I’ve been asked a hypothetical question about Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Mike Riley several times since December of last year: If his team finishes below .500 again, surely athletic director Shawn Eichorst has to fire him, right?
Yes, I’ve received some wide eyes at that response. Sure, my sanity’s been questioned. However, letting Riley go after year two would be a massive blunder. Allow me to explain.
First, letting the former Oregon State head coach go would be bad business. Keep in mind that Nebraska’s already paying Bo Pelini $128,009 per month from now through Feb 28, 2019 to not be employed. The Huskers would have to double down and pay Riley to leave through Feb 28, 2020.
Next, we move on to getting a better coach, since that’s what this is all about.
Well, finding a new coach for 2017 would be a hard sell. If Riley is dismissed after two seasons, Nebraska will have:
- fired a coach that ultimately did win nine games every year (and there’s a major factor within this time period, but we’ll get to that later).
- hired a new man to bring in a new culture, his own staff, and potentially flourish given an appropriate amount of time. That didn’t happen in two years, so for the sake of this argument, he’s gone.
The first name on a number of my readers’ lips would be new Central Florida head coach Scott Frost. Keep in mind he will have had a grand total of one year as a head coach at an AAC school. Sure, he was the offensive coordinator for the Oregon Ducks for three years and worked with the wide receivers for an additional four, but that’s basically what he brings to the table.
Amazingly enough, this would be fine for some Nebraska fans.
After all, he’s a former Cornhusker and he helped win a national title. What more could one need in terms of coaching acumen? Say what you will about Pelini, but the man was involved with Big 12 and SEC schools at coordinator levels, not the AAC.
Suddenly the idea of bringing on Frost seems foolish at best, so what now?
Any coach worth his salt is going to ask, “How much time do I get? This last guy had a five-year deal and was axed after two. I’m going to pick up and move here, recruit to Lincoln, etc., and then have to bolt because things don’t go smoothly during the first two seasons? Purdue gave Darrell Hazell four years!”
I am, of course, assuming Hazell will be looking for gainful employment following this season. Look at this schedule and try to find any signs of hope.
Third, there’s the issue of recruiting. Whoever decides to take the keys has to win the hearts and minds of current players to prevent transfers. This is a young team, so there are plenty of guys who could bolt and have successful careers elsewhere if they don’t like the new boss.
After that wave of re-recruitment, New Coach X will have to try to retain all of the commitments Nebraska currently has. Let’s say Riley’s fired November 26 following a loss to Iowa. Keyshawn Johnson, Sr. has publicly said that his son (a major peer recruiter for this class) is going to be a Husker unless Riley’s not around when it’s time for his son to sign his National Letter of Intent.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest this class might unravel with Calabassas teammate and No. 8 pro-style quarterback Tristan Gebbia deciding to play elsewhere, perhaps with Johnson, Jr. Four of Nebraska’s 13 commitments were garnered in no small part because the parents know Riley and what he’s capable of.
Finally, and most importantly, I don’t think most Nebraska fans genuinely understand what Riley experienced behind the scenes last year. Pelini left behind a toxic culture that spread his “Us Against the World” paranoia among his team. Riley had to cleanse the program of that while taking the understandable slings and arrows of a fan base that does not tolerate losing for very long.
Riley understood what he was walking into. He can appreciate a passionate group of fans that wants to get back to winning championships. I certainly understand it. However, I find it somewhat hypocritical of those who chastise others for wanting instant gratification in other areas of life to demand that Riley shows a completely revamped program in two years’ time.
Nebraska’s new head coach didn’t take over a program that was ready to take a huge next step. The tires had to get out of the mud first. The roster was in ruins, and 40 percent of this year’s senior class are walk-ons. The good news is that Husker football is now on an upward trend. Some of the best talent in the country is visiting (some will commit), Nebraska has assistant coaches that will be coveted by other schools, and Eichorst is no doubt willing to give Riley every resource he needs to bring the Huskers back into the spotlight.
Mike Riley wouldn’t be fired if 2016 is a bust because 2015 was, in many ways, a mulligan. The tent from pest control has been taken off the Nebraska football program; the new tenants have moved in; and now you’ll start to get a proper look at what Mike Riley has in store for the future.