a red tie and a pin featuring the Huskers’ “N’’ logo to meet with a reporters in Memorial Stadium.
He recalled how he watched Nebraska’s 1971 national championship team run roughshod over Alabama’s Crimson Tide when Riley was a freshman on Bryant’s team.
“The football history here is pretty special,’’ he said. “You can’t buy tradition.’’
In that vein, he embraced the school’s walk-on program, telling stories of successful non-scholarship players he had at Oregon State.
Riley said he also respected Pelini and what he had accomplished at the school.
Pelini won at least nine games in each of his seven seasons at Nebraska, including going 9-3 this season. But Pelini wasn’t able to get the Huskers over the championship hump, failing to win, in Eichorst’s words, “the games that mattered most.’’
Now it will be up to Riley to try to win those big games.
There will no doubt remain divisions among Husker fans, both over Pelini’s dismissal and the choice of the man to replace him.
But it’s likely that most Husker fans are ready to give the new guy a chance.
Husker fan Ron Peterson said he was eager to see what the classy Riley can accomplish at a school with the tradition, commitment and resources of Nebraska.
“Now he’ll have some tools to work with,’’ Peterson said. “We’ll see what the future holds.’’
World-Herald staff writers Lee Barfknecht, Rich Kaipust, Katy Glover and Chris Peters contributed to this report.
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