Mike Riley can make Nebraska happy, but the wins will be limited
Early Thursday morning I’d heard Nebraska had found its new head coach and was told I’d be stunned at who it was. All I knew was that it wasn’t former Husker QB-turned-Oregon OC Scott Frost. A few hours later, while making the drive from Columbus to Indy, I got a call from colleague Stew Mandel who said that Nebraska’s official Twitter feed had just announced its new head man.
I literally almost drove off the interstate. If someone had given me 20 guesses about who NU was hiring, I probably wouldn’t have said Riley. After all, he had turned down the biggest job in the Pac-12, USC, two different times (he’d been a former Trojan assistant). He also had turned down Alabama, his alma mater. I remember sitting in his office a couple of years ago and him talking about how in this stage of his life he was very comfortable with Corvallis and the way things were, especially after his three-year stint in the NFL. And it seemed like Oregon State would be the last coaching job he’d ever take. Or want.
From Nebraska’s side of the hire, this is a curious move. I’d say this is more of a ‘Whoa’ hire than a ‘Wow!’ hire. Riley’s system doesn’t seem to fit the Huskers’ DNA. Here’s where Oregon State has ranked in rushing offense the past six years: No. 113; No. 118, No. 101, No. 118, No. 96, No. 67. That doesn’t sound at all like Nebraska football.
More than that, though, Riley’s team was 5-7 this season. His record over the previous five seasons is pretty underwhelming: 29-33. At a lot of places, that gets you fired. Then again, Corvallis isn’t a lot of places. Remember, Oregon State didn’t have a single winning season from 1971-1998, a staggering stretch of futility. Riley also was working at a place where the glitzy powerhouse in the region was about a half-hour down the road with its brilliant Nike glow and its sexy offense. Good luck not playing second fiddle to that.
I spoke to four veteran coaches who have worked in the Pac-12 in the previous decade about the Riley bombshell news, and all four categorized him as one of the 10 or 15 best head coaches in all of college football. "Just being competitive at Oregon State is saying a lot," said one of the coaches. "You been to Corvallis? Good luck getting any recruits not from the Pacific Northwestern to go up there."
Another one of the coaches I spoke to Thursday night thought for a minute and rattled off his top three coaches in the Pac-12. He named Riley second (after Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez). "Everyone should win at least 10 games a year at USC," the coach said. "Probably nine at UCLA and Oregon and Washington now. Winning more than six games a year in Corvallis should get you Coach of the Year."
Fair or unfair, we tend to judge coaching hires at "big" programs — the places where for decades they’ve been in or near the top 20 — as whether a guy can lead them to a national title game. Or in the Big Ten’s case now, is he a guy you think can keep up with Urban Meyer? I could see that at Penn State with last year’s James Franklin hire. I certainly could see it if Michigan can land Jim Harbaugh (although I think it’s a stretch he ends up leaving the NFL.)
I can’t see Riley having Nebraska back in the national title hunt. But who really knows? It’s not like the Big Ten West is some meat-grinder division like the SEC West. In fact, Riley is leaving behind a tougher division in the Pac-12 North than the one he’s going to now. At Oregon State, he was punching up against the likes of Oregon, Washington and even Stanford. In the West, Nebraska should be the resident heavyweight.
The part where this hire makes the most sense is that it’s in line with what we’d heard about the Huskers’ coaching search. They were determined to "hire a good guy who the community would really like and respect." And someone who wouldn’t embarrass Nebraska. Riley’s predecessor, Bo Pelini, was a guy who his players said they loved and who was often misunderstood, but he was so volatile. You never knew when his next meltdown was coming, only that it was sure to make all of the highlight shows. Riley’s about as close to the anti-Pelini as you’re probably gonna find. The guy is downright delightful. The media folks around the state should all be high-fiving each other. They probably should be the ones happiest about the Riley hire.
He’s never had a bad public moment. He seems to live in Pleasantville like the world around him is from an era 60 years ago, where everyone’s happy and respectful and whistles his way to work. He is the gold standard of Nice Guys in the coaching world. Meet a coach who is humble and personable and thoughtful and you come away thinking, "That guy’s almost as nice as Mike Riley." Players love him. Even ones who end up signing at other places — bigger places — come away saying Riley was their favorite coach they dealt with in the recruiting process. Just ask Nebraska’s backup QB Johnny Stanton, the former blue-chip recruit from Southern California, about Riley.
Now with a bigger brand behind him, maybe Riley will be able to land more of those kids. Will he land enough of them though? I am skeptical.
Nebraska’s a tough job in different ways than Oregon State’s a tough job. Frank Solich got fired for going 58-19 and winning over 75 percent of his games. Pelini got canned for going 67-27 (a 71 percent winning percentage). The bar is ridiculously high in Lincoln for a place that, among the top 15 traditional powerhouse programs in college football, has the worst area recruiting base.
My hunch is Riley will prove to be a solid hire and have Nebraska for a few years around the top 25. Players usually respond very well to a different personality especially after dealing with a really intense, hard-driving coach, so when things loosen up some, they respond well. But I just don’t see them becoming a consistent top-15 type program again with Riley.
But maybe if the Huskers can win as much as Pelini did but not be surrounded by all the drama, that might be enough to have the folks in charge there very happy. I think Mike Riley can do that.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.