LINCOLN, Neb. — Oregon State coach Mike Riley is leaving for Nebraska in a surprise to perhaps everybody except the man who did the hiring.
Athletic director Shawn Eichorst ended his one-man search with the announcement Thursday that the 61-year-old Riley would replace Bo Pelini, who was fired Sunday. Riley will be introduced at a news conference in Lincoln on Friday.
Riley has spent 14 seasons over two tenures at Oregon State, leading the Beavers to a 93-80 record and wins in six of eight bowl games.
“It is truly an honor to join the University of Nebraska family,” Riley said in a statement. “Though we love Corvallis and Oregon State, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to coach at one of the nation’s most storied football programs and I can’t wait to get started.”
Riley’s name never appeared on the radar of college football pundits who speculated about Pelini’s successor. Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, a Nebraska native who quarterbacked the Cornhuskers’ 1997 national championship team, and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema were among those believed to be under consideration.
“Definitely out of left field,” Fox Sports analyst Charles Davis said. “I had no idea he would be interested in leaving Oregon State. He has one big run left in him as a head football coach, and Nebraska is a great place to try to have that final run. I’m a big believer that you’ve got everything you need at Nebraska, and if you do the job, rewards can be big-time.”
Rivals.com national recruiting director Mike Farrell tweeted that the hiring is a “home run.”
“I don’t think Huskers fans realize what a well-respected game coach Riley is and how hard it is to win in Corvallis,” Farrell wrote.
Nebraska, with no natural recruiting base, always has had to look far and wide for its players, and Riley has strong ties in talent-rich California. He also built a reputation for doing more with less at Oregon State. He was paid a reported $1.5 million, half of Pelini’s salary at Nebraska this year.
Riley employs a pro-style offense and is highly regarded for his development of quarterbacks. He has coached NFL QBs Matt Moore and Derek Anderson, and his starter this season, Sean Mannion, is the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer.
Riley also is known for having a nice guy persona, a contrast to the hot-tempered Pelini.
“There was one coach who fit all the characteristics that I was seeking to lead our tradition-rich football program,” Eichorst said. “Mike Riley has a proven record of success, a sound approach to football and teaching, an understanding of the educational mission of our university and the integrity and values that we cherish at Nebraska. I have no doubt that Mike will assemble a tremendous staff and lead our student-athletes to win Big Ten titles and compete for national championships in the years ahead.”
Pelini was fired last weekend after seven years and a 66-27 overall record that included at least nine wins — and four losses — every season he completed.
Riley, with just four seasons of at least nine wins, is charged with leading the Huskers back to elite status. Since Tom Osborne retired after winning a third national title in four years in 1997, the Huskers have had three coaches and rank 15th in wins. The program ranked fourth in all-time wins hasn’t won a conference title since 1999.
Riley will take over immediately but will not coach the Huskers in their bowl game. Nebraska assistant Barney Cotton is interim head coach.
Oregon State finished this season 5-7 overall, 2-7 in the Pac-12. The Beavers upset then-No. 7 Arizona State 35-27 at home for their only win in their last seven games.
Riley met with his Oregon State players on Thursday to inform them of his decision, a stunner by all accounts. After his team lost 47-19 to Oregon on Saturday, he talked about the need to make changes that would help the Beavers’ offense be more productive in 2015.
“I have a strong belief I’m the right guy for Oregon State,” Riley said, according to the Portland (Oregon) Tribune.
Riley was under contract with Oregon State through 2021. His contract stipulated that he would gain one additional year every time he went to a bowl game.
Riley was the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12. He was named Oregon State’s coach in 1997, taking over a program that hadn’t had a winning season since 1970. He left after two seasons to coach the San Diego Chargers, but not before his Beavers knocked off a nationally ranked Oregon in an overtime thriller in the 1998 Civil War game.
Riley returned to Corvallis in 2003 and had winning seasons in eight of the next 12 seasons. His Beavers famously knocked off No. 3 Southern California at home in 2006, No. 2 California on the road in 2007, No. 1 USC at home in 2008 and No. 9 Arizona on the road in 2010.
Nebraska struggled against ranked opponents under Pelini and was blown out in many of its high-stakes games.
Riley is a native of Idaho and a graduate of the University of Alabama, where he played cornerback for Paul “Bear” Bryant from 1971-74 and won three SEC titles and a national championship.