Holding you I held everything
For a moment wasn’t I a king
But if I’d only known how the king would fall
Hey who’s to say you know
I might have changed it all
And know I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end
The way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’d have to miss the dance
– “The Dance,” Garth Brooks
Dear Coach Riley:
I know this wasn’t the letter that you wanted to read, and it sure wasn’t the letter I wanted to write. But before you leave Lincoln, I want to tell you just how much I appreciate the three years you’ve been here.
Yeah, what happened on the field wasn’t what anyone wanted to see, and not at all what you thought your team would be producing. And as honorable and decent of a man and a leader you’ve been, you’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s a ruthless business. That in big-time college athletics, all the grace and honor in the world, all the graduation rates and great citizens you have on your team doesn’t outweigh the wins and losses on the field.
We both know that the cold lights of the scoreboard have no sympathy and provide no place to hide.
But that’s not why I’m writing you. What you’ve done here in three short years is something truly honorable and truly remarkable, and I want to make sure you know just how much it was appreciated.
As a fan base, we’ve kind of been a mess for a while now. You know all about the run we had in the late nineties, winning three national championships in four years under head coach Tom Osborne. You know that when Osborne retired, he handed the reins over to long-time assistant Frank Solich. And that’s where the trauma of our fanbase began.
Solich was a good man, and held with him a straight line to the history that we as fans hold so dear. He took us to a national championship game (although that one didn’t work out so well).
But after that, his team went 7-7 in 2002. Sadly, we’ve gotten a little used to records like that since 2002, but at that point we hadn’t seen anything like that in a generation – and we kinda lost our minds. Solich’s recruiting fell apart, and in November of 2003 then-athletic director Steve Pederson fired Solich. In explaining Solich’s dismissal, Pederson said that he would not let the Nebraska program “gravitate into mediocrity.”
That was really the ultimate fracture of our fanbase. None of us had ever seen a coach fired growing up. We thought that was for “other programs” who didn’t have the advantages of Nebraska.
(As I know you’ve seen, we tend to think awfully highly of ourselves as a fanbase. There’s probably some good in that, but it also causes a lot of problems – and you in many ways fell victim to us and our perceptions of where the program “deserves” to be.)
About half of us thought the firing was necessary, and that Solich – good man and connection to the past – was not up for the job. The other half, though, viewed Solich’s dismissal – especially coming off a nine-win season, a topic we will see come up again – as a betrayal of Nebraska’s history.
That schism just simmered throughout the tenure of Bill Callahan, Solich’s replacement, a technocrat from the NFL who struggled to connect with the fans. Callahan’s lack of winning, combined with him changing Nebraska’s offense from the iconic option to a West Coast attack, furthered the schism caused by Solich’s firing. Fans in the “keep Solich” camp even took to wearing Ohio Bobcat gear – the school that hired Solich – to Memorial Stadium for home games as a means of protest.
Pederson became, put mildly, unpopular both inside and outside of the athletic department. In the middle of the 2007 season, Pederson was fired and Osborne took over as interim athletic director. As a result, the rest of the 2007 was a drama-filled endeavor wondering if Callahan would be fired.
I know, I know, sounds a lot like what you went through this year.
Callahan’s departure was filled with pique and disdain, and he became the target of the fanbase’s venom for a decade of frustration. Osborne replaced him with Bo Pelini, the guy who was Solich’s defensive coordinator in 2003.
I know you heard a lot about Pelini while you were in Lincoln. In some ways, his ghost haunted the offices at 10th and Vine. I know you heard all about how he never won fewer than nine games. I know you heard how his teams were routinely embarrassed when in the spotlight (ooh, look, Melvin Gordon just scored again).
And I know you heard about, well, what were generously described as his “antics” on the sideline. Combine that with him getting caught with a profane rant about Nebraska fans – and seven years of not winning the conference – and it added up to Pelini’s dismissal by then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
But it was what happened after Pelini’s dismissal that was the worst (at least, while he was at Nebraska). He said a whole bunch of stuff, but this is the quote that pretty much sums up what he left you to work with — with apologies for the language, that I suspect you would not approve of (as reprinted from the Omaha World-Herald).
It wasn’t a surprise to me. It really wasn’t. I didn’t really have any relationship with the AD. The guy — you guys saw him (Sunday) — the guy’s a total pussy. I mean, he is. He’s a total cunt.
And since I’ve been here — he’s been here for about two years — I’ve probably had a conversation with the guy a couple times. You saw him. He’s never been in the locker room.
At the end of the day, he was never going to support us. And he didn’t support us. You saw it. He was never going to come out in the paper and support (us).
So that was the cauldron you were walking into, with the kids in your locker room hearing that before you took over. You were an outsider, and you know how we feel about outsiders. You didn’t have a bunch of championship trophies on your mantle, although your record at a place as difficult as Oregon State has always been impressive.
You bore all of that with grace and dignity, never complaining once about the challenges you were handed when you arrived. You kept a level head and a calm demeanor even as you had so many close, gut-wrenching losses in your final season. You showed your team – and your fanbase – how to face adversity and struggle with class, dignity, and professionalism.
And then, Sam died.
I don’t know how you take a group of young men and help them through such a traumatic experience. But you did. You found a way to give those young men space to grieve, and find focus and purpose in the game they love as a way to honor the memory of their fallen friend. That quiet, loving, compassionate leadership you showed in the 2016 season is a model that all of us can aspire to if we are ever faced with such a horrendous challenge.
We call came out of that season, and into this one, with such optimism. You had your quarterback. You had fired your long-time friend Mark Banker as a defensive coordinator to show how serious you were to win and win big at Nebraska. You took risks, putting your career in Lincoln on the line to deliver wins on the field.
It didn’t work. And now you’re left to ponder what’s next for you after what you called your last great adventure. You have to, I imagine, be left regretting what could have been, as well as a feeling of disappointment that you couldn’t give us as a fanbase the success we wanted.
We’re disappointed too, of course. And speaking just for me, I feel a profound sense of sadness that your time with us has ended as it did.
But even as you left, you taught us. As opposed to Pelini, we saw a man stand up (in Nebraska colors, no less) and acknowledge his failing. We saw a man be thankful for the opportunity he was given, rather than feel the need to burn the house down to satisfy a petty need for revenge and self-aggrandizement.
This isn’t a eulogy for you, of course. You’re a young man, with a tremendous amount left to contribute to the game of football and to the broader world. Whether it’s being a grandfather or being a football coach, I have no doubt you will not only be successful at it, but that you will make all the people around you better for having the privilege of being with you.
Thank you, coach. As a fan who has just watched you from afar, I’ve never met you. But I have no doubt I’m a better person for having watched you closely these last three years. And I hope that the next time I am faced with disappointment in my life, I can respond to it they way you taught me as you left your final press conference here (as reported by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).
It’s like that old song, I could’ve missed the pain but I would’ve missed the dance.
Photo courtesy of the Concord Monitor.