Vahe Gregorian

Nebraska’s Mike Riley represents stark personality contrast, and upgrade, to Bo Pelini

Columnist Vahe Gregorian writes: The question for new Nebraska football coach Mike Riley ultimately will be whether he can outdo his predecessor, Bo Pelini, on the field to take the Huskers back to their accustomed heights.
Columnist Vahe Gregorian writes: The question for new Nebraska football coach Mike Riley ultimately will be whether he can outdo his predecessor, Bo Pelini, on the field to take the Huskers back to their accustomed heights. The Associated Press

Maybe Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst didn’t specifically set out to hire the opposite persona of the snarling, obnoxious Bo Pelini, whose supporters somehow rationalized his frequently ridiculous behavior as fiery.

But the difference in temperament was and is the most instantly obvious trait in his successor, former Oregon State coach Mike Riley, who was hired just days after Pelini was fired Nov. 30.

As one Nebraska message-board poster put it on Dec. 4, this was like swapping David Bruce Banner and the Hulk — “don’t make me angry; you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” — for the amiable Mr. Rogers.

Riley, after all, is a yoga practitioner known for his pristine language and an upbeat disposition that would make Dale Carnegie sound glum.

And you could understand this reputation within, oh, about 90 seconds of meeting Riley last week as Nebraska prepared for its spring game Saturday.

It’s all in the handshake and the look in the eye and his fetching of a latte for a visitor and the sincere interest in the other person’s story.

This seems a man as comfortable in his own skin as one can be.

“Two different ends of the spectrum,” said Nebraska defensive tackle Maliek Collins, a junior from Center High. “Bo, you could see his aggression and how he wanted to get it done.

“Riley, he’s an even-keeled dude. You never see him really, like, frustrated or flustered or anything like that.”

Pausing and smiling, he added, “At least so far.”

Michael Rose-Ivey, a junior linebacker from Rockhurst, called it “like a different style of parenting.”

Like Collins, though, he wonders when the styles might blur some.

“It can’t be humanly possible to be this happy all the time,” he said, laughing. “We’re waiting on that one person to not run out on the field-goal unit” for Riley to snap.

So the over-under on that is one intriguing question as Riley, 61, tries to revitalize one of the nation’s most storied programs.

Assuming it is inevitable he eventually will betray a glimmer of displeasure, though, more substantial questions loom.

Most notably, can Riley furnish what Nebraska ultimately seeks most: a return to dominance in this era of parity?

That inherently means a better record than his predecessor, who was, after all, 67-27 but couldn’t coax the program to be “good enough in the games that mattered” — as Eichorst put it when he fired Pelini.

Riley, after all, was all of 93-80 in 14 seasons over two stints at Oregon State.

But it was a program that he had to resuscitate (when he won five games in 1998, it marked the first time in 27 years the Beavers had won that many) and had nowhere near the resources of much of its competition — or that of Nebraska.

Nebraska’s belief in Riley thus is tethered to a certain faith that his reputation as a recruiter, motivator and teacher will make for a synergy with its assets that will propel all of this forward in a manner befitting the words still etched on the Memorial Stadium wall even after expansion.

“Not the victory, but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory.”

Riley remarks not on those words but the ones on the opposite side of the stadium that say, “Through These Gates Pass the Greatest Fans in College Football.”

As he considers those words and the stadium he already knows he’ll never get tired of, Riley says, “I love how they kind of saved history but built on.”

Building on all this himself, of course, is a lot to ask, and it brings up the flip side of the question.

Why on earth did Riley take this on now?

A cynic will simply note that he’s now being paid $2.7 million a year instead of the $1.5 million he was making at Oregon State, but that’s way too simplistic an explanation.

Especially when he has deep, extended roots in Corvallis, where he went to high school when his father was an Oregon State assistant coach — and where he had marveled that he could go home again when the chance to be head coach presented itself a second time in 2003 after he’d left to coach the San Diego Chargers.

“I’m a relatively happy guy, and my motto since I came back to Oregon State always had been, ‘If you’re happy, stay happy,’ ” he said.

And in many ways, Riley had it all.

He loved the job, loved his life there, loved riding his bike a little over a mile to work about every day, and even little rituals like walking up an outside staircase to his office.

“We had a very simple life that was full of routine,” he said. “It was just easy.”

And now … this.

As excited as he is about a job he already feels in rhythm with, he added, “life-wise, we don’t have” structure yet.

That can only come with time, of course, but maybe that’s why he agonized so as he prepared to move to Lincoln in December and embark on this unpredictable new journey.

He didn’t sleep at all — at all, he stresses — those last few nights, no doubt tortured some by the notion of … what had he done?

That was intensified by the absence of his wife, Dee, who was in Alabama with her ailing father, who died a few days later.

And yet Riley had complete conviction about the professional aspect of this, a point he prefers to make in terms of what he was going to instead of what he was leaving.

But a certain erosion of his baseline foundation at Oregon State seems to have been a factor in his willingness to consider this in the first place.

After all, since he’d been back there he dismissed an overture from USC (in 2009) among many others.

For that matter, twice in his career he rebuffed interest from his alma mater, Alabama, because he preferred to be on the West Coast, where he’d made most of his life.

The Beavers went 5-7 in 2014, by which time a five-win season had long since gone from seeming a miracle to a debacle.

And on the heels of other disappointments the last few years, including a 3-9 2011, the fan base reportedly was splintering.

All of which apparently was reflected in Riley’s season-ending meeting Dec. 1 with athletic director Bob De Carolis.

Multiple media outlets reported that De Carolis sought to end multiyear contracts to assistant coaches and eliminate the coach-for-life rollover clause in Riley’s own contract.

That didn’t mean Riley was on the verge of losing his job, but it likely meant that he was disillusioned with where he stood in the professional part of his paradise.

Which made it a particularly fertile day for Nebraska to call as Riley left to recruit in San Francisco, where Nebraska president Harvey Perlman already happened to be and Eichorst would fly.

The next day, they met … and it was decided.

Riley says he “kind of surprised myself” that he made this choice, but in talking with Dee they had the realization that this was probably their last chance for one more coaching adventure after so many (12) over the years.

“And I’m not necessarily of this vein,” he said, “but there are those who think that after a certain time it’s good to do something fresh.”

It’s been dizzying since, starting with a frantic recruiting pace, prioritizing a 500-mile radius (including Kansas City) he says he wants to treat as a home state within itself.

That meant he’s only recently gotten to know the players he’s got coming back, the ones he calls “victims of the transition” but whose trust he has to attain before anything else can function properly.

Most of all, he knows this is about how he fits and how they fit together.

“I think I’m a really good fit. I’m excited about that,” he said. “I don’t want to assume too much, but I even feel like the team right now feels like that.

“If it meshes, then you’ve got a great thing.”

If not, at least Nebraska will have gone back to stressing not the victory but the action and in the deed the glory.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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