Can Mike Riley make Nebraska football great again?

Mike Riley is hoping to inject some new energy into the Nebraska football program and get them over the nine-win hump.
Eric Francis/Getty Images

By Athlon Sports

The question hit Steve Taylor harder than just about any opposing linebacker ever had — and he was a running quarterback.

His middle daughter, Skylar, a 17-year-old high school athlete and Nebraska football fan, needed a history lesson. As the Cornhuskers struggled to become a power in their relatively new Big Ten home, Skylar Taylor wanted a little perspective. Losses to Minnesota and Iowa had stung. So had that conference championship debacle against Wisconsin a couple years back. And the 63–38 embarrassment in Columbus in 2012 wasn’t easy to take, either. So, Skylar asked.

“Dad, were we ever good?”

Somebody get the trainer.

“Wow,” says Taylor, who played for the Huskers from 1985-88 and rolled up a 31–6 record as a starter. “Think about that. We were once a national power.”

Nebraska hasn’t exactly been stumbling about the college football landscape throughout Skylar Taylor’s 17 years. The Huskers have won 10 or more games in a season seven times during her lifetime and hit nine on six other occasions, including last year. But it’s not the same in Lincoln as it was from 1970-97, when the Cornhuskers won five national titles and tore through the Big Eight Conference every year in advance of the annual post-Thanksgiving Plains showdown with Oklahoma. That was what drew Taylor, a blue-chip recruit from Fresno, Calif., to commit to Nebraska. It certainly wasn’t the weather.

“I tell people the reason I came to Nebraska was that they always seemed to be first or second in the country, and when I came here on a visit, the facilities were amazing, and the fans were crazy,” Taylor says. “That’s why I decided to come and play in the cold for Nebraska.”

Now a real estate agent in Lincoln and a host of pre- and post-game radio broadcasts on the Husker radio network, Taylor is like many other Nebraska fans who wonder why their beloved team isn’t relevant on the national scene the way it once was.

Since Tom Osborne retired from coaching after the 1997 season — with a national title, by the way — Nebraska has enjoyed the kind of success that many other programs envy. And some would scoff at those Cornhusker supporters who complain after a 9–4 campaign. Think the folks in Bloomington, Ind., Pullman, Wash., or Lawrence, Kan., might enjoy a season like that?

Nebraska had plenty of that under Bo Pelini, who was fired after going 9–4 in 2014. Pelini’s teams never won fewer than nine games during his seven-year tenure, but good isn’t good enough in Lincoln. And trips to the Holiday, Gator and Capital One Bowls aren’t what fans want in their Christmas stockings, especially since the Cornhuskers played in 19 “major” bowls from 1970-97 and four Fiesta classics after it earned major status.

Former Oregon State coach Mike Riley is the latest man charged with returning Nebraska to prominence. He follows Pelini, who took over for Bill Callahan, who replaced Frank Solich. None matched Osborne’s exploits, and as the 2015 season dawns, Skylar Taylor isn’t the only one wondering whether it’s possible for Nebraska to return to college football’s elite.

“The expectations are super high here,” Riley says. “That’s what the history is at Nebraska. They weren’t losing a whole bunch of games in the past. We have to take the next step and move forward.

“There are two things that have to happen. First, recruiting has to get better. We were 30th in the nation in recruiting, and we have to get into the top 25 and higher. It’s proven that teams at the top of the recruiting charts play in championship games. The second is that we have to use our talent in the best way. We get good players, but we have to utilize them in the right way.”

• • •

When junior defensive tackle Maliek Collins played at Kansas City (Mo.) Center High, his practice jersey was black. It was a nod to the famous Nebraska Blackshirt defenders, a tradition dating back to 1964, when the Huskers first went to offensive and defensive platoons and used the ebony pullovers to distinguish the first-team defense. Even though Collins admits he didn’t follow college football too closely while a prep standout, he does remember the days when Nebraska’s regular opponents were from a different part of the country.

“It’s odd,” Collins says. “I was used to seeing them play Kansas State, Kansas and Missouri.”

The Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, and there remains something of an identity crisis in Lincoln. The last 20 years have produced considerable upheaval among the nation’s conferences, and it’s not unusual that Nebraska bolted the Big 12 for a new home, especially since the state borders Iowa. But it also abuts Kansas and Missouri, Wyoming and Colorado, and there are residents of the state who live closer to Pac-12 country than the Big Ten’s traditional boundaries. When Nebraska played at Wyoming in 2011, it was more of a home game for many Cornhusker fans than are the ones contested in Lincoln. Nebraska’s address may be in the Big Ten’s neighborhood, but the Huskers still have some boxes to unpack before they can be considered true members of the conference.

“(The Big Ten) has impacted us somewhat,” Riley says. “It has to be fixed.”

There are those who wonder whether hiring Riley will solve the problem. No one can deny that he achieved a certain level of success at Oregon State, posting a 93–80 record, but he won more than nine games only once, in 2006. While the Beavers were 6–2 in bowl games during his tenure, they never played in a major bowl or even on New Year’s Day. Riley is universally liked, something that stands in stark contrast to the irascible Pelini, and he is respected. A native of Idaho and an Alabama alum who has spent the majority of his coaching career west of the Mississippi, Riley has to find a way to recruit the Midwest and East Coast.

He also has to get some players from California — like Taylor — as well as dip into the fertile grounds of Texas and Florida. When Osborne had it going at top speed during his tenure, he did it with a core of Plains personnel (not to mention the vaunted walk-on program) but also with some standouts from other parts of the country who were drawn by Nebraska’s success. Quarterback Tommie Frazier, who led the Huskers to national titles in 1994 and ’95, was from Florida. All-America linebacker Broderick Thomas (Texas), Neil Smith (Louisiana) and Irving Fryar (New Jersey) also traveled far to join the Nebraska family. The 2015 roster is heavy on the Heartland, but there are some players from the fertile crescents south and southeast of Lincoln. The key is attracting four- and five-star talents from those areas to augment the base.

“We’re right in the middle here,” Riley says. “We can reach to Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis and Denver and maybe even Dallas. We can get kids to come unofficially in the spring, and if they can get here, we can grab them.”

While Riley tries to impress prospects, he spent the spring developing a new culture within the Nebraska program. His relentlessly positive attitude was refreshing to the players, who actually found it odd to see him dining with them after practices. With a new staff comes a new opportunity for those who didn’t play as much under Pelini. Although the members of the team haven’t come close to the success their forefathers enjoyed, they understand what is expected at Nebraska.

“We can talk about winning games, but we’re here to win championships,” junior safety Nate Gerry says. “We can think about the Big Ten championship, but we need to make the picture bigger. There’s more out there for us.”

If Riley and his staff can lift the Cornhuskers to the top of the Big Ten, he will create interest throughout the country and get fans, alumni and former players to embrace some new glory days and stop living on prior successes.

“These players don’t have the same commitment to the program,” Taylor says. “They say, ‘Oh, well, there’s always next year.’ Dude, this is Nebraska!

“That’s what I carried on my shoulders, to keep the tradition going. Have times changed? Absolutely. Is there more parity? Absolutely. I can speak for myself when I say that I didn’t want to be part of the (recruiting) class that wasn’t ranked in the top five or top 10.

“When you have that kind of success before you, you want to keep it going.”

In this case, Nebraska wants to get it started. Again.

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