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Riley to Huskers raises several questions

There are two key questions to ask in the wake of Oregon State University football coach Mike Riley’s move to Nebraska.

First, why would Riley leave OSU? Second, why would Nebraska want him?

Here are some thoughts.

Resources-wise it’s a no-brainer for Riley. Nebraska has tradition, a huge stadium and a much larger fan base. Yes, that fan base can get cranky at times, and many have argued that the success Tom Osborne had at the school (three national titles) would be unlikely now because recruits have flocked to Sun Belt programs. But Nebraska is a much better job than OSU.

And I think Riley’s departure now is similar to his move to the NFL after his second year with the Beavers in 1998. It’s too good of an opportunity to pass up. NFL teams and Nebraska don’t come calling that often. And for those who thought that Riley never would leave Corvallis (and I tend to be one of those people) this is a wake-up call. Ambition sometimes runs deeper than you think.

Nebraska’s decision is a bit less obvious. On the surface, it’s a bit of a headscratcher to throw out Bo Pelini, who won at least nine games in each of his seven seasons for a guy who is 29-34 since losing the 2009 Civil War. Pelini never lost more than four games in a season. Riley has lost more than four games 10 times, including five of the past six. Pelini was 66-27 in his seven years. Riley is 46-42 over the same span.

Is it harder to win at OSU than it is at Nebraska? Undoubtedly. But that doesn’t mean that success at one level always translates to success at the next. Just ask Dan Hawkins or Paul Wulff or Brady Hoke or Will Muschamp. Riley is known more for developing players than recruiting them. And I’ve heard commentators say that because it is harder now for Nebraska to recruit that makes Riley a good choice for the Huskers. Maybe.

Also, athletic directors tend to hire in zigs and zags. Bo Pelini was a fiery, spittle-spraying sideline dynamo. Riley is an “Aw, shucks” nice guy right out of Ozzie and Harriet. Pelini also angered the powerful Nebraska fan base with his antics and hostility. That will never happen with Riley.

I remember once I was covering the OSU spring game in Portland the year Reser was being remodeled. I was in the pressbox waiting for the stats to be put together. Down on the field Riley was meeting and greeting with players, recruits, families and anyone who wanted to shake his hand or get their pictures taken with him. He pressed the flesh for 40-45 minutes, and he didn’t leave the field until the last family had walked away.

Riley will put his excellent schmoozing skills to work in Lincoln and throughout the state. The fans will like him … until he goes 5-7. Then, it could get tricky.

Meanwhile, OSU AD Bob De Carolis has the biggest hire of his career to add to his to-do list. And the stakes never have been higher. With the flood of Pac-12 TV money pouring in, other schools have spent millions hiring high-wattage coaches such as Mike Leach at WSU and Rich Rodriguez and Arizona. It was much easier for Riley to succeed in a Pac-12 in which he was matched with Wulff at WSU or Mike Stoops in Tucson.

And given OSU’s recent record hiring men’s basketball coaches … well, let’s just repeat that this is the most important fish that De Carolis has ever had to land.

Nick Saban? Les Miles? Probably not. Jim Harbaugh likely will be available once the 49ers fire him, but he will have better offers than OSU. Jonathan Smith, the former OSU QB and current Huskies’ OC has appeal for big chunks of Beaver Nation, but he lacks head coaching experience. Ditto for Ducks OC Scott Frost, who reportedly was in the mix for the Nebraska job. Should the Beavers bring back Dennis Erickson? It’s fun to think about (Riley to Erickson to Riley to Erickson sounds like a baseball rundown play), but he will be 68 in March.

I’m sure there will be other names bandied about. In the meantime, here's wishing Riley good luck in Lincoln. He IS one of the real good guys in sports.