How Nebraska Fans Should Handle Huskers’ Struggles In Mike Riley’s First Year

DSC02709

Cognitive Dissonance (cog*ni*tive  dis*son*ance, noun): the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

Year one of Mike Riley’s reign as Nebraska head football coach has been any number of adjectives. Disappointing. Shocking. Agonizing. Maddening. Surreal.

As Nebraska sits at 3-5, needing a win over a now-top-15 rated team in Michigan State or Iowa to earn a .500 record, fans are torn. Sure, everyone knows that firing a coach eight games into a season is madness. But everyone knows that 3-5 for Nebraska is never, ever, ever acceptable.

Those who cover the team are just as torn. Samuel McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald points out that Riley’s results aren’t all that different than former head coach Bo Pelini’s, but without the individual heroics of a Lavonte David, Taylor Martinez, or Ameer Abdullah to bail it out. Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald, on the other hand, blistered Riley with a j’accuse of everything that’s gone wrong this season. Shatel didn’t call for Riley’s job, but he didn’t exactly offer a ringing endorsement either.

Husker Fan, you’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Let’s start with a fundamental premise. Nebraska is 3-5. In football. That’s not good enough – ever. Now, here’s where the cognitive dissonance sets in.

Yes, but …

Riley is in his first year at Nebraska, with players on offense and defense that aren’t suited to what he wants to do. Struggles were going to be inevitable.

Yes, but …

Riley was brought in as an experienced coach, a safe pair of hands that could figure out how to use the talent on hand to navigate Nebraska through those difficult waters of transition. He knew there would be a transition, and had an entire offseason to prepare his players for it.

Yes, but …

Nebraska under Riley has been so close to winning. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out how close Nebraska was to 6-0 at one point in the season, for heaven’s sake. A couple of bounces the other way, and we’re not having this existential conversation.

Yes, but …

Nebraska is still 3-5. As Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells said about NFL teams, “you are what your record says you are.” And while there are plenty of reasons for the record, coaching decisions are a part of those close losses.

Yes, but …

Nebraska has been decimated with injuries and suspensions this year. The defensive back seven, especially the linebackers, haven’t had a chance when true freshmen and walk-ons are being asked to shoulder the load in a new defensive system.

Yes, but …

Injuries can explain some defensive struggles. Injuries can’t explain Nebraska going from no. 33 in pass defense in 2014 to no. 126 in 2015, and from no. 53 in total defense nationally last year to no. 93 this year (according to cfbstats.com). Sure, it’s a new system under defensive coordinator Mark Banker. But it’s pretty clear the players on the roster aren’t executing that system very well – and that’s on Banker and the staff.

Yes, but …

Riley overachieved at Oregon State, one of the toughest places to succeed in all of major college football. His track record there suggests he’s going to be able to get Nebraska out of this mess.

Yes, but …

Oregon State was 5-7 last year under Riley, losing seven of its last nine games. In his last two years, Riley was 6-13 in conference. For his career at Oregon State, Riley was 93-80, just barely over .500 over fourteen seasons.

Exhausted yet? Everything about Nebraska’s 2015 is a producer of cognitive dissonance. Nebraska fans know that 3-5 isn’t acceptable. Nebraska fans also know there’s all kinds of explanations/reasons/excuses why Nebraska is 3-5 right now.

So how do you reconcile those two irreconcilable truths in your brain, Husker fan?

Well, here’s a cold, hard fact to absorb. Riley will not be fired this year, period. Set aside the arguments about how a first-year coach should never be fired, absent some kind of horrific criminal or behavioral issue. Let’s pretend this is English soccer, where coaches get fired at the drop of a hat.

Right now, Nebraska is paying Pelini about $1.5 million/year until February of 2019, according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald. Riley’s contract is $2.7 million/year with escalators and incentives through February of 2020. That means if Riley was dismissed after this season (or after the third quarter this Saturday, if Twitter is to be believed should the Purdue game go poorly), Nebraska will be paying coaches $4.2 million per year not to coach.

Add in the $3 million for a new coach (which would likely be low, given what Nebraska would have to offer after giving a coach just one year in charge), and Nebraska would be shelling out $7.2 million per year in coaches’ salaries.

For comparison’s sake, Alabama head coach Nick Saban makes just over $7 million/year, according to USA Today.

So face facts, Husker Fan. Riley’s not going anywhere this year, and likely next year, for dollars-and-cents reasons if nothing else.

What does that mean? Well, if you’ve convinced yourself after eight games that Riley can’t do any better, you’re in for a long stretch over the next few years. You can wrap yourself in the comfortable self-righteousness of an “I told you so” blanket to keep you warm, if it makes you feel better.

But you don’t know. Neither do I. There’s simply an insufficient data set to make a definitive judgment on Riley’s tenure in Lincoln at this stage. As we have seen, there’s sufficient evidence to support a positive or a negative outlook.

The fact is, though, that the Nebraska fan base will have to live with that uncertainty for a while. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst fired Pelini because there was certainty in his mind about the status of the Nebraska program. He was certain – with good evidence to support his conclusion – that Nebraska was never going to become a conference title contender under Pelini.

Firing Pelini was a risk. Hiring Riley was a risk. Eichorst could very well have stayed in the safe harbor of Pelini’s four-loss seasons, big-game capitulations, and public embarrassments.

But ships aren’t built to stay in a harbor. They’re made to venture out into the open sea, in search of glory.

Advertisements

One thought on “How Nebraska Fans Should Handle Huskers’ Struggles In Mike Riley’s First Year

  1. I live in Idaho and I have watched him coach at Ost on t.v. He coached the Same sway as he does at Neb – I do not Know where you go the Idea that he was an Over achiver? I believe that he had two maebe three winning seasons of more that 8 games- there is probably 50 Fans out here in Idaho Falls an they all feel th same as I do-
    Oh- for what ever reason there is- Martinez- may have suffered a Loseing Coach in POL but he could never Finish a Game during the Time he was at Nebr.;.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s