Riley to Nebraska – Evaluating BIG Ambitions

by JDCam 12.11.14

The holiday season, a time for giving, family and a glut of wonderful college football games at the end of December and beginning of January in which fans of the BIG10 are becoming increasingly disgruntled at their once mighty conferences paltry displays. The BIG10 went 2-5 in bowl play in the 2013/14 bowl season a downward trend that shows no signs of abating. The BIG10 will send a record 10 teams to bowl games this year but with opposition like Stanford, USC, Missouri, Auburn, Baylor and of course Alabama awaiting it’s teams this year’s bowl slate offers little relief. The BIG10 is desperate for a spark.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke was doing a lot of head scratching during an underwhelming 2014 season

Michigan coach Brady Hoke was doing a lot of head scratching during an underwhelming 2014 season

The 2014 off-season provides the perfect opportunity. After becoming the Dallas Cowboys of college football Nebraska decided to fire acerbic Mr. Potato Head look alike Bo Pellini after 7 seasons. After a much more farcical season in Ann Arbor in which the only consistency was found in Brady Hoke’s all-weather polo shirt, Michigan finally canned their coach, who could never recreate the promise offered from an 11 win opening season and a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech in 2011. What better chance to make an impact (as Ohio State did by hiring Urban Meyer in 2011) than by making two splashy hires in the respective head coaching positions for teams who have combined for 1775 wins but whom, to varying degrees have fallen from grace. Enter Mike Riley.

Nebraska fired Pelini after struggling badly against ranked opposition.

Nebraska fired Pelini after struggling badly against ranked opposition.


According to Mitch Sherman there remains a portion of the Nebraska fan base loyal to Pelini. Let’s debunk that heresy first. Pelini went 67-27 as the Cornhuskers head coach. If nothing else he was consistent, winning at least 9 games in his 7 seasons at the helm. Since the 2012 season, Nebraska has been spectacularly, epically bad in games against ranked opponents. In 2012 they lost at home to UCLA, allowed 63 points against Ohio State and allowed Wisconsin to put up 70 on them in the BIG10 Championship game against Wisconsin. 2013 brought about another loss to the Bruins as well as defeats at the hands of Michigan State, Minnesota and Iowa. In 2014…well you get the picture. The final nail in the Pelini coffin came at the hands of another shellacking in which Melvin Gordon ran for 408 yards in what was essentially a battle for the BIG10 West. In short Pelini beat the teams he should have beaten and little else in his term.

So who exactly is Mike Riley?

Riley spent 14 years in two different spells at Oregon State with 3 years sandwiched in between with the San Diego Chargers of the NFL. Riley is described as being consistently positive, driving a Prius and wearing flip-flops in the office in the summertime by Sherman. Sounds like he’ll fit right in in Lincoln. Riley sounds more ideologically suited to his brief NFL home than a gritty Midwestern city like Lincoln. Many Cornhusker fans have firmly entrenched in the Pelini camp because of his bullish, no bullshit approach, almost a gritty echo of the Midwestern lifestyle itself. While Riley may not share many political or ideological traits with Husker fans one undeniable truth will remain, win and he will be loved.

Riley has never been an outstanding recruiter but has gotten the best from the players afforded him. There are currently 14 Beaver alum in the NFL, perhaps the most exciting being wide receiving duo Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton. Something Riley never managed to accomplish in either of his stints at OSU was swinging the balance of recruiting power away from admittedly tough competition in the Arizona schools, UCLA, USC, Stanford and of course Oregon. Not that one would expect Riley to lure significant high end prospects away from these school but his 2014 crop included 24 3 star recruits, not a single 4 star name or ESPN 300 player among them. This recruiting mediocrity hamstrung Riley and was reflected in the Beavers play on the field. When Riley left OSU in 1999 a team that he had led to a 3-8 record became a 7-5 team, a fact he received a deserved amount of credit for. Riley returned to Corvalis in 2003 and after an excellent 2012 where the Beavers finished the conference slate at 6-3, he saw his program decline and slide to a 2-7 record in 2014, finishing 93-80 in his two stints with the Beavers.

Perhaps we can only judge Riley so much and no more on his time with OSU. The problem for Nebraska lies in that the hiring of Riley is a move that seems to contradict their ambition. Pelini showed an ability to win almost all the meaningless games his teams were supposed to win during his team in Lincoln. I applaud Nebraska’s sense of ambition in letting him go – despite his consistent 9 and 10 win seasons. In order to take one of the BIG10s goodnotgreat programs (Nebraska, Wisconsin) to the next level however, the battle that has to be won first is during recruiting season. Riley has shown little outstanding sway in this area.

Both Nebraska and Michigan have exhibited a consistent arrogance in their approach to running their programs in recent years, basking in the historical glow of past glories and championship teams. Both of these once might programs need a reality check and an honest self-assessment before they can move forwards sustainably. Nebraska and Michigan are simply not dominant programs right now. They are being out-recruited by SEC, ACC and PAC12 schools in more desirous locations and being outcoached every bowl season. The Riley hiring simply seems reactionary and ill-conceived (they seem to have simply found a coach who is Pelini’s antithesis). Nebraska’s hire ironically underlines its own arrogance. They believe they should be competing for National Championships year in and year out but, with all due respect to Riley, his is a name that hardly strikes fear into the hearts of opposition in the same way Nick Saban or Urban Meyer would. Nor will it likely lure any blue chip recruits from other schools further south. Nebraska and Michigan needed to make statement hires this off-season to bring the BIG10 back to relevance. Nebraska – you blew it, over to you Jim Hackett.


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