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.