LINCOLN — Nebraska coach Mike Riley’s choice to not renew the contract of longtime assistant, confidant and defensive coordinator Mark Banker stunned coaches and staff members inside NU’s program after Riley announced the decision Wednesday night.
“A surprise to me,” said Danny Langsdorf, Riley’s right-hand man on offense and the only coordinator his boss didn’t let go after this season. Another source within the program described Riley’s decision as shocking.
“I learned a lot from him,” linebacker Josh Banderas said. “I mean, I’ll take the knowledge that I learned from him — X’s and O’s, and just kind of life stories — I’ll take that with me everywhere I go. Whatever Bank decides to do, he’s gonna do awesome at it.”
Except for one year, Banker had worked for Riley since 1997, when Riley took the Oregon State job for the first time and invited Banker — whom he met when the two worked at USC. Banker followed Riley to the San Diego Chargers, again to Oregon State, and finally to Nebraska. Banker once described he and Riley as “yin and yang.” He was NU’s highest-paid assistant, with a salary of $580,663. His two-year contract was set to expire in January 2017, and Riley passed on extending it, effectively firing Banker.
For the first time in nearly two decades, Riley will have a new defensive coordinator.
“I want to thank Mark for his hard work and contributions to our football program the past two years and for all of his service and dedication as a member of my other coaching staffs,” Riley said in a statement released by Nebraska, which announced two other staff departures, as well. “We will conduct a national search to find a great coach, teacher and recruiter as we continue our pursuit of championships.”
Banker did not immediately return calls or texts from the World-Herald.
Safeties coach Brian Stewart is leaving to become Rice’s defensive coordinator, while director of player personnel Ryan Gunderson will coach quarterbacks at San Jose State and reunite with with former Oregon State wideouts coach — and Riley assistant — Brent Brennan, who just took the head coaching job.
ESPN first reported the news of Stewart taking the Rice job. Stewart made $425,000 at Nebraska this past season; Rice, a private institution, does not have to report coach salaries, but its league, Conference USA, is not prone to shelling out those kinds of bucks for a coordinator. Former Nebraska linebackers coach and current North Texas defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler, for example, made $250,000 this past season.
Still, Stewart has longstanding ties in the Houston area, having previously worked as a pro and college coach in that city.
“Brian feels this is a great opportunity for him and his family and I respect his decision,” Riley said of Stewart’s departure, which seemed likely after Nebraska hired Donte Williams away from Arizona to coach cornerbacks. “We appreciate Brian’s contributions to our program the past two years and wish him the best of luck. We will work diligently to replace him with an outstanding coach, teacher and recruiter.”
Gunderson — who organized NU’s recruiting operation and was known as Gundy by everyone inside the program — “has been a valuable part of our operation both at Nebraska and Oregon State,” Riley said. “I’m excited that he’s getting a chance to get back on the field in a coaching role and wish him the best of luck.”
Now down to seven assistants — with NCAA membership mulling over adding a 10th assistant this year — Riley has options in terms of hiring a position coach. He’d recently told reporters he wanted two defensive backs coaches when Stewart and Williams were briefly on the staff together, but he could add an offensive assistant — such as promoting graduate assistant tight ends coach Tavita Thompson — as well.
The bigger question comes at defensive coordinator.
Riley fired his special teams coordinator — another longtime friend, Bruce Read — 48 hours after a 40-10 loss to Iowa, but Read’s unit badly underperformed and his role had become an anachronism in college football anyway. But while Riley has years of experience on the defensive side of the ball — he spent the first six years of his full-time coaching career as a small-college defensive coordinator — he’d farmed out that side of the ball to Banker.
At Oregon State, the Banker system — with his “gap cancellation” run defense that strove for negative plays and his “quarters” zone pass defense — peaked in the late 2000s before beginning to decline as more Pac-12 offenses embraced the spread, no-huddle approach favored by Oregon. Starting in 2010, his last five defenses at OSU ranked 64th, 89th, 22nd, 91st and 98th nationally in points allowed. In his first press conference at Nebraska, Banker said he was excited to join the Big Ten, where fullbacks and tight ends still had a place. He compared his scheme to Michigan State’s scheme that won a Rose Bowl and made the College Football Playoff.
But with Banker trying to juggle changing schemes and managing mopey players who didn’t want predecessor Bo Pelini fired, the 2015 defense was a disaster — NU’s worst since 2008, when the Huskers faced far superior offenses in the Big 12. Nebraska gave up 400.4 yards and 27.8 points per game in Banker’s first season at NU. The bottom particularly dropped out in a 55-45 loss at Purdue.
“It was the absolute lowest point of our season,” Banker said this season about the Purdue loss.
After the 2015 season, Riley fired Banker’s preferred defensive line coach, Hank Hughes — whom Banker had touted as a good recruiter but wasn’t anything of the sort — while two Husker defensive tackles, Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine, declared for the NFL draft. Banker took over the coaching the safeties and relegated Stewart to coaching the cornerbacks. Banker switched up his scheme, playing less quarters coverage.
NU did get better — giving up just 363.7 yards and 23.9 points per game. But Nebraska wasn’t stingy against spread offenses, as Oregon racked up 482 yards and 32 points, Ohio State had 590 and 62, and Tennessee had 521 and 38.
The roughest game, though, was a 40-10 loss to Iowa, in which the Huskers were gashed for three big first-half plays. The Hawkeyes ran for 264 yards. Afterward, in the Kinnick Stadium tunnel, Banker — always a clever quote machine for reporters — uttered the sentence he’ll be remembered by at Nebraska.
“I bet their practices are like a bloodbath,” Banker said of Iowa, “because both sides of the ball kind of emulate that.”
Nebraska’s defense, as the season wore on, did not emulate that. Its best player, safety and captain Nate Gerry, was suspended for the Music City Bowl because he was academically ineligible, a budding issue about which both Riley and Banker — more directly responsible — were aware during the season. And the defense looked especially overmatched in the Music City Bowl loss, when Tennessee racked up 38 points despite Vol receivers dropping two sure touchdowns. After that game, Banker said NU’s had to improve.
“We just really need overall team speed,” Banker said. “And I think at the same time, we need to just increase the size of our overall team.
Speed and size. It was questionable whether Banker — or, after a good 2016 recruiting cycle, Stewart — were doing much on the trail to recruit those kinds of guys.
NU has zero defensive back commits in this class; Williams’ hiring was and is designed to resolve that, but that position was co-coached by Banker and Stewart until Williams got there.
The Huskers also still don’t appear to have a game-changing edge pass rusher in line for the 2017 cycle. NU grabbed one — Alex Davis — in the 2015 cycle, and one — Collin Miller — in the 2016 cycle.
Nebraska’s defensive line accounted for just 17 sacks this past season. Only 6½ of those sacks — compiled by Freedom Akinmoladun, Carlos Davis and Mick Stoltenberg — return for this season. Those three are likely starters.
At linebacker, NU will return starters Dedrick Young and Marcus Newby, plus Blackshirt backup Chris Weber and a host of young, talented players coached by Trent Bray — the only defensive position coach from Riley’s original Nebraska staff that he hasn’t let go.
In the secondary, Williams will get two returning starting cornerbacks — Chris Jones and Joshua Kalu — along with three seasoned safeties in Antonio Reed, Aaron Williams and Kieron Williams. The Nebraska defensive backs have had six position coaches over the last seven seasons.
Whoever Riley tabs as coordinator — be it an in-house promotion or a well-known name from a national search — he won’t have his longtime friend by his side.
Langsdorf, interviewed at the Outland Trophy banquet, knew Banker for more than a decade. They joked often after practice in front of reporters.
“Just a wealth of experience, and really good knowledge, and a great person, too,” Langsdorf said Wednesday of Banker. “So, sorry about it, but we’re also understanding that that’s part of the business we’re in.”