There’s a couple of ways to handle a coaching search. There’s what Florida did this week, leaving bread crumbs throughout the entire process of eventually hiring Colorado State’s Jim McElwain. Then what Nebraska did Thursday.
The Cornhuskers shocked most of the college football world by announcing the hire of Oregon State’s Mike Riley as the program’s next head coach. Riley coached the Beavers from 1997-98, then returned to Corvallis in 2003 after a three-year stint as the head coach of the San Diego Chargers and one year as an assistant with the New Orleans Saints. He’s gone 93-80 in his 14 seasons at Oregon State.
Nebraska, which fired Bo Pelini on Sunday after a 9-3 season, kept this hire under wraps for much of the early coaching carousel. One Wednesday report linked the Huskers and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, but Bielema later denied interest in the position. Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst kept his interest in Riley under wraps until the Cornhuskers’ official Twitter account announced the hire.
Will Nebraska’s new era be better than the old one? Riley certainly wasn’t unsuccessful at Oregon State, which hadn’t had a winning season since 1970 before he arrived. The Beavers went 3-8 and 5-6 in Riley's first two seasons, then went 31-17 under Dennis Erickson before Riley returned and posted winning records in six of the next seven seasons. Oregon State won six of its eight bowl games in Riley's tenure, and he won at least eight games on six difference occasions. From 2006-2009 Riley went 36-21, finished no lower than third in the Pac-10 and went 3-1 in bowl games.
But he also never won a conference title at Oregon State. Since 2010 -- a period that coincided with the establishment of Oregon as a national powerhouse -- the Beavers have gone 29-33. The Ducks have won seven straight Civil Wars, the most recent a 47-19 rout on Saturday. Oregon State finished the 2014 season 5-7 with a 2-7 league record, its worst conference mark since 2005.
Now Nebraska hopes a coach that averaged 6.6 wins over 14 seasons can replace a fired coach who won at least nine games for seven straight seasons in Lincoln. Pelini’s demeanor probably played a role in his eventual ouster; he famously dared the administration to fire him after a 38-17 loss to Iowa last November. So if Nebraska simply wanted a more affable personality, it got one in Riley.
The bigger question is whether Riley’s arrival is a guaranteed upgrade over what Pelini produced on the field. When the Huskers fired Pelini, their message was clear: Nine wins per year with no conference titles wasn’t enough. That’s a tough hill to climb for Riley, who won nine or more games only four times at Oregon State and exceeded nine wins just once.
It’s probably easier for Riley to win in the current Big Ten than the Pac-12, but the expectations will be tough to manage. A once-proud Nebraska program has slipped behind Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten. Folks in Lincoln won’t be patient. The Huskers are rolling the dice on Riley, so he’d better prove quickly that he’s better than the last guy. Right now, the jury's still out.