Riley's won over fans, so now can he win games at Nebraska?
Aug. 31, 2015
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Mike Riley's been coaching for 41 years, including three at the helm of an NFL team. But he has never worked at a place like Nebraska, where football is the biggest point of pride and a 365-day-a-year passion in this state of 1.8 million.
"It might not be comparable to anywhere," Riley said Monday.
The scrutiny that wore on his predecessor is about to ramp up again with Saturday's season opener against BYU.
Bring it on, Riley says.
Riley, with that nice guy persona that plays well in these parts, has done and said all the right things since he was hired in December. Now Big Red fans want to see if Riley can elevate a program that seemed to hit a ceiling under Bo Pelini.
To do that, Riley must win at least nine games a year. Pelini did that each of his seven seasons but Riley only did that in four of his 14 years at Oregon State. Riley also will be expected, maybe not this year but soon, to put the Huskers in position to win their first conference title since 1999.
The 62-year-old Riley said he was looking for one last adventure when he and his wife decided to move to Lincoln. The fun starts with a game against the toughest opening opponent since 2003, when the Huskers beat Oklahoma State.
Riley was up and down in his recent openers at Oregon State. The Beavers lost to FCS opponents in Sacramento State and Eastern Washington in 2011 and 2013. In between they upset 13th-ranked Wisconsin. Last season they trailed FCS Portland State at halftime before winning 29-14.
Yes, Riley has imagined what it will be like when he comes out of the tunnel for his first game at Nebraska.
"I've really thought about it when we've gone out for scrimmages the last few days," he said. "My stomach goes in knots when I think about it. It's not necessarily nerves. It's fun and exciting."
Riley and the players said they have built a strong rapport. He took over an emotionally fragile team. Players acknowledged a negative vibe last season, an us-against-the-world mentality that was fostered under the previous staff. In Pelini's last meeting with the players, he was secretly recorded using language derogatory to women in describing athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
Receiver Jordan Westerkamp said Riley and his assistants have earned the players' trust.
"At first, obviously, when it first happened with the coaching staff change, it was tough for us," Westerkamp said. "We weren't expecting it and we were blindsided by it. As time went on, the transition got smoother and guys started to buy into what these new coaches were preaching."
The Huskers will be blending Riley's pro-style offense with some pieces of the spread/zone-read option system of the previous staff, and the defense will be less complicated but still new. And they'll be going against a Taysom Hill-led BYU team that won eight games and went to a bowl last year.
No one, including Riley, knows what to expect.
"What we want to do is win this week and grow from there," he said. "That is the recipe for a good season. We understand we want to win the championship and all that, but there's a long road to go down and a lot of things to do before we can make that relevant."
One thing Riley knows is that a whole state full of people will be watching.
"It's fun and exciting to be around so much interest, so much caring and great pride in the place, great pride in the university, great pride in the football program and all the sports," he said. "Even how it's cared for physically, how people take care of it and how clean and neat it always is. It's always the best foot forward at Nebraska, and that's really a privilege to be a part of."