Riley accepts expectations at Nebraska
LINCOLN, Neb. — Mike Riley is a month away from opening practice in his first season as Nebraska’s coach.
Riley, who turns 62 Monday, originally planned to retire at Oregon State. But when Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst called after he fired Bo Pelini, Riley couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see what he could accomplish leading one of the winningest programs in college football history.
“There was the intrigue of Nebraska and the intrigue of a new league. My wife and I said we have time for one more great adventure, so we said, ‘Let’s do this,’” Riley said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Riley discussed the high expectations at Nebraska, his contact with Tom Osborne, his reputation for being the “nicest guy in college football” and how he accepted a ride from a stranger on a cold winter night in Lincoln.
AP: You’re the fourth head coach at Nebraska since Tom Osborne retired after winning the last of his three national titles in 1997. Frank Solich and Bo Pelini won a lot but were fired. What do you make of the high expectations?
Riley: I’ve coached in the NFL, and they all want to win the Super Bowl. I’ve coached in the Pac-12, and they all want to win the Pac-12. I understand it. Expectations actually are a positive to me because when I went to Oregon State in 1997, there were none. Twenty-eight straight losing seasons, really bad facilities. It was kind of scary. It’s a better place to be when there are expectations.
Is the run of success Nebraska enjoyed from 1962-97 under Bob Devaney and Osborne an albatross for the coaches who have followed?
I don’t consider it a negative. There are only so many places in the country like Nebraska. Maybe you could name 10 that have that tradition and long-standing spot in the college football world. Instead of thinking of it as an albatross, you think of it as a positive and really embrace it. It’s pretty special to be at a place where there is so much pride, so much history, and now you see what you can do with it.
Other than one lunch you had with Osborne shortly after you arrived, have you spoken much with him?
He spoke at an FCA function with Tim Tebow in Grand Island, and my daughter and I went out there. They took us backstage with Tim and coach Osborne beforehand. We spent 15 minutes talking. My daughter talked to him more than I did.
There’s a perception Osborne has been slow to embrace you, based on the fact he was the athletic director who hired the coach you replaced. Do you feel that way?
I haven’t felt that at all personally. I think those kinds of relationships can grow over time. I hope as we see each other more often that it naturally does. I don’t think it has to be anything that’s forced. I’ve been able to spend a lot more time with some of his assistants. I had a staff meeting with Milt Tenopir, George Darlington and Charlie McBride as invited guests. It was awesome. I asked them to come in and give us some advice and tell us about Nebraska and tell us about how they think the walk-on program fits today, the Blackshirts. Besides that, we just had fun.
What’s it like being known as the ‘nicest guy in college football?’
I don’t know how anybody quantifies that. I hope people recognize that here’s a guy who just likes what he’s doing. I guess I appreciate being called a ‘nice guy.’ Sometimes it’s used as a detriment, like I’m not tough enough. That was the case way back in Winnipeg (of the CFL): When we won, it was because I could relate and I was a good guy and all that. When we lost, I was too nice.
Do you think Nebraska was looking for a personality like yours after seven years with Pelini?
That is a question for them. I don’t know Bo. I do know this: He recruited a lot of really good guys here and won a lot of games. All I’ll say about that is I appreciate the work that’s been done here.
Are you surprised Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999?
Yeah, that’s a surprising stat. I think part of that has a lot to do with the changing landscape of college football. You’ve seen with 85 scholarships things even out and a few different (teams) emerge. The positive is, even though we haven’t won a conference championship in that time, it’s been a good team. We’ve been on the edge of championships — lots of what other people would say are pretty good seasons.
When did it hit you that, as Nebraska football coach, you became probably the most visible person in the state?
I always thought of myself as a fairly nondescript person unless I’m wearing all my gear. I’d just walk around and someone might say hi, but they might not. This is totally opposite of that. Random, random, really random people come up and say, ‘Hey, coach, how’s it going?’ I always thought I was a blend-in kind of person.
Are you comfortable being approached by fans?
It’s absolutely fine. They’re showing respect to the program and to the position that I have. I like representing that, and I like talking to people. People just care. Most of the time they just want to say hi and welcome you to Nebraska.
It got out that after you first arrived in Lincoln you accepted a ride from a stranger back to your hotel after a basketball game?
I had gotten separated from the folks who went, so some security guys at the arena threw me out the door and said the Embassy Suites is that way. A guy was driving by and asked if I wanted a ride. I said yeah. It was so cold, the guy could have been a serial killer.
Did he take the long way back to the hotel so he could talk football with you?
He really didn’t. It was only a 2-minute ride. We had a nice talk.