I didn't see this one coming. And Husker fans are stunned. Mostly for what this hire suggests to them about where they sit in the major college football hierarchy and anger that they were not reunited with favorite son Scott Frost (currently OC at Oregon) who might lead them back to the glories of old with the college running spread offense of the new.
What's most compelling about this hire is how many facets of it are so right and so wrong at the same time. What wins out?
Riley has long held a reputation as a coach's coach, the man that got more done with less than any of his peers not named Bill Snyder. His name was bandied about many times through the years for USC, UCLA and Alabama job openings (yes, really - he was offered the Bama gig in 2002; most people don't know he played for Bear Bryant) but he always remained in his hometown Corvallis (he had a brief NFL stint) where he took talent-starved, overachieving Beaver teams to numerous winning seasons. But not much else. Talent and resources are a natural governor on a football engine. Being the #2 program in a populous football state can work. Being the #2 program in Oregon is a near death sentence.
Analyses that focus on his inability to win frequently against ranked teams are remedially stupid. The point is: how did he fare given his talent level? Pretty damn well. And isn't Nebraska just a superior, resource and tradition rich version of Oregon State in so many ways? Probably more than Husker fans care to admit. Nebraska isn't a normal football program. It's about extremes. A demographic wasteland with amazing tradition, good resources and truly dedicated fans frustrated over mounting irrelevance on the college football landscape, cut off from the talent rich corridors of California and Texas that they used to mine effectively.
So what are the pros and cons of Riley?
- A good coach with a reputation for maximizing lesser talent and locating diamonds in the rough. Redmond Longhorn wrote a brilliant post on coaching effects and Mike Riley is about as good as it gets.
- Affable with media, fans, administrators - a class guy who is much beloved in the community and respected by all. This was clearly a priority in Pelini's wake.
- Already recruits Texas and California well - places Nebraska has to reopen in order to thrive. See Jacquizz Rodgers and Brandin Cooks. Now he can target three and four stars and not just diamonds in the rough.
- Understands how to recruit and coach with bad weather & geographical compromise, but now has a passionate fan base with big-time resources to sell.
- He's 61. Forgive my ageism, but a 51 year old Mike Riley is a lot more compelling. Thinking about succession plans right after announcing your head coach isn't ideal.
- An alienated fan base is already lining up against him. They don't think Riley is going to bring back 1995. The more useful question is: can anyone? A unified Nebraska with a coach who can get the athletes he needs is a legit Big 10 power. Whatever that means. A fragmented Nebraska is an amusing regional oddity. Husker fans may just create their own self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Firing a head coach who won 9 games a year and replacing him with a coach who won 7 per year...tough sell. Fans and media aren't very interested in examining context or resources. This hire makes more sense on many levels than most will allow, but fans and media prefer the clean slate and endlessly projectable, unproven upside of a native son Scott Frost to a veteran head coach with a long track record of successes and lumps at a program he kept in the Top 50 that probably should be in the Bottom 20. Add in the fact that 2015 looks like a shaky Husker team no matter who the head coach is and he could start his tenure with a thud.
- Nebraska should be looking to make a two decade hire - not seeking a five year caretaker. Coaching consistency fits the profile of the program and the Huskers need it to create the sort of systematic approach to talent development and acquisition that will allow them to compete at a high level. The turnover post-Osborne has been very un-Husker like.
While the Florida and upcoming Michigan hire will consume most of the oxygen in the room, this hire is probably the most fascinating.