Unwavered: Even in cloudy times for Husker football, Mike Riley always sunny

LINCOLN — “You can’t let this place eat you up, because if you let it, it’ll eat you up.” — former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, Dec. 2, 2014, two days after he was fired.

The Nebraska coaching job can age a man like the American presidency has aged men, and Mike Riley wears all of the three years — and then some — that he’s been at Nebraska. He left a place he knew and loved — Oregon State — for one last chance at championship football. Two days after Pelini’s long, angry rant over his firing, Riley took over a team full of players furious at the man who hired him. He shepherded the program through the hardest of moments — losing teammate Sam Foltz to a car accident in 2016. He has overseen an expansion of Nebraska football’s administrative arm. He has fired friends. He has changed defenses – and offenses.

Riley has not won enough games. Just 19 — against 18 losses — in three seasons. His critics billed him as a “.500 coach” upon his arrival, and he’s close to being just that at Nebraska. There are four losing Husker teams since Bob Devaney took over. Riley coached two of them. Hence, he will not likely coach a fourth year in Lincoln. New Athletic Director Bill Moos is likely to fire him.

But the job didn’t devour or derail Riley, players and assistants said.

Riley didn’t change. He stayed upbeat and friendly, with a personal touch. He was quick with a joke or a smile. He never melted down, wrecked a dry-erase board or tossed reporters out of practice.

“I’d be really surprised if he turned into the Incredible Hulk out of the blue,” wide receivers coach Keith Williams quipped.

Said quarterback Tanner Lee: “A big thing I like about Coach Riley — I’ve always liked about him — is he’s the same guy every day.”

Said kicker Drew Brown: “We haven’t had a great season record-wise but he’s taught myself and a lot of other teammates life lessons that we can use to our advantage when we run into adversities in life. Whether it is football or whatever the case is. He’s done an unbelievable job being able to move on to the next week and focus on the next team. We can’t thank him enough for that.”

Riley is an incrementalist. He loves the granules of the sport — the finer details on running a route, or tinkering ever so slightly with a practice habit — and it helps keep him in the present, focused on Iowa, Nebraska’s final opponent this season.

“I want to enjoy these kids, and coach, and teach them, and have an atmosphere about learning,” Riley said Monday.

That focus helps shut out the speculation and noise that has swirled since Riley’s former boss, Shawn Eichorst, was fired in September after NU’s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois.

Hours after the firing, Riley stood in front of reporters answering questions about it. Off to the side, he told a World-Herald reporter that Eichorst had been the most helpful and responsive boss he’d ever had.

Eichorst’s interim replacement, Husker offensive line legend Dave Rimington, immediately and publicly critiqued Nebraska’s walk-on program. Riley had to answer to that, too. As losses — to WisconsinOhio StateNorthwesternMinnesota and Penn State— mounted, certainty set in. As did the call for another former Husker, current Central Florida coach Scott Frost, to take the job. A Husker beat reporter even confronted Riley with Frost’s name in the postgame press conference at Penn State.

In that moment, the air left the small room underneath Beaver Stadium. Coaches are often asked about their job security. Rarely are they asked to talk about their potential replacement while they remain the coach.

“I don’t know anything about that, except what you said about the speculation,” Riley said. “I don’t want to talk about that.”

Yet Riley bore that — and another question. On Monday, he was asked why he’d never resorted to anger.

“I think everybody has a vision of what they think leadership is, what they think is important for a group of young men, and I really don’t see any need at being angry at anybody in particular,” Riley said. “I was brought up in coaching in a way that if it’s not working, then it’s our job to try to fix it, so the focus goes on that. I try to not play the blame game, there’s no need for that.”

Riley said he likes to think of the approach he would have wanted when he was an assistant or a player, and mirror that. It’s notable, because Riley played at Alabama for Paul “Bear” Bryant, who some regard as the greatest coach in college football history.

By the time Riley arrived — in 1971 — Bryant spent most of practice in his famous tower overlooking the field. Riley quipped that he could count on his hand the number of times Bryant talked to him in person.

“And sometimes you didn’t want to, you wanted to avoid that at times, and go the other direction,” Riley said.

Husker players have found Riley approachable and sincere.

“He’s honest — just something I really appreciate about him,” Lee said. “I think it helps our team.”

Neither Riley nor his players were in particularly wistful moods this week. Riley wasn’t ready to do a “big picture” reflection of this season — potentially Nebraska’s worst since Bill Jennings’ final campaign in 1961 — or his tenure. He said it’s best for him to ignore worrying about his job.

“I talk to our team as if I am going to be here forever,” he said.

Is that too sunny a disposition? If so, Riley wants it that way. Nebraska running backs coach Reggie Davis — who played under Riley with the San Diego Chargers and later coached for him at Oregon State — thinks folks go overboard with the whole “nice” label — “he’s a great coach” — but Riley’s steadiness, Davis said, is a sign of his character.

“He’s been a good leader for a long time, and he still is,” Davis said. “And when you’re trying to navigate these kind of waters, it really tells what kind of person you are. And anybody who knows or works with him on a day-to-day basis has to be pretty impressed with the way he’s handled himself.”

Riley didn’t change. On Tuesday, he talked with two reporters about singer Carole King, which led to a memory about James Taylor. He rubbed his hands together and smiled.

Now it’s Black Friday. Iowa on an unseasonably warm afternoon that stretches into evening on the plains. Perhaps Riley’s last game.

“Walking out in that stadium, I will never get tired of that,” he said.

Huskers in coaching déjà vu: Several players were there in 2014 for the last firing of NU football coach

Drew Brown, left, said he never considered transferring from Nebraska after former coach Bo Pelini was fired. “This is the place that I’ve always wanted to be,” Brown said. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — For Nebraska’s upperclassmen, it’s happening again.

A Black Friday game against Iowa. Speculation about the coach. A potential firing. Not easy stuff.

NU was here before in 2013 — then again in 2014 — with coach Bo Pelini, who was fired Nov. 30, 2014, two days after a dramatic 37-34 overtime win over Iowa. Players on that 2014 team remember the moment they found out.

“Pretty emotional,” said kicker Drew Brown, who was a freshman at the time. “Obviously, we had won the Iowa game, and we were pretty excited about it, then the news came along.”

Said running back Mikale Wilbon: “When Coach Bo got fired, I didn’t know he was going to get fired. It came as a surprise.”

Should Mike Riley get dismissed before, during or after the Huskers’ game against Iowa, it wouldn’t come as a surprise. NU is 4-7 heading into the game, not 8-3. It has given up 50 points three times this season, including to Minnesota (54) and Penn State (56) in back-to-back losses.

There’s probably not much drama or uncertainty, even if Nebraska beats the Hawkeyes.

The bigger questions come after the game: What’s next?

Husker linebacker Chris Weber said players can’t get rattled or thrown off course.

“I just remember thinking, at a place like this, you control your own destiny,” Weber said of his thoughts in 2014. “You can go as far as you want to go here. With the resources that we have, so you control it, you’ve got to put the work in, you got to want it.”

Weber was a sophomore on Riley’s first team. So were Wilbon and Brown, who never considered transferring from Nebraska. His older brother, Kris, was one of the school’s most prolific kickers, and Drew had long wanted to attend the school. He has started every game since he arrived.

“This is the place that I’ve always wanted to be,” Brown said. “Whether I was the starting kicker or I redshirted that year, this is always the place that I’ve wanted to be.

“That is probably the first thought among a lot of players and I get it, guys want to play. This has always been No. 1 for me in my heart and I’m lucky to be able to have lived it out.”

When staffs change, some turnover is inevitable. Players bond with the coaches who recruited them, or they don’t jibe with the new staff. When Riley arrived, he made a concerted effort to connect with players and accommodate them.

Still, receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El said, it took time for Riley to earn the players’ trust.

“A new coach comes in and everybody just falls in love with him? No,” Pierson-El said. “You have to build chemistry.”

Riley grew on Pierson-El, he said. He was there for the receiver through two injuries — a foot fracture and a knee ligament tear — that derailed Pierson-El’s sophomore season. His advice for young players going forward?

“You can’t be worried about what everyone else is saying,” Pierson-El said. “At the end of the day, you have to be worried about what’s in the building. At the end of the day, whoever makes speculations, isn’t God. It’s not the final say, so we worry about us and that’s that.”

Husker football coaching change press conference

When: TBA

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