University of Nebraska stunned a lot of people Thursday morning, naming Mike Riley of Oregon State as its new football coach to replace Bo Pelini. It’s a shocker of the first order, and one of the elements is the speed of which it all took place: Pelini was fired only over the weekend, after a staccato series of nine-win seasons in Lincoln, and four days later, Riley is named.
On both ends of that deal, this appears to be a case of successful coaches who simply wore on their fan base, right or wrong. Pelini was surely successful at Nebraska, going 69-27. But a lot of the Husker faithful have never forgotten how good they had it under first Bob Devaney in the 1970s, and later Tom Osborne, who won three NCAA titles in four years in the ’90s. Besides that, Pelini had a rough-hewn public side, once lowlighted by a bootleg tape of him dropping F-bombs over the part of the Nebraska fan base that was critical of him.
Riley won’t ever be caught doing that.
In a 14-year tenure in Corvallis — spliced by the four years of the Dennis Erickson tenure — Riley got the Beavers close to the Rose Bowl in 2008-09 but both times was thwarted by Oregon. After that, there was some backsliding, which this season (he went 5-7) swelled to the point where fans increasingly groused, some believing OSU had grown stale, some backing staff changes. Meanwhile, Riley had a sweetheart contract that went out several years, and the assumption was always, if a change was going to happen in Corvallis, it wasn’t going to be because he was fired. By his contract, he was too entrenched.
I have to believe he’s headed to Nebraska at least partly because of a backdrop of disgruntlement that was growing in Oregon. Or, if part of his decision is because he thinks creating winning football at OSU is a losing battle, that’s not good news for the Beavers.
It’s now going to get very interesting in Corvallis, which, only in May, hired a new basketball coach in Wayne Tinkle. The fans who grumbled seeking change are about to get it, and there’s no guarantee it’s going to be a salutary one. Oregon State was paying Riley $1.51 million annually, the lowest salary in the Pac-12 (which, I suppose, was offset somewhat by the security of the contract). Its facilities are adequate, but certainly not overwhelming with the recent spate of buildings going up in the league. I wrote recently that some OSU fans don’t realize how truly bleak it can get (and did for OSU not so long ago, with an NCAA-record streak of 28 straight losing seasons). I don’t expect that to happen again, but it’s surely not a given that athletic director Bob DeCarolis is going to pluck a replacement who gets the Beavers into bowl games in eight of his 12 seasons as Riley did.
Sixteen months ago, Riley and I had a conversation about aging. He had just turned 60, and he talked about how refreshed he was, and that he felt a “disconnect” between how he felt at that age, and what might be the conventional outsider view of someone at 60. In other words, he was energetic. That’s what Nebraska’s getting, and I think the Huskers will be better for it.
Oregon State? Maybe not so much. The hometown boy has just left home.