Well, who saw that coming?
In what will surely go down as one of the stealthiest coaching searches in recent memory, Nebraska hired Oregon State’s Mike Riley on Thursday, poaching the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12. It was a stunning move, because Riley has spoken openly about wanting to retire in Corvallis, Ore., the city where he was raised (his father, Bud, was an assistant at Oregon State from 1965-’72 and again in ’79), the city he went back to (he was the Beavers head coach from ’97-’98 before returning in 2003) and the city where his only grandchild lives (Elijah, 3, is a regular visitor to Riley’s office).
Beyond the shock value, however, this move makes sense in several ways.
Take his old recruiting situation, for instance. Oregon State, to put it nicely, lacks resources. The Beavers have a half-finished stadium, an outdated operations building and one of the smallest towns in the Pac-12. It’s a tough sell to prospects, especially given the bulk of Riley’s recruiting was done in California. At Nebraska he will finally have a brand-name program to pitch. The Cornhuskers have oodles of money, resources and tradition. Nebraska might not boast the fertile recruiting ground that a job like Florida does, but it has more talent than the state of Oregon, certainly; consider that the Huskers’ 2014 roster featured 60 players from in state. Riley and his Oregon State staff had a knack for finding under-the-radar recruits and developing them into all-conference talents (see: Mike Hass, Keenan Lewis, Jacquizz Rodgers). Now, he’ll be able to stock a roster with both.
Then there’s the notion that people have a tendency to get restless after spending more than a decade in the same place. Coaches, fans and administrators start to wonder if Person X is really the right fit for a given position, and those in charge begin to look warily over their shoulders. It’s possible Riley hit a wall in Corvallis and decided he wanted something different. Yet his passion for the profession never wavered. In a conversation before the Civil War last Saturday, Riley told me he couldn’t imagine retiring any time soon. He will be 62 next fall, but he’s in better shape than he was 10 years ago, due to a strict diet and daily yoga.
Regionally, the move makes sense, too. Riley wants retire in Texas -- he and his wife, Dee, own three houses in the San Antonio area, and their son, Matt, lives in Austin -- and the Beavers have had recent recruiting success Texas and the Midwest. That should make for a seamless transition. Often referred to as “the nicest guy in college football,” Riley’s values and ethics are a perfect fit in the Cornhusker State.
But the question remains: Why now? Why this time? Over the years Riley’s name has been mentioned in connection with a number of plum job openings, including at Alabama (where he played from 1971-’74 under Bear Bryant), Wisconsin and USC, the latter a couple of times. He has turned down every one, often refusing to even engage in conversation. Had things ended differently with Mack Brown, one of Riley’s best friends in the industry, I thought he’d have coveted the Texas gig.
Maybe Riley viewed this as his last opportunity to take a brand-name job. It’s possible he got fed up with many fans in Corvallis who, despite the odds, believed he should have contended for Pac-12 titles year in and year out. Don’t be fooled by the smile on Riley’s face or his gentle sideline demeanor: He’s competitive to his core. If he took this job as a way to say, I’ll show you, I wouldn’t be stunned.
Certainly, the move came as a surprise. Sources at Oregon State say athletic director Bob De Carolis did not know Riley was in talks with Nebraska. There’s chatter in Lincoln that AD Shawn Eichorst conducted all of the interviews from a hotel room at an undisclosed location so media members couldn’t track his flight patterns. And expectations for the Huskers are (perhaps unrealistically) high. Fired coach Bo Pelini went 67-27 over seven years at Nebraska, winning at least nine games every season. He just couldn’t live up to the standard set by legendary coach Tom Osborne’s squads from the 1980s and ’90s.
In his most recent stint at Oregon State, Riley went 85-66, including posting a disappointing 5-7 mark this fall. In Lincoln 8-4 won’t be good enough. The man who had plenty of job security in Corvallis -- he had a lifetime contract, with a clause that extended one year each season the Beavers qualified for a bowl game -- will be expected to succeed right away.
Hiring Riley is a perfect example of a school pursuing the complete opposite of the coach it just fired. Pelini had a reputation for being prickly; Riley is as warm and fuzzy as they come. He’s known for riding his bike to work and opening practices to the public. Pelini infamously unleashed an expletive-laced tirade against fans.
But warm and fuzzy doesn’t equate to soft. Riley's teams regularly churn out NFL talent and played for Rose Bowl bids in 2008 and ’09, a nearly impossible feat at Oregon State. Travel around the country and chat with college coaches, and you’ll repeatedly hear the same thing: How on earth does Mike Riley win in Corvallis?
Nebraska will return a few key pieces in 2015, including second-team All-Big Ten selections defensive tackle Maliek Collins and safety Nate Gerry. While the Big Ten prides itself as one of the most tradition-rich conferences in college football, it’s no secret that it hasn’t lately been what it once was. Nebraska also plays in the West Division, so it misses regular matchups with Ohio State and Michigan State.
But the biggest takeaway may be simpler: The Huskers bring in a coach who everyone always thought had what it takes to thrive in a big-time job. Now, finally, he is ready to live up to that billing.
Over the past decade I’ve had numerous conversations with Oregon State assistants and support staff about the team's success. Inevitably, conversations came down to one question, which usually involved people spreading their arms and asking incredulously, “Do people understand how little we have to work with?”
Now Riley has a lot at his disposal. So, can he win somewhere besides Corvallis?