The writing had been on the walls for weeks and now it’s on paper, too.
A disastrous season has come to a close with the termination of Mike Riley as Nebraska’s football coach after a turbulent three-season run.
For Riley, it wasn’t supposed to go down like this. In his introductory press conference in 2014, Riley, then 61, said Nebraska was meant to be “one last great adventure,” after leaving Oregon State.
The plan was to build Nebraska into a team that regularly competed for Big Ten Conference titles and national relevance before riding off into the sunset of retirement.
“At the stage of my career, it was an opportunity to try something one more time,” Riley said in that first press conference. “If you’re going to do it one more time, this is a great chance to do it at a great place.”
Instead, the sun set earlier than expected, thanks to two losing seasons in three long years.
Before coming to Nebraska, Riley saw his Oregon State teams regress from 9-4 in 2012 to 7-6 in 2013, to 5-7 in 2014. He was viewed as a coach that was fading into obscurity and his move to Nebraska was supposed to revitalize his career. Instead, the slow fade continued.
There were flashes of success in Riley’s Nebraska tenure, but they were few and far between. Building Nebraska back into a nationally relevant program was a tall task, and one Riley just didn’t have the capability of doing at this point in his career.
While the head coach didn’t cause many problems or distractions, they built up around him. Players were suspended for academic issues. Assistant coaches were suspended for breaking laws. Other coaches were constantly bickering with the media, creating even more distractions outside the program.
Riley did a lot of good in his three-year stint in Lincoln. He never got in any trouble off the field, and on it he carried himself with class. He also recruited well, bringing in the 31st-ranked class in 2015, 24th in 2016 and 20th in 2017.
Off the field, Riley was well-liked by most. He was a great example of how a football coach should represent a university. The only thing he was missing was the success.
In an ideal world, a coach who carried himself in the way Riley did would be given more time to turn the program around, but this was a necessary decision. He had three years to show progress was being made, and frankly, the contrary happened.
In Riley’s three years at the helm, Nebraska lost at least once to every team in the Big Ten West. That included three losses to Wisconsin and Iowa. The Huskers failed to finish in the top two of the division for the fifth straight season.
On top of it all, down the stretch this season, his team stopped competing.
When Chancellor Ronnie Green fired Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst in September, he repeatedly emphasized the need for Nebraska to compete.
“The fact of the matter is we need to raise our on-field competitiveness,” Green said. “Competing at a high level is required for the long-term success of Nebraska Athletics.”
While Nebraska did compete for most of Riley’s tenure (they lost 10 games by one possession), they failed to compete when it mattered most. 59- and 42-point losses to Ohio State showed that, as did blowout losses to Wisconsin, Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa.
Mike Riley’s predecessor was fired partially because of his inability to have Nebraska compete against ranked opponents, yet Riley himself failed to do much better. He finished his tenure 2-6 against ranked opponents.
This is a day that has been a long time coming. Following Nebraska’s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois and Eichorst’s subsequent firing after, it would have taken an incredible turn of events for Riley to save his job. Following back-to-back blowout losses at home to Wisconsin and Ohio State, he was essentially a lame duck for the remainder of the season.
In the final month of the season, Riley’s future was always the elephant in the room. He noticed the nearly empty stadium in the second half of the Ohio State game. He consistently took questions from the media about his future, even if the questions were inappropriate or out of line.
Football coaches who don’t succeed at Nebraska don’t usually leave the best reputations behind. Bo Pelini left Nebraska with a profanity-laced rant about the administration in a secret meeting with his players, and just mention the name Bill Callahan to any Husker fan and that much is clear.
Yet despite his failures, Mike Riley might buck that recent trend.
Riley has had plenty of opportunities to snap on people, especially recently. Even some of his assistants have snapped under the stress of the season. Yet he has found a way to handle his situation with class.
“I think it was an easy place to move into,” Riley said about Lincoln earlier this week. “People are as advertised and so that part of it ... I really appreciate that comfort, walking around town as we do so often and then settling down and then getting to be a part of this. Walking out in that stadium, I will never get tired of that.”
And as for any leaked recordings following his departure, it’s doubtful that will happen.
“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 was forced to handle his fair share of adversity over these last three years. He guided Nebraska through suspensions of both players and coaches, the deaths of a would-be senior captain and a would-be assistant coach and countless setbacks on the field. How he carried himself and led his team through it all deserves respect and recognition.
Riley’s character, as well as his recruiting, will likely help him leave a better reputation in Lincoln than his last two predecessors. Yet, under his leadership this program stooped to new lows that haven’t been reached in over 50 years.
Where the program goes from here is still a mystery, and it’s fair to question just what exactly Nebraska’s ceiling is in this era of college football.
All that is certain at this point is that despite being given all of the resources in the right environment, Mike Riley’s last great adventure didn’t turn out so great, nor was it the type of adventure he had in mind.