The immediate reaction to the hiring of Mike Riley as Nebraska’s next football coach was stunned silence.
It’s always that way when the high-profile hire comes out of left field or, in this case, the left coast. A moment is required to collect a breath, then the mad scramble for information and reaction begins.
Here’s mine: solid, not spectacular, hire.
I’m unsure who might have been the spectacular choice. Nick Saban, uh, no. Bret Bielema and Gary Patterson were intriguing names suggested. Either would have been a coup.
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Riley probably was the best coach available right now. Oregon State didn’t reach a bowl game. His transition can begin immediately.
That’s no reason to hire a coach or even expedite a process. But Riley would have been a good choice if the Beavers were 7-5 and headed to the postseason.
He’s the first Nebraska coach hired who moved from another head coaching job since Bob Devaney left Wyoming for the 1962 season.
Riley appears to be the anti-Bo Pelini, in personality and deed. Riley brings personal appeal. The lead on his Oregon State biography is a quote from radio personality Jim Rome, “Mike Riley is the best guy in college football.”
Pelini wasn’t the worst, but his sideline demeanor had been an embarrassment at times.
Still, the Cornhuskers would have tolerated the Tasmanian devil if he wasn’t getting blown out by Wisconsin and dropping other big games.
Riley has won a few biggies during his 14 seasons in Corvallis, among the biggest against third-ranked Southern California in 2006 when the Beavers ended the Trojans’ 27-game conference winning streak.
This year’s Oregon State team finished 5-7 overall and tied for last in the Pac-12 North. In 2012, the Beavers were picked to finish last in the division and went 9-4. They were in a bowl game last year and have played in the postseason in eight of the last 11 years.
Pelini did that and more. But Nebraska made it clear by firing a coach who never finished worse than 9-4 that the bar is higher. First-place finishes are expected. The 15-year drought of conference championships is unacceptable.
Nebraska aspires to national prominence not because it imagines a better place, but because the Cornhuskers lived there for decades and are unwilling to accept the idea a national championship is no longer possible.
For many reasons, getting to the top is a steeper climb for Nebraska than it was in your parents’ and grandparents’ time. More schools are invested in football than the 1990s. The major conference media contracts have given wonderful facilities to any school that wants to win.
Twenty years ago, it would have been unfathomable to think of TCU or Baylor as superior to the Cornhuskers. Both programs today have more talent. So does Missouri, which has thrived in its conference switch.
The formula is the same as it was between the Nebraska dynasties of the 1970s and 1990s. College football had started its Southern pull, specifically toward Florida State and Miami. Tom Osborne recruited more speed, and the Cornhuskers returned to the top.
More destinations available to the top athletes make the task more difficult. But only a few can sell Nebraska’s game-day experience, passion and tradition. Riley, 61, remembers how powerful those qualities were. He must sell them to athletes from the warm-weather climates, as Osborne did a quarter-century ago.
But reaching the top of the Big Ten is the first order of business. The closest Nebraska came was a 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in the league title game in 2012. If only Riley had been the Big Red coach then, he might have had a better game plan. Oregon State beat the Badgers 10-7 earlier that season.