photo and story by Patrick Runge
OK, we get it. Mike Riley’s a nice guy. In case you hadn’t heard, you can read about it here, here, here, and here. Big Ten Media Days last week were full of breathless wonder at how nice Riley is, inevitably comparing him to the occasionally cranky previous head coach.
That’s fine in the summer, but some fans are worried that Riley’s pleasant demeanor will hold Nebraska back. A nice guy like Riley, fans worry, won’t be able to stand up and compete toe-to-toe with the upper echelon coaches in college football.
In other words, as Leo Durocher said (although he really didn’t), nice guys finish last.
It’s an easy – and lazy – trap to fall in. Football is a violent game, and needs a brutal and ruthless man at the helm. Nice guys are fine to trim the hedges, but a strong, alpha male is a necessity to win at the highest level.
A guy like Nick Saban, for example. Saban’s temper is stuff of legend, enough for GQ to call him “The Scariest Man In College Football.” How can a pushover like Riley, the thought process goes, compete with a ruthless winner like Saban?
On the field, we won’t know yet. But we already know he’s scored a victory in recruiting with Jordan Stevenson. A four-star running back according to 247 Sports, Stevenson was set to attend Wisconsin before being blocked from entering the school. A frenzy of late recruiting was triggered, and Stevenson’s decision came down to Nebraska and Alabama (according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).
To win like the big guys, you have to recruit like the big guys. And Nebraska, in Riley’s first year in charge – before he’s taken the field for a single game, was able to outduel Saban’s Crimson Tide for a prize offensive talent ready to take the field in 2015.
And that’s not a one-off. There’s no more hyper-aggressive alpha male than Jim Harbaugh, the new head man at Michigan. Harbaugh was insufferable enough to get himself shown the door by the San Francisco 49ers less than two years after a Super Bowl appearance. He was aggressive enough to get legendarily-chill Pete Carroll into a “what’s your deal” argument at midfield. And he has been talented enough to be incredibly successful wherever he goes.
Surely a man that oozes that kind of power and confidence will be more than a match for a sweet potato like Riley, right?
Well, maybe not. When Harbaugh got the job in Ann Arbor, one of the first things he did was to go after Nebraska recruits. Remember, Harbaugh and Riley coached together in the Pac-12, at Stanford and Oregon State respectively, so Harbaugh was familiar with Riley.
Tight end recruit Matt Snyder and defensive end Daishon Neal were both wooed by Harbaugh to decommit from Nebraska. But both declined Harbaugh’s advances, electing to stay with Riley in Lincoln. Indeed, Neal aired some dirty laundry about Michigan’s recruitment (according to Mitch Sherman of ESPN), making the Wolverines look bad in the process.
Sure, we don’t know what Nebraska on the field under Riley will look like. But, as been argued by Dave Bartoo’s CFB Matrix and SB Nation’s Football Study Hall, amongst others, recruiting matters. As axiomatic as it may seem, teams that get better recruits (according to the recruiting rankings) are more likely to be successful on the field.
So we’ll find out shortly how Riley will stand up on the field against the sharks of college football. But in the short time he’s been in charge of Nebraska, we’ve already seen him get recruiting wins over some of the biggest names in the sport.
Don’t let the nice guy image fool you, in other words.