The Lincoln Leap: The challenge that awaits Mike Riley at Nebraska
LINCOLN, Neb.—The yellow beach cruiser with the giant basket chained to a rack stationed outside Nebraska's Hawks Championship Center looked exactly like the sort of thing the caricature we've drawn of Mike Riley would ride to work. Yes, he did pedal to his previous job at Oregon State, but that had more to do with proximity than it did with a love of cycling. As Nebraska's head coach, Riley drives to the office.
"People think I'm a real bicycle guy. I'm a 10-minute cruiser guy," Riley said. "It's funny how people know the story, and they've got these great trails around Lincoln. But people go on 30-mile bike rides, and I say I'm going to have to train a little bit longer."
Riley had a nice little routine in Corvallis, Ore. Bike to work. Coach in the town where he grew up. Labor without the crushing weight of expectations many of his colleagues shouldered. All that fit neatly into the nicest-coach-in-college-football image Riley cultivated by actually being one of the nicest people in college football. There was more to that routine, though. Upset the occasional powerhouse. Scratch and claw to find and sign recruits capable of competing in the Pac-12. Lose to Oregon.
That last one had to get old. Knowing his program would likely never be better than the fourth choice—behind Oregon, Stanford and Washington—in the Pac-12 North among recruits had to grate on Riley as well. Because even though he's a nice football coach, he is still a football coach. He remains the coach's kid who grew up in Corvallis but moved to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to play for Bear Bryant. He remains the man who left Oregon State the first time to coach the San Diego Chargers. He may not act or talk like Urban Meyer or Nick Saban, but he ultimately wants the same things they do. Considered through that prism, Riley's move from Corvallis to Lincoln doesn't seem the least bit shocking. "I tell people, don't overdramatize this thing," he said. "It's a guy taking another job because he thinks it's exciting and new."
That key factor seems to have been comfort. Riley was extremely comfortable in Corvallis. He has the potential to be extremely uncomfortable in Lincoln if he posts records similar to the one the Beavers posted (5-7) in his final season at Oregon State. And while the average person might consider that a reason to stay on the coast, the kind of person who becomes a Power Five football coach has precisely opposite mindset. Comfort is unbearable. High-risk, high-reward states are preferable.
That's exactly what the Nebraska job is. On Dec. 1 the Cornhuskers fired Bo Pelini, who never won fewer than nine games in his seven seasons in Lincoln. He also never lost fewer than four. Pelini existed in that narrow space where a coach's personality actually matters. A coach who consistently wins titles will almost always remain employed. A coach who consistently posts losing seasons will almost always get fired. The coach who wins just enough and loses just enough? He is judged on the intangibles. Pelini was beloved by his players but not by Nebraska's administration. So, when in 2014 he again won the games he was supposed to win and lost the games he was supposed to lose, he became expendable. "We weren't good enough in the games that mattered," Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst told reporters on the day he fired Pelini.
This move was met largely with fan approval even though nine to 10 wins every year is enough to keep a coach employed in most places. Of course, Nebraska has a fan base that believes Lincoln isn't most places. After going through seven years on a ride as flat as the land in the western part of the state, Nebraska fans wanted to feel something again. Another coach might bring valleys, but if he also brings peaks, that might make the valleys more tolerable.
Still, it should be noted that while Pelini compiled a 66-28 record at Nebraska between 2008 and '14, Riley went 46-42 over that same span at Oregon State. Those records are the inverse of how coaching change math usually works. This is either an indicator of disaster ahead or an acknowledgement of the difficulty of posting nine-win seasons in Corvallis. Riley's record in Lincoln will determine that answer.
Riley understands this completely. He also understands the hunger at a program that has a banner over its practice field commemorating 43 conference titles. The last one came in 1999, when most of his players had yet to start kindergarten.
"They want to get back where they're in that conversation about national championships," Riley said. "And they want to win the conference championship." Riley appreciates the passion. "The stadium has been renovated many times. But part of the inner wall over there in the front, over an arch in the doorway is the greatest saying in the world: 'Through these gates pass the greatest fans in college football.' The longer that I've been here, the more I know that they're right."
It's easy for an undefeated coach to say that. It isn't so easy when that coach has failed to fulfill expectations and heard about it from the faithful. Pelini blew up at Nebraska's fans in 2011 in a rant he didn't know was being recorded. When that recording was leaked in '13, it eroded even more support for Pelini. With Riley, the Cornhuskers aren't likely to have to deal with another coach dropping F-bombs with regard to the paying customers. But that doesn't mean the paying customers will be any happier with Riley than they were with Pelini, especially if Riley doesn't deliver a product worth celebrating.
That again raises the question: Why would Riley leave Oregon State to jump into this pressure cooker? The answer remains the same as above. He is a football coach. He is wired to prefer this. "First of all, it's better to be at a place where there are great expectations," Riley said. "What was neat about Oregon State is the expectations grew. When I went there in 1997, there were none. Nobody really cared."
At Nebraska, they care.
"Everybody says that puts pressure on you," Riley said. "But, gosh. I always say there's nobody that puts more pressure on coaches than coaches do. The hard part about this business is not necessarily external."
Riley has passed two big new-coach tests already. First, he quickly got the team on his side. This wasn't easy considering the rawness of Pelini's firing and the house cleaning that came after. Some players felt betrayed by the school's administration. Riley knew he would have to build trust. He couldn't simply walk in and command the players to believe in him, so he didn't. "I really realized we got the right guy when he came in," Cornhuskers senior offensive tackle Alex Lewis said. "The first thing he said was, 'Look, I'm not going to be here and demand respect. I'm here to earn your respect.' That opened up a lot of eyes for a lot of guys."
Second, Riley didn't fall into the trap many coaches do when they take over a new team. Some coaches believe so unwaveringly in their own system and their own genius that they try to ram that system down the throats of players who weren't recruited to run it. Riley, whose offense has never included zone-read concepts, didn't scrap one of the cornerstones of the offense Tim Beck ran last year. Instead, Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf immersed themselves in the study of reading unblocked defenders, mesh points and run-pass packaged plays. Instead of trying to turn Nebraska junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. into the Sean Mannion of the Midwest, Riley and Langsdorf tried to wed the concepts that worked for them with the things they knew Armstrong did well.
Langsdorf, who spent 2014 as Eli Manning's quarterback coach with the New York Giants, brought the collaborative model back from the NFL. Yet one of the best resources for zone-read newbies Langsdorf and Riley has been Armstrong. Because while the coaches have studied the theory, Armstrong remembers how difficult it was to read an unblocked Randy Gregory at practice last year. "We've been there," Armstrong said. "We've actually done things like that and actually seen it on the field."
Riley has enjoyed tinkering with scheme, too. As he talked last week about packaged plays—where the quarterback decides post-snap whether to hand off or to throw—Riley sounded like a kid who just upgraded from a PlayStation 3 to a PlayStation 4. Instead of clinging to his old ways, Riley is embracing how the players he inherited can enhance his offense. "Coaching is not so much about a system and what you want to do," Riley said. "I think you have to have beliefs, and I know that we have concepts that we'll always teach. But you have to adapt to your people."
Eric Francis/Getty Images
How Riley adapts to Lincoln will depend on the win-loss column and how well he can stock the program with incoming talent. While Nebraska has become a far tougher recruiting job than it was in the era when Tom Osborne's teams mowed down opponents, it's still an easier recruiting job than Oregon State is. Riley has advocated a national focus, and he and his staff have emphasized to prospects that nearby Omaha is reachable by flights of less than three hours from most major cities. That may not sway a player who lives a two-hour drive from a Big 12 or SEC school, but it isn't that different than explaining how to get to Oregon State. Riley knows it will still be difficult to get players to pay for unofficial visits to Lincoln—most of which will require a flight—but he also knows that once he gets a recruit on campus on a fall Saturday, he has a far easier sell than he had in Corvallis.
Of course, the easiest way to sell a program and keep the fans happy is to win more than the last guy did. Unfortunately for Riley, he's the rare new coach who must win 10 or 11 games to beat the average seasons of his predecessor. With a nonconference schedule that includes BYU (Sept. 5) and Miami (Sept. 19) and a Big Ten schedule that includes a divisional crossover matchup against Michigan State (Nov. 7), that's asking a lot. But Riley understands what's expected.
"I know," he said, "what 92,000 people on Saturday afternoon will want."
Riley wants the same thing they do—only more. He may have a cuddly exterior, but he changed jobs because underneath that exterior he is built to seek out the greatest challenge with the greatest potential reward. That's why he left his bike in Corvallis and brought himself to Lincoln.
A random ranking
Natalie Imbruglia released a new album earlier this month. That reminded me it was high time I re-ranked the top 10 songs from 1997—when Imbruglia hit the charts with "Torn." This was the year Hanson MMMBopped its way into our collective consciousness and Az Yet teamed with Peter Cetera. It was truly a magical time to be alive.
1. "Hypnotize" – The Notorious B.I.G.
2. "Song 2" – Blur
3. "Monkey Wrench" – Foo Fighters
4. "Semi-Charmed Life" – Third Eye Blind
5. "Santeria" – Sublime
6. "Triumph" – Wu-Tang Clan
7. "Firestarter" – The Prodigy
8. "Carrying Your Love With Me" – George Strait
9. "6 Underground" – Sneaker Pimps
10. "Return of the Mack" – Mark Morrison
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
1. I covered the trial of Florida State sophomore tailback Dalvin Cook on Monday. Read here about the proceeding that resulted in Cook's acquittal.
2. How you feel about Baylor coach Art Briles's decision to bring in defensive end Sam Ukwuachu as a transfer from Boise State in 2013 probably depends on whether you believe Briles or former Broncos coach Chris Petersen. It also probably depends on your definition of the phrase "thoroughly apprised."
Ukwuachu was convicted Thursday of sexually assaulting a female Baylor athlete in 2013. He never played a down for the Bears, but he stayed on scholarship. As recently as June, Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said he expected Ukwuachu to play this season. Briles told reporters Friday morning that Petersen had not informed him of any history of violence against women on Ukwuachu's part. (Ukwuachu was dismissed from Boise State in May '13 following an incident in which he punched a window during an argument with his then-girlfriend. Boise State officials knew about this, but it is unclear if they had heard the accusations of physical abuse the former girlfriend leveled on Ukwuachu at his trial last week.) Petersen, now Washington's coach, responded Friday by releasing a statement saying he had "thoroughly apprised" Briles of Ukwuachu's issues in Boise. Briles then came back with a more detailed accounting of his conversation with Petersen. Later, Texas Monthly released excerpts of documents that proved Petersen and Boise State athletic department officials knew at least about the window-punching incident and had advised Ukwuachu's then-girlfriend to stay away from him. On Sunday Ukwuachu's high school coach said the conversation Briles alleges to have had with Petersen sounds similar to the conversation he had with Petersen.
What exactly did Petersen tell Briles when they discussed Ukwuachu? We may never know, and we probably won't learn anything else until someone gets deposed in the lawsuit the victim will almost certainly file against Baylor. (Of course, it may be cheaper in the long run for Baylor to simply settle with the woman.) There is enough room between what Briles said and what Petersen said for both to be telling the truth. Unless someone has a tape, no one can prove what was said. Remember, Ukwuachu's ex-girlfriend did not report the physical abuse she alleged at trial.
Typically, coaches are well aware of their players' misdeeds. They also tend to be fairly open with one another when doing research on transfers. That's what makes all this so difficult to believe. Coaches know, and coaches tend to share this kind of information amongst themselves.
Everyone is entitled to due process, but playing college football isn't a constitutional right. It's understandable that Briles would want to give his accused player a chance to clear his name, but if Briles had any knowledge of Ukwuachu's history, Ukwuachu should have been dismissed from the team when the accusation was made. Even if he didn't know Ukwuachu's history, Briles should have separated player from team following Ukwuachu's indictment in June 2014. Briles could have brought Ukwuachu back if he was acquitted at trial. That would have been the prudent way to handle this case, and it would have eliminated a lot of the nasty questions that will now follow Briles for the rest of his career.
3. If a player were transferring now with circumstances identical to those of Ukwuachu in 2013, would an SEC school be allowed to take him? The league passed a rule in May that bans schools from accepting a transfer who has been booted from his previous school—or merely his team and not his school—for domestic violence or sexual violence. The SEC rule completely bypasses the legal system. The only necessary trigger is a dismissal from the team.
I asked a compliance official at an SEC school how such a situation would have to be handled. The compliance official said an SEC school would be on the hook for finding out exactly why a player got dismissed from his previous school, and there probably wouldn't be much compassion for a coach who claimed he didn't get all the info if something happened on the player's new campus. "Have to ask a lot of questions," the compliance official said.
4. The S.S. Michigan surfaced briefly Monday so offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin could update a curious populace about the progress of Jim Harbaugh's first team as the head coach at his alma mater. And, no, the big offensive question still doesn't have an answer. Even though Iowa transfer Jake Rudock took most of the first-team snaps at Saturday's students-only practice, Drevno said the staff has yet to decide who will be Michigan's starting quarterback. "All the quarterbacks are doing a great job, this is day 21 of practice, and guys are doing a great job," Drevno told MLive.com. "There's no decision."
5. While Michigan hasn't chosen a quarterback, Oklahoma has. Sooners coach Bob Stoops announced Monday that Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield will start the season opener against Akron on Sept. 5. We can only imagine Mayfield's celebration looked something like this ...
6. Oklahoma wasn't the only school that announced its starting quarterback Monday.
7. USC coach Steve Sarkisian said some dumb stuff on Saturday night. He looked like he had too much to drink in a video obtained by ESPN. This is the sort of thing a university's highest-profile employee can get away with once—but probably not multiple times. Sarkisian has apologized. No go re-read No. 2 in this section and decide how angry you are at Sark for drinking and speaking.
8. Florida coach Jim McElwain tossed a player from practice during a scrimmage Saturday night for committing an after-the-whistle personal foul. He said he'd continue to toss players until the stupid penalties stop. "We don't put up with it," McElwain said. "There's no excuse. There's absolutely zero. It's one of the most selfish acts somebody can do because it's them and it's usually because you're not going as hard as the other guy so now you're going to be Mr. Tough Guy or whatever. And then because of your actions, you hurt the team. I just don't see any place for that. I don't get it. There's no place on a football team for a selfish player. It's that simple."
Gators sophomore cornerback Jalen Tabor said McElwain has stressed reducing after-the-whistle penalties since his arrival in Gainesville, and with good reason. Florida finished second in the SEC last year in yards penalized per game (59.2) and first—which means last—in the league in 2011, '12 and '13.
While a high penalty-yardage statistic isn't necessarily the sign of a bad team—Baylor racked up 88.4 penalty yards a game last season and went 11-2—anyone who has watched Florida in recent years knows the Gators padded their stats with some exceedingly dumb penalties. (This might be the dumbest. And, no, Gerald Willis is no longer on the team. He has since transferred to Miami.) Given that McElwain has to stitch an offensive line together out of a group of inexperienced older players and freshmen, his team can't afford to hand yards to opponents.
9. This spring Tennessee coach Butch Jones was adamant that the Volunteers still need to build more depth before they should be considered contenders in the SEC East. Sadly, the past two weeks have proven why Jones seemed so worried about depth. The Vols have lost two offensive guards (Marcus Jackson and Austin Sanders) to torn biceps tendons and projected starting nickelback Rashaan Gaulden to a broken foot. All three are expected to be out for the season. Tennessee still has a lot of talent on its first 22, but each season-ending injury exposes a little more of the soft underbelly that was the recruiting of former Volunteers coach Derek Dooley. That's what concerned Jones in the spring, and some poor luck is bringing those fears to life in the preseason.
10. Ten years ago, USC ruled the Pac-10 while staging practices just about anyone could watch. In 2015, Oregon called the cops on a crew from the Pac-12 Network. The network is owned by the league, meaning the Ducks unleashed the fuzz on people whose salaries Oregon helps pay.
What's eating Andy?
Punt, Pass & Pork will return to its regularly scheduled slot next Monday, which means I only have six days to top the thing I ate in Lincoln that you'll read about in the section below.
What's Andy eating?
The 2013 Michigan State-Nebraska game was my introduction to chili and cinnamon rolls. Oh, I had eaten chili before. And I'd eaten cinnamon rolls, too. But I had never seen them served together the way they were in the Memorial Stadium press box that day. When I inquired why they were served together, the overly friendly Nebraskans looked at me like I was the crazy one.
You haven't heard of chili and cinnamon rolls?
Apparently, this is a beloved combination in Nebraska, Iowa and parts of Kansas. Quintessential Nebraska fast-food chain Runza serves the pair. Meanwhile, many children in those states grew up eating the two together off a school lunch tray. And it does seem like a combination that would be favored by an enterprising lunch lady. "Well, we've got a huge pot of this," she might say. "And we've got a whole bunch of these. Let's put them together!"
Still, the denizens of these states have to understand that their duo seems odd to outsiders. It's no different than a Floridian saying, "You haven't heard of sautéed grouper and Frosted Flakes?" Or someone from Vermont asking, "You haven't heard of chicken noodle soup and vanilla ice cream?"
As unusual as the juxtaposition of chili and cinnamon rolls may be, they are delicious individually and when paired. A bite of cinnamon roll follows a slurp of chili perfectly, because the chili prepares the taste buds for the spicy kick of the cinnamon. The palate is then soothed by the sugar glaze and hearty dough. As strange as it sounds, the Nebraskans are truly inspired. So, when I visited Lincoln last week, I tried to find a place that takes chili and cinnamon rolls to another level. I found it at a place called LeadBelly, in a dish called the Full Leaded Jacket.
There is no reason the Full Leaded Jacket should taste good. According to the bartender who served mine, it started as a joke when the restaurant opened. The owners tried to create a dish that would out-Nebraska every other item on the menu. They succeeded. "They didn't think anyone would be dumb enough to try it," the bartender told me, "and it became our most popular item."
What's a Full Leaded Jacket? It's a cinnamon roll topped with chili, but with the roll sliced and stuffed with a hamburger patty. This monstrosity is then topped with queso, sour cream, jalapenos and tortilla chips. Basically, it's a cinnamon roll burger struggling under a pile of chili and loaded nachos.
This should be the solid equivalent of that night in college when we dumped every alcoholic and non-alcoholic liquid we had in our apartment into a bucket, creating a filthy, barely potable brown drink we named Bucket. The Full Leaded Jacket should be a disgusting combo of conflicting flavors that have no business sharing the same bowl. It should be completely inedible.
Instead, it's amazing.
The burger lends weight to the sugar and the cinnamon. Meanwhile, the dough of the roll provides an ideal counterbalance to the chili and queso. I've asked college football editor extraordinaire Ben Glicksman to include photos of the FLJ before consumption and in mid-consumption so you might understand how the layers meld together. It looks as horrible as it sounds. Yet it tastes so, so wonderful.
It is a thing that should not exist, a dish cooked up on the Island of Chef Moreau at the height of his madness. Yet for those of us dumb enough to try it, the Full Leaded Jacket is proof that sometimes we must merely close our eyes and take a bite.