Nebraska Football: A Thank-You Letter to Mike Riley

Mike Riley

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.

GBR, baby.

Photo courtesy of the Concord Monitor.

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Nebraska Football: Iowa Can Be, and Should Be, Nebraska’s Rival

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Nebraska will play Iowa on the day after Thanksgiving, putting a merciful end to the 2017 season. The contest will feel much more like a wake than a game, given how things have unfolded. A best-case scenario will see Nebraska end the season at 5-7, making that two years in three that head coach Mike Riley has led NU to such a regular season record.

There has been considerable ink spilled about whether Riley will be fired at then end of the season (deep announcer voice – Riley will be fired) and who will replace him. Adding one more voice to that speculation on the decisions of athletic director Bill Moos wouldn’t really add much to the conversation.

So let’s take a look instead on what’s happening on the field on Friday, and in the hearts of Nebraska fans. Nebraska is facing Iowa on Black Friday. What does that mean?

Well, Moos wants it to mean that Nebraska is facing off against its conference rival. Here’s what he said on the Sports Nightly radio program (according to the Omaha World-Herald):

“I’m going to really push, to establish Iowa as being our rival,” Moos said on air. “We came into the Big Ten and we need a rivalry game, and I’ve already been to the Big Ten and talked to them about that so hopefully we can keep that Black Friday game and have that be Iowa each year.”

Moos sounds like he’s reading the writing of a smart and particularly handsome analyst and jumping in quickly to salvage Nebraska’s Black Friday game against Iowa each year.

(Deep announcer voice – Moos has neither read, nor heard of, the Double Extra Point).

That’s an encouraging sign, to see that Moos recognizes the value both of the Black Friday game and a rivalry against Iowa. Hopefully he’ll be able to convince the bigwigs in the conference (B1Gwigs?) to undo the schedule change that sees Nebraska depart Black Friday after 2020.

But, Husker Fan, it’s time for you to embrace Iowa as your rival. There’s a whole bunch of good reasons why now is the time.

First of all, it’s an acknowledgment of where the two teams are. Since joining the B1G, Nebraska is 3-3 against Iowa, with the Hawkeyes owning a two-game winning streak. Iowa and Nebraska have each been to one B1G conference title game, and Iowa has one more Rose Bowl appearance in that time than Nebraska.

Yes, Husker Fan, I know you don’t want to accept Iowa as your rival because you think you’re saying you judge Nebraska against the standard of Iowa rather than teams like Ohio State and Alabama.

At some level, I get that. A program like Nebraska, with its resources and history, should be aiming for national relevance in a way that a program like Iowa has not shown itself to be.

And yes, I know you felt like Colorado and Kansas State were forced upon you as rivals after the Big 12 took away Nebraska’s yearly meeting with Oklahoma, and you’re still pining for those “Bury Switzer” bumper stickers your father put on his station wagon.

Well, that ain’t happening. Nebraska isn’t – and shouldn’t – even considering departing the B1G. It is now a member of one of the two most powerful conferences in college sports. Through the Big Ten Network, Nebraska has access to one of the most innovative and far-reaching marketing outlets to showcase itself. Membership in the B1G enhances the credibility and prestige of the university as a whole.

Oh, yeah, and there’s also 51 million other reasons why the B1G is a great home for the Big Red.

So you can hold your breath until your face turns Sooner Crimson all you want. The future of Nebraska football is annual tilts against Wisconsin, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois – and, yes, Iowa – from now on. You can either keep pining for your lost love, or you can lean in and embrace Nebraska’s new home.

In some ways, Nebraska fans’ reluctance to do has been part of the problem. Nebraska’s performances against its divisional opponents has been pretty average. Yes, part of that has been a talent and coaching issue. But part of it, I’m convinced, is the team not really investing in its divisional home and really buying into the need to win consistently against the B1G West. And if the fans buy in, that just puts all the more pressure on the team to do the same.

And it’s not like the other side isn’t willing to engage. Sure, Iowa might seem a little cool on Nebraska as a rival, especially given Iowa’s trophy games against Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa State. And given that Nebraska is struggling and kind of asking to be let into the rivalry tent, Iowa is sure to give Nebraska a taste of its own medicine and play coy.

Don’t let that fool you. There’s a built-in hatred within the Iowa fanbase for Nebraska. Some of that is being a divisional rival, but some of it pre-dates Nebraska’s arrival in the B1G. Here’s how RossWB from Black Heart, Gold Pants described his (not safe for work) feelings for Nebraska in 2011:

No, my first hate* was Nebraska. Growing up in northwest Iowa, it was an easy hate to develop. In those days, there were really only two choices: you could be an Iowa fan or you could be a Nebraska fan. (Outside of my parents, I knew a few masochistic Iowa State fans, but they were a definite minority.) It would have been a very easy time to be a Nebraska fan — they were just beginning their run of three titles in four years — but it was also easy to not become a Nebraska fan. Their fans were (too often) arrogant, preening assholes** and their program was, in many ways, loathsome***. They combined many of the worst aspects of rednecks and blue blood royalty, taking two often-terrible things and creating something even worse.

That’s a pretty good summary of Iowa fans’ perception of Nebraska. It’s not entirely unearned, given how Nebraska fans cling to the 90s like a lifeboat in the ocean. That hubris was brought into full focus in 2014 when then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst cited as a reason for firing then-head coach Bo Pelini a comparison between the Nebraska and Iowa programs – basically subtweeting that Nebraska is too good of a program to be rubbing shoulders with a program like Iowa.

It is also, without question, born in part of resentment and jealousy watching a neighboring agricultural state have a wildly successful football program with a nationally-known brand.

(Deep announcer voice – this is an example of the kind of shade that rivalries are built on)

So, yeah, the pump is primed for Iowa fans to embrace this rivalry. Just look at this. And this. And this. Heck, you know it’s probably a rivalry already if Iowa fans are rolling out smack-talk like this after last year’s 40-10 (!) Iowa win:

If it’s 9:20 in Iowa City, what time is it in Lincoln? 40 to 10.

It’s time for Nebraska fans to embrace it right back. And on Friday, you’ll have a perfect opportunity to test out whether you can embrace that Iowa rivalry.

Nebraska is 4-7, and isn’t going to a bowl game. Iowa is 6-5, and a win will likely affect only whether Iowa will be going to Detroit or New York for its December bowl game. Substantively, there’s nothing on the line.

But there’s that trophy, that ridiculously-sanitized Heroes Game trophy the B1G picked up from a grocery store. Take a look at the picture on this post, Husker Fan. That’s Iowa, in 2013, running across the Memorial Stadium turf, grabbing that trophy off the Nebraska sideline, and parading it in front of the assembled black and gold faithful pouring “let’s go Hawks” cries into your ears as you trudged home.

How does that make you feel, Husker Fan? If you’ve made it this far, I’ve got a pretty good idea of how it makes you feel, even if you don’t want to admit it out loud.

It pisses you off. It makes your Husker blood boil seeing those guys carry a trophy off of your stadium. It makes you want to right that wrong, to shut up your Hawkeye-fan neighbor or co-worker or family member over the holidays and the long off-season.

In other words, it pumps you up and gives you real, visceral stakes on the Nebraska-Iowa game. A win on Friday won’t send Nebraska to a bowl or put Nebraska in the top-25. But it will feel damn good to have in your back pocket as you see your Hawkeye friends and family.

So, Friday’s game is important to win, regardless of either team’s record. Sounds like a rivalry, doesn’t it, Husker Fan?

Nebraska Football: Three Takeaways from the Firing of Shawn Eichorst

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After Nebraska’s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois last Saturday, a smart and particularly handsome analyst said that the loss was what the beginning of the end might look like. Well, it looks a lot more like the end after Nebraska’s chancellor Ronnie Green announced that the university had immediately terminated Eichorst’s employment on Thursday.

There’s plenty to digest, but here’s three quick reactions to Eichorst’s ouster.

Riley is coaching for his job

It kinda felt like it even before Thursday’s news broke, but now there’s no question that head coach Mike Riley is fighting to stay in the big chair in Lincoln. An interim athletic director – meaning one who didn’t hire Riley – will be named in the next few days, and it’s almost certain he and Riley will meet and discuss what Riley’s target must be to keep his job.

Is it 7-5, meaning Nebraska wins out except against Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State? Is it 6-6, enough to go to a bowl game? Is it higher? Does it depend on how the record happens as much as what the record is?

That will be up to the interim athletic director, with guidance from the higher powers at the school. But make no mistake, firing Eichorst now was done because Green and university president Hank Bounds saw that there was at least a good chance Riley would have to be fired at the end of 2017.

And if that firing was going to happen, then it makes far more sense to fire Eichorst now. That way, Nebraska isn’t left at the end of 2017 having to hire a new AD, then wait for that AD to come online before initiating a coaching search.

But he’s got a shot to keep it

Green was as emphatic as you could expect with regards to Riley’s status (according to Land of 10).

“Mike Riley is our football coach. We expect him to compete. This is not about Mike Riley,” Green said.

Assuming Riley wants to keep his job, those words – and the swiftness which Nebraska’s higher-ups moved on Eichorst – should sharpen his vision quickly. Riley has nine games left, and will (according to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting averages) have better talent than seven of the nine teams Nebraska will face.

Admittedly, it’s hard to see Nebraska winning one of those games, much less seven, after Saturday’s performance against Northern Illinois. But don’t forget, in 2015 it was hard to imagine Nebraska winning another game after a horrific 55-45 loss to Purdue. Nebraska turned around the next week and knocked off no. 6 Michigan State.

Nebraska doesn’t have to beat the no. 6 team in the country this weekend. It just needs to beat Rutgers, at home, to stop the rot and give itself a chance to salvage the 2017 season – and Riley’s career in Lincoln.

Pelini’s shadow looms over Eichorst

Take a look at what former quarterback Tommy Armstrong had to say on Twitter about Eichorst as news of his firing broke.

And one from former cornerback Josh Mitchell.

That’s quite a bit of venom from two of the strongest leaders from former head coach Bo Pelini’s era. Those guys were there, lived through the whole thing, and we can learn a lot about the team’s mindset listening to them now.

But let’s not forget that their coach, the adult these college kids followed and respected, told them this about Eichorst just after his dismissal (according to the Omaha World-Herald).

“I didn’t really have any relationship with the A.D.,” Pelini said. “The guy, you guys saw him (Sunday), the guy is a total p—-. I mean, he is. He’s a total c—.”

Again, I’m not in any way discounting what Armstrong, Mitchell, or any of the other former Huskers have said about Eichorst and how he handled himself. Heck, check out what Mitchell had to say about Riley.

But I am suggesting that their perceptions of Eichorst may have been colored by the way Pelini chose to handle himself after his dismissal.

And it’s hard not to raise the question about how much lingering bitterness from the team about Pelini’s firing – amplified by Pelini’s own childish and selfish rant – affected the remaining players being able to fully embrace Riley and his new staff.

Look, Nebraska isn’t sitting at 1-2 with a loss to a MAC school because of Bo Pelini. Shawn Eichorst isn’t out of a job because of Bo Pelini. Eichorst’s own ham-fisted handling of the Black Friday scheduling debacle, as noted by a smart and particularly handsome analyst, may very well have been the nail in the coffin of his career in Lincoln.

But the seeds of Eichorst’s dismissal were planted in the way he handled Pelini’s dismissal, and watered by Riley’s underwhelming record over the course of 28 games.

GBR, baby.

 

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Northern Illinois 21, Nebraska 17

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Nebraska lost to Northern Illinois 21-17 at home, losing to a group-of-five school for the first time since a 2004 loss to Southern Mississippi. The Blackshirts played well after struggling in the first two games, but two first-half pick-six interceptions were the tale of the game. So, in looking back at the contest …

The Good

Blackshirts are Back: Hey, remember when worrying about Nebraska’s defense was a thing? The Blackshirts held Northern Illinois to 213 total yards and one offensive touchdown. Really, except for one long pass right after Nebraska took the lead – which was the prime opportunity for a letdown in the game – Nebraska’s defense answered the bell.

Fourth Down is the New Third Down: This year, Nebraska is 4-for-6 on fourth down conversions. That’s an amazing statistic, not only because of the number of attempts (averaging two per game), but in how often Nebraska has been successful. A combination of bravery and execution in the ultimate do-or-die situation.

The Conference Goals Are Still in Place: Yes, that was ugly, but Nebraska’s goal of winning the B1G West and playing in the conference championship game are …

Don’t. Just, don’t. While the “goals in place” thing might be true, it’s also ignoring the gigantic tire fire burning in the living room. (Don’t ask how the tires got in the living room. It’s a metaphor, go with it.)

The Bad

Tanner from Tulane: I hate to say I told you so, but … a smart and particularly handsome analyst said this about junior transfer quarterback Tanner Lee:

So I understand the desire for some stability. But it’s a recurring theme that amidst all of the uncertainly, the one thing most observers are not worried about for Nebraska is the level of quarterback play under transfer Tanner Lee. Check it out here, and here, and here.

That’s … kinda nuts. I know he was the offensive MVP of the scout team last year, I know he’s looked great in fall practice, and I know that he’s ruggedly handsome.

But he hasn’t played any real football in almost two years. And when he did, at Tulane, he had a career completion percentage of only 53.6 percent and a 1.095 touchdown-to-interception ratio, throwing 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

  Completion % TD INT TD/INT Ratio
Arkansas State 59.3 2 0
Oregon 46.3 3 4
Northern Illinois 53.2 0 3
2017 Total 52.5 5 7 0.714
Tulane Total 53.6 23 21 1.095

Lee’s performance at Nebraska looks a heck of a lot like … Lee’s performance at Tulane. And that level of performance is simply not good enough for Nebraska’s offense to be successful.

Sure, Lee’s offensive line didn’t give him much help. And sure, Lee had some critical drops – if Jack Stoll hauls in his fourth-quarter target, Nebraska likely wins this game anyway.

But that’s all part of the package for a quarterback. Lee had three interceptions against Northern Illinois, and was fortunate not to have at least three more given some of the decisions he made.

The season isn’t over, and it would be a colossal shock (absent injury) if Lee isn’t under center against Rutgers next week. Lee won the starting job because he’s the best quarterback on Nebraska’s roster in 2017.

Unless his performance improves significantly, in a hurry, that’s not going to be good enough for Nebraska to salvage even a winning season this year.

Third Down is Still Third Down: Yeah, it’s fun to see Nebraska put it all on the line and convert on fourth down. But coming into this game Nebraska was no. 103 nationally in third down conversions at 32.14 percent. Against Northern Illinois, Nebraska was 3-for-13, or 23 percent, so that national ranking is likely to go down.

That’s not good enough, not even close to good enough. A combination of poor offensive line play and shaky quarterback performance is a huge contribution to Nebraska’s poor showing on third downs this year. It’s likely more symptom than cause, but this is a number to watch if Nebraska is going to get the wheels back on the train this season.

A Confidence Game: Boy, the first drive of the game against Northern Illinois didn’t look like the game would end as it did. Nebraska was in an offensive rhythm, biting off big chunks on the ground and through the air. It looked like Nebraska’s decision to take the ball at the start of the game was going to pay dividends, allowing NU to get an early lead and put some confidence back in the squad.

Then Shawun Lurry made a break on Lee’s bubble screen and went 87 yards for a score. Nebraska looked shell-shocked on offense, never really getting back into rhythm until the third quarter. It wasn’t entirely different from how Nebraska’s defense looked against Oregon last week, after Lee’s interception allowed the Ducks to take an early 14-point lead.

Don’t forget these are still college kids, learning a new system on both offense and defense. In both of Nebraska’s last two games, NU has had to dig itself out of double-digit holes. Nebraska has only held a lead for one minute and 22 seconds in the last two games. That’s going to weigh on the psyche of a team, and might be the biggest hurdle Nebraska faces going forward.

And the Calling of the Question

After Nebraska’s 6-7 campaign in 2015, Riley likely lost a year of patience from the Nebraska fans. Coming into 2017, this dope thought that Riley might be a year away from the hot seat.

A loss to Northern Illinois changes that. Northern Illinois is no. 119 nationally in terms of five-year recruiting rankings, one of the best ways to measure talent. The Huskies are easily the least talented team Nebraska will face in 2017 – the next least talented team is Illinois at no. 72.

With the talent disparity, at home, Nebraska has no business losing to Northern Illinois. Ever. This is the type of stain that doesn’t come off of a coaching resume. This is the type of loss that goes in the first paragraph of a coaching tenure’s obituary.

This is the type of loss that puts a coach on the hot seat. Don’t believe me? Ask Nebraska’s athletic director, Shawn Eichorst.

What Eichorst said after the Northern Illinois loss wasn’t really all that important. It was the fact that Eichorst came out and said something at all. Eichorst is famously averse to media appearances, and would only have come out so soon after the game – giving Riley the “dreaded vote of confidence” – if he thought it was necessary.

Eichorst was right. As it stands now, Nebraska will need to upset Wisconsin, Ohio State, or Penn State to have a shot at an 8-4 season. And that’s assuming Nebraska wins all of other remaining games on its schedule, including on the road against a suddenly-scary Purdue, at home against perennial nemesis Northwestern, on the road against Minnesota, and at home against an Iowa squad with a two-game winning streak.

Nebraska is 1-2. Nebraska is one play away from being 0-3. And the long knives are already at least being reached for, by no less than Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel. Scott Frost is still turning heads with his work as Central Florida’s head coach. So is Trev Alberts as UNO’s athletic director, by the way.

That doesn’t mean the season is over, of course. There’s nine games left. In 2015, a reeling 3-6 Nebraska squad raised up and beat no. 6 Michigan State in Lincoln. If Nebraska can find itself and get some confidence in the next two weeks, it’s not impossible to imagine Nebraska pulling off an upset when the Badgers come to Lincoln. Heck, Nebraska has outscored its opponents 31-0 in the third quarter this year. Put that performance together for another three quarters, and anything can happen.

The evidence suggest that result is unlikely. At this point, 7-5 feels like the best-case scenario, with losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State. A 6-6 finish – or worse – probably seems more likely.

There’s time to fix things, no doubt about it. But three games in to Riley’s third season, this is what the beginning of the end looks like.

GBR, baby.

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.

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.”

How Fragile Is The Nebraska Football Program?

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So, how are you holding up, Husker fan? Just when you thought the season couldn’t get more surreal, the Blackshirts get a fifty-burger dropped on them by a 1-6 Purdue team, losing 55-45. The loss drops Nebraska to 3-6 on the season, with games against undefeated Michigan State and Iowa and a road trip to Rutgers still to come.

To call this season a disaster does a disservice to disasters everywhere, and it’s put the fanbase in a frenzy. Many are convinced that the hiring of head coach Mike Riley was a disastrous mistake, and a signal that the Nebraska program was fading into the sunset of past glories.

After all, Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999.  It hasn’t been relevant on the national stage since a blowout loss to Miami in the 2000 national championship game.  And in a low-population state in the middle of the country, the fear amongst the fanbase is that Nebraska’s inherent recruiting challenges combined with the current struggles means NU is destined to recede into the college football history books.

Sure, national relevance and the College Football Playoff (heck, even the top 25 at this point) look a million miles away from where Nebraska is right now. But is this the new normal for Nebraska? There’s plenty of reasons to suspect that it is not.

Before we get deeper into the discussion, I’ll go through all the reasons why this year could be considered an anomaly. Five of Nebraska’s losses were by a total of 13 points, and came with NU leading in the fourth quarter. Three were on the opposing team’s final offensive possession. And the loss to Purdue was without Nebraska’s starting quarterback (Tommy Armstrong), starting tailback (Terrell Newby), and most dynamic offensive weapon (De’Mornay Pierson-El).

More importantly, the Purdue loss demonstrated what a smart and particularly handsome analyst worried about earlier this season. Football is hard work. It’s a hard game to play, and it’s a hard game to prepare for. It’s a lot to ask a group of 18-22 year olds to absorb heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss and give maximum effort on the field. It’s a lot to ask those 18-22 year olds to continue believing in themselves and the process enough to perform confidently play after play.

I know, Husker fan, that you don’t want to hear any of that. You’re mad, and you’re hurt, and you’re scared, and you don’t want to hear any excuses. That’s fair. Riley may be a great guy and well respected in the coaching fraternity, but his job is to deliver wins on Saturday. He’s off to the worst start Nebraska football has seen since before Bob Devaney, and he’s responsible for that.

But is 2015 the harbinger of things to come? Is Nebraska football relegated to a program fighting for a win in November to earn a trip to Detroit in late December facing a third-tier ACC team?

Well, other programs have had their fallow periods. In 2007, Alabama was 4-9. In 2006, Michigan State was 4-8. In 2012, Iowa was 4-8. This year, Texas is 3-5.

Wait, let me say that again. This year, Texas is 3-5. That makes you feel a little better, doesn’t it, Husker fan?

The point is that teams have shockingly bad seasons, and rebound. A losing season does not destroy the foundations of a program. If the foundation is strong, then a bad season can be a baseline for a football revival.

So how do you tell if a program has a strong foundation? Well, at the risk of reprising an unfortunate John McCain quote, you first look to see if the fundamentals are strong.

Dave Bartoo of CFB Matrix believes that a program’s talent and coaching can explain almost all of a team’s performance on the field. So let’s take a look at what his numbers say about Nebraska’s program.

As of 2014, Nebraska’s overall talent ranking was no. 24 nationally, right between Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech. While that talent ranking certainly could be better, it puts Nebraska no. 3 in the B1G overall and no. 1 in the B1G West. That means, from a talent standpoint, Nebraska has enough raw material on the field to be competing for conference titles each year.

With regards to coaching, as of 2014 Mike Riley had a coaching effect of 1.50, meaning that a Riley-coached team could be expected to win 1.5 more games per year than an “average” coach based on relative talent. That coach effect rating was no. 11 nationally.

Yes, Riley’s coaching effect will likely go down after the results of this season. But that’s the danger of small sample sizes. The benefit of work like Bartoo’s is that you can take a longer view informed by more data to help make judgments. Riley’s inability to coach is taken as a given by many Nebraska fans – understandably so, if you just look at the results of this season. But taking more data and a larger sample size into account, the numbers suggest the opposite conclusion.

So, Nebraska has the talent to compete, and a coach with a track record over a number of years that would indicate an ability to over-perform based on his talent level. But there is one more element of the Nebraska program that suggests a disastrous season like 2015 will not be enough to swamp the boat.

Shawn Eichorst, Nebraska’s athletic director, is not the most popular man amongst the fans these days. Part of that is a function of his position – bosses in suits focused as much on spreadsheets as opposed to playbooks are easy villains when the football team struggles. Any athletic director who wasn’t previously a national championship winning head football coach is going to be the target of fan ire when things go poorly in football.

But Eichorst did something very important when he fired Bo Pelini – he set the standard high for Nebraska football. Here’s what he said at the press conference announcing Pelini’s dismissal (according to the Omaha World-Herald):

[T]here are standards and expectations at Nebraska that are high both on and off the field. And although we did win a bunch of games, we didn’t win the games that mattered the most …  We have high standards and expectations, and that’s to play championship football … Nebraska has everything it needs to be successful at the highest level. We can go back and analyze the 80’s and 90’s and all that other sort of stuff but that is not going to help us out today. I think we are positioned to play championship-caliber football here at the University of Nebraska.

Of course, given a 3-6 start to the Riley era, it’s hard not to see those words as a reprise of former athletic director Steve Pederson’s infamous “gravitating towards mediocrity” line when he fired Frank Solich. But Eichorst very clearly set the expectations for Nebraska – championship-caliber football.

And those high standards demanded from a fanbase are, ultimately, what will keep a program strong. Both Eichorst and Riley will be held to those standards, even if the time frame as to achieving them will be the subject of debate.

But, ultimately, programs don’t fade into the history books because of failures on the field. They fade into history because those on-the-field failures break the will of the fanbase to demand better.

So for all of you calling for Riley’s firing at the end of this season or tomorrow afternoon – as unreasonable and irrational as that might be – keep it up. Well, maybe with a touch of reality sprinkled in. But as long as the man in charge of the program is setting the expectation at “championship-caliber football” – and the fanbase is holding the program accountable to that expectation – then the program will survive a lean year like this.

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

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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.

Nebraska Football: Pelini’s Last Act One of Selfishness and Childishness

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans thought the dismissal of Bo Pelini and the hiring of Mike Riley was the end of a tumultuous relationship between Pelini and the outside world. They thought wrong.

Nebraska football fans heard news of another surreptitious recording of Bo Pelini uttering profanities, this time during his half-hour meeting with the team on Dec. 2 after his firing. A transcript of the recording, obtained by the Omaha World-Herald, said that for “the majority” of that meeting, Pelini complained about Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst.

Or, more accurately, he stood in front of a group of college kids and called Eichorst names.

“I didn’t really have any relationship with the A.D.,” Pelini said. “The guy, you guys saw him (Sunday), the guy is a total p—-. I mean, he is. He’s a total c—.”

One of Pelini’s prime complaints about Eichorst was his lack of public support for Pelini.

“I don’t even really know what those guys do. And I said ‘Hey, you know what, if (Eichorst) ain’t gonna do his job, if he doesn’t have the balls to go out there and support me, to support these kids, support this program, then do me a favor and get rid of me.’”

(This was, of course, the same Eichorst that didn’t fire Pelini after his infamous Coach Chickenbleep press conference after the 2013 Iowa loss.)

Of course, this wasn’t the first time Pelini has been stung by a leaked audio. Last year, Deadspin released an audio tape of Pelini angrily berating Nebraska’s “f—ing fair-weather fanbase” after a comeback win over Ohio State.

Perhaps a bit of advice may be in order. If people are referencing a recording of your embarrassing and profanity-laced tirade, and you have to ask which one they are referring to, you’re probably doing something wrong.

In all honesty, there was probably some merit to Pelini’s complaint about a lack of public support from the top brass at the university (although former Nebraska player Scott Shanle did point out how little that should probably matter to the players on Twitter.) And with two separate releases of damaging and embarrassing audio tapes, the conspiracy theorists will have free reign to craft scenarios about Nebraska brass setting bugs to catch Pelini.

At the end of the day, though, that’s not the point.

Pelini is a 47-year-old man. He’s been one of the most influential leaders in the lives of the players on his team, players who just were shell-shocked to learn that their coach had been fired. They’re looking to Pelini for leadership, for guidance on how to handle a traumatic event in their lives.

How does Pelini respond?

He spends “the majority” of the last meeting he will have with his players venting his spleen, airing his grievances, painting himself as the noble hero in the story dragged down by the “f—ing lawyer” and the people Pelini would “rather f—— work at McDonald’s than work with some of those guys.”

No introspection on what Pelini might have done differently. No advice to his players on how to handle the situation other than a perfunctory do-what-you-want suggestion and an admonition to call him.

Nope. Pelini’s team was a captive audience for the final act in this seven-year drama. As a result, perhaps we shouldn’t be so self-righteously stunned that one of those players recorded and leaked the audio of that final act.

Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star called Pelini’s rant to his players “selfish,” which is the perfect adjective. Sipple went on to defend Pelini in a way, reflecting that the job consumed Pelini, making it impossible for him to continue.

The job consumed Pelini? Or Pelini allowed the job to consume him?

“I have been at LSU, I have been at Oklahoma, I have been to these other places. … The scrutiny, the negativity, it ain’t like that everywhere,” Pelini said to his team.

With all due respect, that’s nonsense. LSU coach Les Miles is under unremittent pressure in Baton Rouge—and he’s won a conference title and a national title. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops feels the heat in Norman—again, with one more national title ring on his finger than Pelini has.

But, again, that’s beside the point. It doesn’t matter whether Pelini was justified in his complaints about Eichorst and the Nebraska brass. What matters is Pelini—after having more than enough time to marshal his emotions and compose his thoughts—chose to teach his players that the way to handle adversity is by dropping c-bombs about another adult in an ostensibly closed-door setting.

It was the same lesson he taught his players when he swung his hat at the referee during the Iowa loss in 2013. It was the same lesson he taught his players when he called out the “f—ing fair-weather fans” whose devotion paid for his salary and the palatial facilities in which the football team operated. When the going gets tough, just lash out blindly.

Bo Pelini had many good qualities and characteristics. He did a lot of good things for a lot of people, there is little doubt about that.

But when push came to shove, Pelini was incapable of responding to pressure and adversity like an adult.

Nebraska Football: Many Husker Fans’ Complaints About Mike Riley Hire Misguided

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans were floored by the announcement that athletic director Shawn Eichorst had hired Oregon State’s Mike Riley to be NU’s new head coach. Riley, who had coached the Beavers for twelve of the last fourteen years (with an unsuccessful stint as head coach of the San Diego Chargers in the interim) was a surprise to everyone, and that surprise did not sit well with some Nebraska fans (as recounted by Hail Varsity).

Of course, fans are emotional, and some of those fans reacted without putting a lot of thought into their criticism. Here’s why some of the most common complaints were off base.

We shoulda hired Scott Frost!

Of all the negative reactions to Riley’s hiring, this was probably the most common. And sure, the story is compelling.

A championship-winning Nebraska quarterback, coming home to take the program back to its glory days. He’s one of us! He gets what it means at Nebraska!

Stop. I mean really, just stop. Frost, in his second year as offensive coordinator at Oregon, is a promising young coach with what looks to be a bright future ahead of him.

Does that sound at all familiar? Nebraska hires a young coach, a talented coordinator with no head coaching experience, to take over one of the most storied programs in college football.

Haven’t we seen this movie, and know how it ends?

That’s not to say Frost isn’t a good coach, and won’t perhaps someday be a great head coach. But Nebraska just went through seven years of giving an untested rookie on-the-job training on the sidelines in Lincoln.

Plus, how many other programs were looking to hire Frost as a head coach this season? If your answer was “none,” then you win the prize.

It’s understandable for Nebraska fans worried about an uncertain future to reach out for something familiar. But with all the risk involved with making a coaching change, allowing sentiment to drive the decision would be a dreadful mistake.

His record is worse than Pelini’s!

In Pelini’s seven years at Nebraska, his teams went 66-27. Under Riley during the same time period, his teams went 46-42. Overall, Riley is 96-80 as a collegiate head coach.

See! Pelini’s way better than Riley! Pelini’s never won fewer than nine games, something Riley’s only done once since 2009. Why did we fire Pelini to get this guy?

Yes, Pelini has never won fewer than nine games (or lost fewer than four games) in his career. At Nebraska. And Riley has done what he’s done at Oregon State.

Put simply, Oregon State isn’t Nebraska. Before Riley arrived in Corvallis, the Beavers had won nine games in a season twice—once in 1939, and again in 1962. Oregon State hadn’t had a winning record since 1970, and had only won a total of 14 games in the seven years before Riley took the job.

Oregon State is a tiny college town in northern Oregon, dwarfed in stature and resources by the school in Eugene that is funded to the hilt by Phil Knight, CEO of Nike. And yet Riley has consistently won there, at a level far exceeding what the school’s size, prestige, and resource level would dictate.

Want an analogy that is a little more familiar, Husker fan? Oregon State is a lot like Iowa State—if Iowa had a blank check with a swoosh on it to build facilities. If a coach was able to do in Ames what Riley did in Corvallis, wouldn’t you be intrigued by the prospect of what he could do in Lincoln?

It’s time to get over the “nine-win” thing, Husker fans.

He’s never won anything!

OK, fine, you say. Winning nine games isn’t a big deal if it doesn’t come with a championship at the end. And as a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Eichorst made a bold statement that playing for championships is the standard for NU, nothing less.

I thought Eichorst said championships were the standard! How can we hire a coach that hasn’t won anything more than Pelini has?

Riley has never won a conference title at Oregon State. He’s been close, and Dennis Erickson took Riley’s players (including Chad later-to-be-Ochocinco Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, you may have heard of them) to an 11-1 season and a Fiesta Bowl win in 2000.

So yes, Riley hasn’t won a championship at Oregon State. We’ve discussed already how winning titles at Oregon State is a much harder task than winning them at Nebraska.

But Eichorst also talked about the importance of Nebraska competing in the “games that matter,” something Nebraska was notoriously bad at under Pelini. How do Pelini and Riley compare in that category?

Well, let’s take a look at games against top-15 opponents, which is a fair estimation of Eichorst’s “championship-caliber” teams. In the last seven years, Pelini has notched wins over no. 7 Missouri (2010) and no. 9 Michigan State (2011). In that same time period, Riley has wins over no. 1 USC (2008), no. 2 Cal (2007), no. 9 Arizona (2010), no. 13 Wisconsin (2012, the same year the Badgers beat Nebraska 70-31), and no. 6 Arizona State (2014).

None of Pelini’s wins come close to Riley’s teams knocking off the no. 1 and no. 2 teams in the country. Heck, a pretty good argument could be made that none of Pelini’s wins are better than Riley’s squad this year taking no. 6 Arizona State out of playoff contention.

So are you saying Nebraska’s a lock for the playoff next year?

Of course not. Riley is far from a guaranteed success in Lincoln. With Nebraska opening against BYU, its toughest lid-lifter in a decade, it’s possible Riley could start his scarlet-and-cream career at 0-1.

Next season, Pelini’s defenders and those inclined to snark will be quick to pounce if Nebraska wins fewer than nine games. Is that expectation fair? Probably not, but it’s what Riley will have to deal with as he starts his career in Lincoln.

But the ultimate question is this. Does Nebraska have a better chance to win a conference title in the near future by making a change and hiring Riley, or by keeping Pelini and maintaining the status quo?

Eichorst made it crystal clear on which side of that question he came down. And while there will be many doubts raised about the move in the coming months, as the inevitable challenges hit Riley and his new staff in Lincoln, hopefully calmer and more rational minds can set aside those challenges that are less well thought out.