photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans were floored by the announcement that athletic director Shawn Eichorst had hired Oregon State’s Mike Riley to be NU’s new head coach. Riley, who had coached the Beavers for twelve of the last fourteen years (with an unsuccessful stint as head coach of the San Diego Chargers in the interim) was a surprise to everyone, and that surprise did not sit well with some Nebraska fans (as recounted by Hail Varsity).
Of course, fans are emotional, and some of those fans reacted without putting a lot of thought into their criticism. Here’s why some of the most common complaints were off base.
We shoulda hired Scott Frost!
Of all the negative reactions to Riley’s hiring, this was probably the most common. And sure, the story is compelling.
A championship-winning Nebraska quarterback, coming home to take the program back to its glory days. He’s one of us! He gets what it means at Nebraska!
Stop. I mean really, just stop. Frost, in his second year as offensive coordinator at Oregon, is a promising young coach with what looks to be a bright future ahead of him.
Does that sound at all familiar? Nebraska hires a young coach, a talented coordinator with no head coaching experience, to take over one of the most storied programs in college football.
Haven’t we seen this movie, and know how it ends?
That’s not to say Frost isn’t a good coach, and won’t perhaps someday be a great head coach. But Nebraska just went through seven years of giving an untested rookie on-the-job training on the sidelines in Lincoln.
Plus, how many other programs were looking to hire Frost as a head coach this season? If your answer was “none,” then you win the prize.
It’s understandable for Nebraska fans worried about an uncertain future to reach out for something familiar. But with all the risk involved with making a coaching change, allowing sentiment to drive the decision would be a dreadful mistake.
His record is worse than Pelini’s!
In Pelini’s seven years at Nebraska, his teams went 66-27. Under Riley during the same time period, his teams went 46-42. Overall, Riley is 96-80 as a collegiate head coach.
See! Pelini’s way better than Riley! Pelini’s never won fewer than nine games, something Riley’s only done once since 2009. Why did we fire Pelini to get this guy?
Yes, Pelini has never won fewer than nine games (or lost fewer than four games) in his career. At Nebraska. And Riley has done what he’s done at Oregon State.
Put simply, Oregon State isn’t Nebraska. Before Riley arrived in Corvallis, the Beavers had won nine games in a season twice—once in 1939, and again in 1962. Oregon State hadn’t had a winning record since 1970, and had only won a total of 14 games in the seven years before Riley took the job.
Oregon State is a tiny college town in northern Oregon, dwarfed in stature and resources by the school in Eugene that is funded to the hilt by Phil Knight, CEO of Nike. And yet Riley has consistently won there, at a level far exceeding what the school’s size, prestige, and resource level would dictate.
Want an analogy that is a little more familiar, Husker fan? Oregon State is a lot like Iowa State—if Iowa had a blank check with a swoosh on it to build facilities. If a coach was able to do in Ames what Riley did in Corvallis, wouldn’t you be intrigued by the prospect of what he could do in Lincoln?
It’s time to get over the “nine-win” thing, Husker fans.
He’s never won anything!
OK, fine, you say. Winning nine games isn’t a big deal if it doesn’t come with a championship at the end. And as a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Eichorst made a bold statement that playing for championships is the standard for NU, nothing less.
I thought Eichorst said championships were the standard! How can we hire a coach that hasn’t won anything more than Pelini has?
Riley has never won a conference title at Oregon State. He’s been close, and Dennis Erickson took Riley’s players (including Chad later-to-be-Ochocinco Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, you may have heard of them) to an 11-1 season and a Fiesta Bowl win in 2000.
So yes, Riley hasn’t won a championship at Oregon State. We’ve discussed already how winning titles at Oregon State is a much harder task than winning them at Nebraska.
But Eichorst also talked about the importance of Nebraska competing in the “games that matter,” something Nebraska was notoriously bad at under Pelini. How do Pelini and Riley compare in that category?
Well, let’s take a look at games against top-15 opponents, which is a fair estimation of Eichorst’s “championship-caliber” teams. In the last seven years, Pelini has notched wins over no. 7 Missouri (2010) and no. 9 Michigan State (2011). In that same time period, Riley has wins over no. 1 USC (2008), no. 2 Cal (2007), no. 9 Arizona (2010), no. 13 Wisconsin (2012, the same year the Badgers beat Nebraska 70-31), and no. 6 Arizona State (2014).
None of Pelini’s wins come close to Riley’s teams knocking off the no. 1 and no. 2 teams in the country. Heck, a pretty good argument could be made that none of Pelini’s wins are better than Riley’s squad this year taking no. 6 Arizona State out of playoff contention.
So are you saying Nebraska’s a lock for the playoff next year?
Of course not. Riley is far from a guaranteed success in Lincoln. With Nebraska opening against BYU, its toughest lid-lifter in a decade, it’s possible Riley could start his scarlet-and-cream career at 0-1.
Next season, Pelini’s defenders and those inclined to snark will be quick to pounce if Nebraska wins fewer than nine games. Is that expectation fair? Probably not, but it’s what Riley will have to deal with as he starts his career in Lincoln.
But the ultimate question is this. Does Nebraska have a better chance to win a conference title in the near future by making a change and hiring Riley, or by keeping Pelini and maintaining the status quo?
Eichorst made it crystal clear on which side of that question he came down. And while there will be many doubts raised about the move in the coming months, as the inevitable challenges hit Riley and his new staff in Lincoln, hopefully calmer and more rational minds can set aside those challenges that are less well thought out.