Nebraska Football: Banker Dismissal Shows Riley Dead Serious About Winning

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Who is this guy, Husker Fans were asking when Mike Riley pulled up with his bicycle and hybrid car from the West Coast to replace Bo Pelini? How can the genial 62-year-old (at the time), the fans wondered, be up to the task of bringing Nebraska back?

And when Nebraska had his team at 3-6 after a loss to Purdue last year, and still maintained his calm and friendly professionalism, fans were ready to pounce. Say it with me, Husker Fan, you know you heard at least someone who said it:

“He’s just too nice of a guy to be a winner.”

Well, he hasn’t proved himself to be a winner yet. Nebraska’s 9-4 season, although a dramatic improvement from last year, was not good enough given the blowout losses to Ohio State, Iowa (!), and Tennessee.

And he’s still a nice guy. At no point did you see Riley losing his mind on the sideline, or being surly and immature to the media, like a certain former head coach was known to do from time to time.

But don’t let Riley’s genial nature fool you. When it comes to putting a winning program together, Riley is a stone cold killer.

This season, it started with the dismissal of special teams coach Bruce Read, who had been with Riley for 16 seasons. But Nebraska’s disastrous performance in special teams this season (two blocked punts and the disappearance of De’Mornay Pierson-El) made Read’s dismissal almost a necessity.

But then Riley dropped the hammer on his longtime friend and defensive coordinator, Mark Banker, declining to renew his contract. Dismissing Banker is so much of a bigger statement than Read, in part because of the relationship between the two men. Since 1996, there’s only been one year where the two haven’t worked together. Banker has been Riley’s defensive coordinator for the last 14 years. In Corvallis, Riley stuck with Banker over vociferous protests from the Oregon State faithful.

At Nebraska? Two seasons in, Riley dismisses Banker after the defense gets better. Nebraska was no. 64 in total defense in 2015, and no. 30 last year (according to cfbstats.com).

So what gives? Well, the defensive performances against Ohio State and Iowa (!) certainly didn’t inspire confidence. And Nebraska’s abject defensive showing against Tennessee may have been the final nail in Banker’s coffin with regards to his career in Lincoln.

What may have been as important, though, is Banker’s lack of production in recruiting. Here is the list of Nebraska’s current 2017 commit list, from 247 Sports. One thing that is distinctively missing from this list is a bunch of players recruited by Banker. Given the pressure put on Riley by athletic director Shawn Eichorst to improve Nebraska’s talent level (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star), it shouldn’t be a surprise that Riley acted decisively to improve Nebraska’s ability to recruit top-level talent.

But it may not have been just about Eichorst. Banker said that his relationship with Riley in Lincoln was different than it had been at other stops (according to Sipple from the Lincoln Journal-Star)

“But the communication from the top down — it was basically (offensive coordinator) Danny (Langsdorf) and I, and Bruce Read for that matter, were given the information we needed to have when we needed to have it, and that was it.

“Nothing would ever transpire like that because there was never any frank conversations like that.

“I don’t know why it was like that (at Nebraska),” Banker said. “I don’t have any idea.”

That gives some insight about Riley’s mindset, since he’s arrived in Lincoln. Remember, he looked like he was a lifer in Corvallis. But he shocked the world to take what is almost certainly his last coaching job – and his last opportunity to win on the national stage.

Banker has been replaced by Bob Diaco, who was the architect of Notre Dame’s defense from 2010-2013, helping to take the Irish to the 2012 BCS title game. Diaco will be making $825,000/year next season, in comparison to Banker’s $580,000/year salary. So Nebraska is demonstrating a willingness to open its checkbook to compete with the rest of the country for quality assistants.

But the important thing is this. Remember the discussion earlier about whether a four-loss season would be viewed as acceptable for Nebraska? Eichorst showed clearly that it wasn’t. And now Riley has shown it wasn’t, firing his long-time friend – over the phone, no less, because he didn’t want to interrupt recruiting – in an attempt to make things better.

Remember when Bill Callahan was faced with this same question? He held on to long-time friend Kevin Cosgrove, which led to the disastrous 2007 campaign and Callahan’s outser. After Pelini had to fire his brother Carl as defensive coordinator, Bo had a chance to hire an experienced coach to bolster his staff.

Instead, Pelini promoted John Papuchis as defensive coordinator in 2012. By 2014, Pelini and Papuchis were gone, and the Blackshirts were never better than no. 35 nationally in total defense.

Riley has acted decisively where his predecessors were either unable or unwilling to do so. It’s no guarantee of success, of course. But at the very least, Riley has made it crystal clear that Nebraska’s 2016 performance – getting back to the four-loss level, an improvement from 2015 – is not only not good enough, but worthy of a significant staff shakeup.

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Nebraska Football: Four Equations To Explain Cornhuskers’ 2016 Season and Beyond

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“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

– Won’t Get Fooled Again, The Who

Nebraska ended the 2016 season with a very familiar 9-4 record after a 38-24 drubbing in the Music City Bowl by Tennessee. After getting teased by an overtime loss in Camp Randall against Wisconsin, Nebraska fell apart and lost ugly against the best remaining teams on its schedule.

So how should Nebraska fans feel about where NU is in year two of Mike Riley’s tenure in Lincoln? Here’s four equations (because, let’s face it, what describes football better than a mathematical formula) that help inform how to think about where Nebraska is now, and where it will be going forward.

9-4 > 6-7

Yeah, the end of the 2016 wasn’t really fun, was it, Husker Fan? After a narrow loss to Wisconsin, many pundits (including this dope) thought Nebraska was ready for prime time against Ohio State.

Whoops. The Buckeyes’ 62-3 humiliation of Nebraska started NU down a slippery slope from which it could never really recover, and ugly losses to Iowa (still think it’s not a rivalry, Husker Fan?) and Tennessee made the fanbase truly question the direction of the program.

That’s probably a good thing in terms of demonstrating a fanbase unwilling to accept poor results. But everyone upset about 9-4 should really remember where NU was a year ago, at 3-6 after losing to Purdue and in danger of a truly ugly campaign.

So there’s plenty to be upset, or at least disappointed, about for Nebraska in 2016. But it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that a return to the four-loss valley is still a significant improvement from last year.

Four losses = four losses

At the start of the 2016 campaign, I was still wrestling with a question raised by @CountIstvan, who criticized the Riley hire by expressing frustration that a four-loss season in year three – basically getting Nebraska back to the Bo Pelini level – would be viewed as acceptable. As a result, he argued, firing Pelini and hiring a guy who needed three years to get to Pelini’s level of production was a waste of time.

I argued then, as I do now, that a combination of an improved culture and better recruiting means Nebraska could be seen as moving forward even if the results in wins and losses didn’t show up yet.

But no one who follows Nebraska can honestly say that the fallout from 2016 doesn’t feel a whole lot like the fallout from 2013, or 2012, or pretty much every Pelini season. Following a Nebraska team that wins the games it probably should, but gets embarrassed on a national stage.

To be fair, the response of the Nebraska faithful has made it pretty clear that where NU is right now isn’t acceptable. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst has said just as much (in an interview with Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star) in terms of both winning percentage and talent level – that where Nebraska is right now isn’t good enough.

50.3 < 62.5

It’s simplistic and reductive to say that there is one thing that is the reason why Nebraska struggled in 2016. If you were looking for one candidate, you very well could argue an inability to be competitive on the offensive line.

But after watching the 2016 season unfold, I’m convinced a big part of the story can be told in the completion percentage number. Nebraska’s season completion percentage in 2016 was 50.3 percent. In comparison, the completion percentage of B1G West champion Wisconsin was 62.5 percent.

I think it’s a fair comparison. Wisconsin was far from a prolific passing offense. But completing passes at that rate allows an offense to be efficient and stay on the field, giving its team a chance to succeed.

Nebraska’s completion percentage in 2016 was simply not good enough for NU to be competitive. Starting next year, it is a virtual certainty that the percentage number will increase significantly. It doesn’t guarantee success, of course. But at least it should give Nebraska a fighting chance.

33 > 44

(Yes, I know that thirty-three is actually less than forty-four. Just go with me for a minute.)

So if we put Wisconsin as Nebraska’s target for winning the B1G West, then it’s not at all unreasonable to look at where the two schools are at in recruiting. Even after a disastrous Army All-American weekend that saw Nebraska net zero commits, NU still sits at no. 33 nationally (according to 247 Sports). Wisconsin, by comparison, sits at no. 44.

Now, to be clear, no. 33 isn’t good enough. Nebraska has 5-7 slots available, and has to close the deal on some of the highly-touted recruits it is targeting if it wants to get back to national prominence. But the first step in that road to recovery is to win the B1G West, and that means out-recruiting (and ultimately outplaying) your divisional rivals.

Wisconsin is the king of the hill at this point. Iowa is coming off a 12-0 season last year. Northwestern will always over-achieve so long as Pat Fitzgerald is coaching in Evanston. Purdue and Minnesota just hired exciting and innovative coaches. So it’s important that Nebraska is able to put enough talent on the field to win – as Eichorst said when firing Pelini – the “games that matter.”